Leaders of Their Own Learning: Chapter 4: Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback

How can I use models, critique, and descriptive feedback in my classroom to inspire, engage, and motivate my students?

Imagine a ballet troupe without a teacher who continually adjusts students’ posture and position, or a basketball team that never critiques strategies during halftime or analyzes their plays on video. These ongoing feedback practices, which help us improve, are essential in nearly every field. Despite its prevalence in the world, this kind of on-the-job, on-the-spot feedback, based on strong models, is still strangely absent from many schools and classrooms. To be sure, grades and test scores are routinely given, and occasionally students get assignments returned with comments, but these “results” are often too distant from the moment of learning or effort to be useful or too cryptic to be meaningful to students.

Now more than ever, students need models of work that meet rigorous standards, and they need structured opportunities for critique and descriptive feedback so that they too can produce work that meets the standards. Students and teachers alike will benefit from seeing—sometimes even holding in their hands—examples of what they are aiming for.

We often settle for low-quality work because we underestimate the capacity of students to create beautiful high-quality work. With time, clarity, critique and support, students are capable of much more than we imagine. From Chapter 4, Leaders of Their Own Learning

Learning Targets

  1. I can describe how using models, critique, and descriptive feedback supports my students to lead their own learning.
  2. I can identify strategies for creating a respectful and supportive culture for critique and feedback.
  3. I can name the challenges and identify potential solutions to using models, critique, and descriptive feedback with my students.  

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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Review and Watch: Lessons from Austin’s Butterfly

In the six-minute video Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work, EL Education’s Chief Academic Officer, Ron Berger, discusses Austin’s butterfly drafts with elementary-aged students in order to illuminate the power of critique and multiple drafts.

The series of drafts of a Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly were drawn by Austin, a first grade student at Anser Charter School in Boise, Idaho. Students were asked to give kind, specific, and helpful feedback to Austin to help him improve his drafts. The final draft is an example of beautiful work, and it also signifies the transformation of Austin from drawing like a little kid to drawing like a scientist might, starting with careful observation. You can see the drafts on the website Models of Excellence: The Center for High-Quality Student Work.

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Watch the video Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work and consider the following questions:

  1. What did you notice about student engagement during this critique session?
  2. What surprised you in the student comments or behavior?
  3. What implications could this have in your classroom?

Watch: Getting Started With Kind, Specific, Helpful Feedback

An essential starting point for critique and descriptive feedback in any classroom is ensuring that the guidelines be kind, be specific, and be helpful are the backbone of every class. Creating a classroom culture for quality critique takes time and practice. Creating norms for how students talk to each other and rehearsing sentence stems that begin kind, helpful, and specific remarks are a good place to start. Another strategy is to provide a clear rubric that students refer to throughout a project and reference when giving feedback to each other. You can also create structures that help students track the feedback they receive and hold students accountable for the feedback they give. You’ll see all of these strategies in action in the Inspiring Excellence Series of six videos, which takes us behind the scenes in a second grade classroom as students create a project of remarkable quality over the course of the year. As part of an interdisciplinary study of snakes, students created an interactive e-book about snakes with narrative informational writing, scientific illustrations, and accompanying music composed and played by student musicians.

Watch the fourth video in the series Using Models and Critiques to Create Works of Quality and consider the following questions:

  1. What did you notice about the classroom culture, environment, and guidelines? What specific teacher practices seem replicable in this video?
  2. How did students offer each other feedback? What was different or interesting about their interactions with each other?
  3. How do you imagine these practices being implemented in your own classroom? What would you need?  
  4. After watching the video, go to Models of Excellence and take a look at the ebook Slithering Snake Stories.  What do you notice about the quality of student work that resulted from this process?

Read: The Role of the Teacher in A Critique Lesson

The teacher must take an active role in facilitation throughout a critique lesson. This process works best when it looks organic (emerging entirely from student ideas) but is in fact skillfully shaped. The teacher chooses students strategically for comments, governs the flow of discussion, contributes enthusiasm, interjects compelling comments to build interest,  makes key points, and reframes student observations when necessary to make them clear to the group and connected to the learning targets. The critique is a lesson with clear learning targets, and teachers should not hesitate to take charge of the flow to ensure the session is productive.

Read “The Role of the Teacher in a Critique Lesson,” excerpted from Leaders of Their Own Learning for much more detail.

Watch: A Group Critique Lesson

Watch the video A Group Critique Lesson and consider the following questions:

  1. Do you notice the teacher modeling any of the advice regarding the teacher’s role listed in “The Role of the Teacher in a Critique Lesson?” If so, what seemed particularly effective in moving the critique along?
  2. How do you imagine employing a critique like this with your students? What challenges do you foresee?

Review: Descriptive Feedback

There is a great deal of overlap between whole-class critique lessons and individual descriptive feedback in the mindset, skills, and practices that teachers must bring to this work. However, the purposes of the two practices are different. Critique lessons are designed to help the entire class develop a clear understanding of the criteria for quality. Individual feedback is designed to guide one student toward improving his or her work, with those criteria in mind. The continuum and considerations in Figure 4.3 below, which comes from Chapter 4 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, will help you to sharpen your practice of giving quality feedback to students.  

Figure 4.3 from page 159 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

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  • The focus is on supporting the growth of an individual student or small group, improving a particular piece of work, performance, skill, or disposition.
  • It is typically an exchange between teacher and student, or student and student, not a public learning experience for the class.
  • It is nested in a long-term relationship (e.g., teacher-student, coach-player, supervisor-worker). Maintaining a constructive relationship must be an implicit focus in all feedback conversations, whether spoken or written.
  • Individuals are sensitive when receiving personal feedback. It is much more likely that strategic, positive comments will result in improvements than will criticism.
  • Feedback ideally flows from strong knowledge of the student—knowing the student’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing where she is in her growth and what she needs to spark the next step of growth.

Watch: Descriptive Feedback Helps All Students Meet Proficiency

Watch the video Descriptive Feedback Helps All Students Meet Proficiency— Standards-Based Grading and consider the following questions: 

  1. Consider how you usually give feedback to students. What adjustments could you make in your practice to shift towards descriptive feedback?
  2. What were the markers of descriptive feedback you noticed in the video? How did this type of feedback impact students?

Dig Deeper

Attributes of High Quality Work  The “Attributes of High-Quality Work” provides a useful description of the qualities present across high-quality work—Complexity, Craftsmanship and Authenticity. It can be used to help faculty and students understand what quality means and to generate productive conversation about the structures that will support students to do quality work.

Drafts of a Cave Home:  These five drafts in a series of cross-sectional illustrations of a prehistoric cave dwelling from a 5th/6th grade classroom artfully document the power of critique, revision and multiple drafts to improve work.

Models of Excellence Resource Section:  This collection of resources offers guidance for how to use student work in your classroom: protocols, frameworks, articles, videos, and links to websites and books are all available to help you consider how to use student work to improve teaching and learning in your setting.

Using a Speed Dating Protocol to Think Critically About Writing:  Providing and practicing a protocol for peer critique is essential to getting students to give and receive useful feedback. This video shows an efficient and focused way to guide students toward meaningful peer critique.

Synthesize/Take Action

For Teachers…

  1. What inspires you about using models, critique, and descriptive feedback with your students? What do you see as the gain?
  2. What worries you about using models, critique, and descriptive feedback with your students? What do you see as the challenges?
  3. Review Table 4.2 from Chapter 4 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, “The Who, What, and Why of Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback,” which summarizes the instructional moves described in the chapter and the results for students. What will you try in your classroom and why? What impact do you expect it will have on student work?

For School Leaders…

  1. How can you support teachers in gathering high quality models of student or professional work to use in their classrooms? What structures can you create for evaluating and archiving models across the grade levels, to provide a consistent resource even when teaching teams or curriculum changes?
  2. How can you use models, critique, and descriptive feedback to review and improve teacher work, such as lesson plans, expedition plans, or protocol facilitation? When leaders themselves model this practice, teachers are more likely to implement it in their own classrooms.