During my second year of teaching at a wall-to-wall PBL school, I had a project that was a dud. The content was the Spanish American War, the most difficult part of my curriculum to make relevant. Students drudged their way through the heavy topics that I presented poorly without applying it to anything pertinent today. At the end we made Common Craft style stop animation videos. I thought that we ended well, and that students enjoyed the final product.
Boy was I wrong!
At the end of every project, we pause to reflect on how our groups functioned and on the project itself. Students crucified me in their criticism of the project:
“You said that this class would be different.”
“If this is how you are going to teach, I might as well go back to my regular high school.”
Ouch, that hurt. But the truth is that they were fair and correct in their critique, as difficult as it was to hear. I had done the classic “dessert” project: learn a bunch of content and then throw on a “fun” activity at the end with no purpose, authenticity, or audience.
The Importance of Asking Students to Critique Their Teachers
Critique and revision isn’t just for students. It is vital that teachers seek and listen to feedback from students. Who better to give a critique of your project than the students who did it? PBL is all about continuous growth for both students and teachers. Seeking feedback from students models productive critique and builds a PBL culture where student voice is heard and respected.
Here are seven important things I have learned about how to effectively conduct student critique of PBL units and teachers.
1. Set Clear Expectations
Explain to your class what quality feedback sounds like. Student feedback should be specific, helpful, and kind. Consider showing them Austin’s Butterfly first. Students should emphasize specific and solution-oriented feedback. If students say that something in class was boring, then require them to explain how to make it more interesting. The goal is not complaining, but improvement of your planning and execution of projects.
2. Offer Multiple Modes
In order to get the best feedback from all students, offer multiple ways to give it. First students can individually fill out a Google form evaluating their groups for collaboration and evaluating the project (Example). Then follow up with a class discussion of the students’ “likes and wonders.” Quiet kids may be too shy or afraid to share out in a whole class discussion, but will give you excellent written feedback. Others won’t want to write, but prefer to talk it out. Don’t make either method a requirement (meaning don’t grade them!). Instead treat the process as an expectation and integral part of PBL.
3. Model How to Receive Feedback
It is critical that the teacher does not respond immediately to the feedback, even if students are misguided or wrong. Write it down; reflect on it; and respond LATER. The only thing you need to add to the conversation is to ask clarifying questions to get them to share more specific details. Otherwise my standard answer is to say, “Thank you for the feedback.” If you find yourself feeling defensive and end up arguing with their feedback, you will be communicating that you don’t really want to hear the truth and students will stop sharing what you need to hear. You have to respect their voice!
4. Validate Student Voice
One of the keys to critique is that you have to not only humbly listen to what students say, but revise your class based on their feedback. Otherwise it will become an artificial process without substance and students will quit giving authentic advice. Teachers love to give students choices in their learning, but the real power of PBL is when students learn to exercise their voice. Once they learn how to respectfully do this with you, they will start to use their voices against injustice in the world throughout their lives!
5. Handle Unfair Criticism
Students will say some things that you disagree with. Don’t respond immediately (see point 2 for how this kills students’ voice). Give yourself a few days to reflect and craft an appropriate response. Acknowledge their feelings but then explain why their solutions may not work, if that is the case. Oftentimes it may be because of things outside of anyone’s control, such as state/district requirements. Sometimes misguided critiques are based on their lack of experience and not seeing the whole picture. The key for you is to honestly explain your disagreement with their ideas at their level. Don’t sugarcoat or make excuses. Kids will see right through that!
6. Demonstrate Vulnerability and Humility
When you carefully listen to students, you are voluntarily giving up some of your control of the classroom and making it a more democratic place. Allowing students to critique you can be humbling and unpleasant, but it will get to the truth of what areas you need to grow in more than any formal evaluation from an administrator. Allowing students to critique you builds a safe and strong culture in your room. Students will respect you because you are respecting their perspectives.
7. Become a Warm Demander
Listening and adapting to student critiques builds up your authentic relationship with students by showing that you care for them personally. This stores up credit for you to apply later when students need to you be assertive and give them critical feedback on their work or their behavior. Your words won’t come from a place of authority, but students will know that you are pushing them to be their best selves because you have given them permission to push you.
Critique and revision isn’t just a protocol to improve students’ final products in a project. Critique and revision of everything in your class builds a strong culture of trust as students learn the skills of disagreeing with authority in respectful and productive ways. It teaches students to have a critical lens, but with a bent toward solutions. Respectful critique trains our next generation appropriate ways to change the world!
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