I think people are afraid of candor with kids because they feel like they don’t want to fight with them; they don’t want to hurt their feelings; they don’t want to step on them. I think that’s a big mistake. I don’t think clarity and candor means meanness or hurting kids’ feelings. If you can be very specific about what’s working in a piece of work and equally specific about what’s weak, it’s a gift to the student who created it.
So says Ron Berger in a thought-provoking interview in UnBoxed, “a journal of reflections on purpose, practice and policy in education” published by the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Berger, of Expeditionary Learning Schools, thinks student projects should be organized around the concept of “crafting beautiful work,” with the teacher using models of excellent work, peer critiques like those practiced in writing and art workshops for adults, and multiple drafts to help students create something truly masterful.
Berger says that his ideas were informed by his experiences in the arts and architecture:
As a self-employed carpenter I designed homes and additions, and you would never do blueprints for anything without an incredible amount of critique from the homeowners, from engineers, from other builders, from architects. That process of many different iterations of the project and many improvements along the way was the ethic of what we did. And that ethic, of being a craftsman and carpenter and trying to do things really well, certainly spilled over into my sense of what a classroom should be.
Berger emphasizes that in choosing models and moderating a critique, the teacher must have a clear idea of what the students will take away from the lesson. That “learning target” is then woven into all aspects of teaching, including giving students specific praise and criticism, rather than just telling them “Good job!”
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One important question for the teacher doing a new project or introducing this kind of teaching into the classroom for the first time is how to find models of excellent work for something you haven’t taught before. Berger suggests borrowing models from colleagues, using models from the professional world, or using models from other projects to demonstrate specific characteristics (such as voice or organization in writing) that apply to the new project.
Teachers, what do you think? Do you use models of excellent student work in your classroom (I’ve heard them called “exemplars” in New York City)? What about peer critiques? Do your students create multiple drafts of projects? What are the challenges of this kind of teaching? The benefits? How does it fit – or not – with the curriculum here in New York in your subject area? What might this process look like in various subject areas, and how might it be modified? Can you suggest resources for those interested in learning more?