Bringing Design Thinking Crit” from Design School to Your School’s Faculty

Critiques Are an Empowering Event That Your Faculty Deserves.

Thought experiment: bringing a design school Crit to a K-12 faculty.
It's posts on Twitter or conversations with teaching peers like this that remind me how skilled we are as teachers at being critical of student work but how rarely we are able to be constructive with criticism about our own work. There is no teacher at fault, it is a systems problem.

Critiques are the Objective, Feedback Your Community Needs.

Imagine you are in charge of a social studies department and following 18 months of development, you finish rewriting your curriculum. Instead of a final meeting with your department colleagues check grammar and double check requirements set out by the curriculum coordinator, you are now presenting to peers and community members what you have accomplished. Your vision for the future of your department is being heard by others in a meaningful way.

Or perhaps a new fundraising effort is being headed by a vice principal along with teacher and parent partners. A concept is developed but not much is known about how a wider audience will accept the ideas or what new perspectives could do to change it. So, rather than make a best guess and push forward, the team signs up for a biweekly Crit presentation spot to seek more perspectives.

So let’s consider bringing design school “crits” into how we use design thinking and also to how we lead & organize schools. Crits both change project development outcomes and how “idea ownership” currently functions in schools.

Changing The Trajectory of Your Project Outcomes

Why do projects and programs fail to meet expectations at your school? Is it because there is never enough time? Do you feel your teachers not have the training, are underpaid and are tired? Do you as a school leader lack the time and ability to be meaningfully critical about all the work being done all over your campus? If something about this is your personal perception, it might be time to leverage what you do very likely have; a community willing to help each other when the situation is right. It’s time to set up your own Crit space.

A critique is a process in which a designer presents a piece of work to an instructor, who then gives feedback on the work. In design school, it isn’t much more than a set protocol about how to present work and provide feedback on that work. This is a wonderful leveraging of the entire community’s support for a project in development. Because school initiatives and programs are often not as successful as we would like, this can be your way to leverage the whole community to benefit individual projects.

In a design school, it takes the place of a class session, folks show up prepared to make a short presentation about their work and then are ready for some time to answer questions or take direct feedback or constructive criticism. There is always a leader, keeping the time moving, making sure those signed up for the session are ready and they are guiding the conversation towards positive outcomes. The skill of a session leader can be found when they are able to lead the presentations and feedback to be as honest and helpful as is possible, while also keeping decorum in check. It is then that the leader is able to leverage the skill and knowledge of the community to impact the work of an individual or team. Oh! And the leader usually critically ensures there’s enough coffee and cookies at the ready.

There is no one way to vision a Crit session. Some Crit sessions can be near the beginning of a project, almost like brainstorming and exploring concept directions, others are more about fine tuning closer to the end. Still others are more celebrations at a project development conclusion. Nobody wins a Crit session. Done right, everyone leaves feeling stronger, more supported and connected. Participants leave empowered, and you feel great having setup the space & time for all of this to take place regularly, all year long.

Idea Ownership in Your School is Problematic

The work teachers do daily is very individual, making it personal. This is an unhealthy place to begin sharing work or taking criticism. Unless you have launched a full effort to undo this reality at your school then you too have a school not ready to share ideas. As the tweet from Alex mentions, criticism about one’s work is often taken as a personal attack.

A Crit culture itself cannot help distribute individual ownership and responsibility to a group, so I recommend looking over the design process steps one, two and three to see how idea ownership can be a shared responsibility at your school. The Crit might be the finest expression of a school culture that truly believes that the group is ultimately responsible.

“Critique is a collaborative activity that takes quite a bit of time to learn — both in terms of how to give feedback, and how to accept feedback.”

Dealing with idea ownership is the first step to being ready for giving and receiving feedback and the next step is how to focus comments on the work itself, to shape comments that express a shared desire for success in this project. Designing your own feedback protocols that fit your school is important so select from ideas such as; form comments as questions, stick feedback about to the project or feedback should always have the goal or outcomes in mind. You know your school well, so pick a few ways you hope feedback should be formed and hold your community to it as the facilitator.

“critique directly serves the work, but indirectly serves the person who made the work.”

Asking for Help is Hard

In recent years, I’ve approached a learning support teacher to improve the accessibility of my middle school math assessments, I showed off what I like about it and what I am to do with that work. She was able to add one nice improvement (section skill titles) making the assessments more accessible to everyone. Also, I once went to an art teacher concerned about an advisee student and asked how I can partner with them better. His reply was that he had never been asked to parter with another teacher on core academic needs before. Finally, I taught math to a student who’s parent was my math colleague in a different division, asking if he had specific feedback for me in how I could improve. He was taken aback, but did offer to help and setup a meeting with me. It was a truly important hour for me to examine what I needed to do next.

If that kind of thing seems rare at your school, that’s because it is. While many do work well together, it is often in committee meetings, team and faculty meetings, informal and generally not targeted at specific details of our own teaching practices. We often get close, but not close enough to be deeply impactful. I can’t even keep this energy up. The demands to put out fires, socialize & gossip outweigh the interests in the cadence of a normal school day.

Be proud of the individual efforts to connect to one another but remember it is your responsibility as a school leader to setup a place for this important work to happen. Professional Learning Communities or PLCs may be the most popular alternative to a Crit session but there are many alternatives. Peer Coaching, structured meetings and of course the Design Process itself all offer similar outcomes. I would suggest that these ideas aren’t exclusive but are complementary. The question I ask myself is, “What is the right mix of these ideas for my community and why?”

Crit Tips for Your School

Be clear about the point of your work and it’s significance to the school. Don’t make excuses like, “we could do better if…” and let the work stand on its own. The audience should be ready to participate and provide honest feedback directly to the work and not on the people involved or the effort put into the project. Comments should be thought of as an effort to partner with the presenters towards the goal of making your school a better place for learning.

Consider these ideas to be ready to present your very best:

  • What’s the expected outcomes for your project?
  • What elements/pieces are you sharing , is that clear?
  • Why is this effective and important to the community?
  • What elements of the work would you change if you could?
  • How will this benefit student learning? central and should be key in any Crit presentation)

How to Sell the Idea of Crits to Your Community

Here’s the pitch: your independent school has many moving parts, teachers revamping math assessments, PR folks designing magazine advertisements, admissions changing their recruitment tours, grounds keepers setting new schedules and routines. All of these folks are missing something; community support, understanding and appreciation for their hard work. You as a school leader are still missing out on the true cultural development you’ve desired, a truly tight and connected faculty that is stronger than your brightest stars, and this is how the group can lift the individual efforts that generally go unnoticed, unsupported and uncelebrated.

Your solution is a biweekly critique after school where different groups will present to each other, as requested when their current project reaches a different points of development. The audience can be made up of others to present to folks you’ve requested. You rightly point out that much of the good work done on campus isn’t recognized properly, folks often don’t know what’s going on outside of their own duties. With a Crit, some of that will be addressed while at the same time, work being done can now benefit from more support.

Make attending your school’s crit sessions part of the culture of your school, to present at the crit should be an honor. There, developing and unfinished work from all corners of the school are up for presenting, feedback, critical support, new evidence and objective review as a critique. Yet, there is no criticism.

Participants in your crit afternoon leave feeling heard when presenting and feel involved & informed when attending. All participants feel a greater connection to the school community as they build the cultural language to remain connected.

  • Crits are a wonderful practice for your presentation, to test out ideas.
  • Crits are great advertising and exposure for your ideas and projects.
  • Crits provide recognition to a group’s hard work.
  • Crits help raise the bar for collaborative work expectations.
  • Crits help connect your faculty and community in unique ways.
  • Oh! And don’t forget the coffee and snacks.

“There is no design thinking without the Crit (criticism.) Surround yourself with the evidence.” – Natasha Jen 


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