critical friends

I learned about the idea of "critical friends" from the science cohort in my graduate program at UW Madison. It's a process sometimes used by groups of teachers to give each other feedback, with a goal of being positive and fostering critical (necessary, important) growth as opposed to just being critical (cutting, negative). I learned about it from them briefly in one of our last classes together, so I am in no way an expert, but I love the idea of encouraging collaboration and reflection with the support of colleagues. Find more information on the critical friends process for teachers: here, here, and here.

I often tell my students that one of the big gifts of being in school is that you have 100 or more peers to give you feedback, help you investigate questions, and to grow with, so it's important to take advantage of this luck! In this spirit I adapted the critical friends idea for a peer feedback activity on a recent infographic poster project. It was an experiment that I think it went well and I would try it again.

I had a few goals with this process:

* Students learn from looking at other students' work. They see how people interpret the assignment differently. The elements of persuasive arguments are reinforced as they noticed what is working (or not) in other kids' posters.

* Students receive a variety of feedback. Instead of just comments from me, they get comments from a few people who are bound to notice and appreciate different things.

* Students practice noticing the impact of choices (words, images) on the effectiveness of a text.

* Students enjoy an audience for their work.

* Students practice lifting each other up and noticing strengths.

* Students notice that everyone has room to grow.

I first explained the activity to the students and we talked about the idea of the "critical friend" versus the act of giving a "critique." We talked about supporting each other and utilizing our peers as resources for our growth and learning. I gave examples of useful versus unuseful feedback: "It's cool!" versus "The images you added by each statement really helped me understand your side of the argument."

Then we went out into the hall and hung the posters on our walls of lockers with magnets. Each student stood by a poster so that all posters would get reviewed. This was not an exact process. When I do it again we will use something like small post-it notes to indicate how many times a poster has been reviewed to make sure the reviews are evenly distributed.

Each student completed two reviews, about 5 minutes each. Then they piled the rubrics up with the creator's self-assessment form (completed earlier) and we stapled them together. Some students wanted more than 5 minutes to complete the review, some whipped right through the process. Next time we will spend more time talking about the process and how to give useful feedback. Overall, though, they gave great feedback for jumping in to something new.

We followed the review cycle with a final discussion circle back in the classroom. A discussion circle in my class is based in restorative practice models. We use a talking stick (often a stuffed animal) and everyone gets a chance to speak on each question, but also has the option to pass. (I'll write more about this process in a future post.) We talked about what surprised them about the posters, what was hard or easy about the critical friends process, what they noticed in the visual designs, and what their final argument on the topic was after seeing everyone's work. They gave me some good ideas on how to improve the questions on the feedback form--maybe we can make them together next time. One student also pointed out that in previous years she felt she'd been asked to find the flaws in other students work, and so this process felt different to her.

The critical friends process worked well to continue the feeling I aim to create that we build our understanding together, that by talking and listening we can learn so much more than we do on our own, and that diverse perspectives help flesh out our knowledge.

And that learning can also be about friendship.

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