Questions in Learning Art (fostering artistic thinking)
                                          by Marvin Bartel, © 2013 author bio - contact author

A Critique Question question from an art teacher---What would be some good generic questions to ask students to write on or to get an art critique discussion going?

This is a very appropriate concern.  I find that many art teachers avoid using critiques because of unpleasant experiences and lack of ideas on how to conduct critiques well. When critique is well done (when we consider the psychological effects as well as the learning opportunities) critique can be a very helpful way to for art students to learn. Without good critiques, I believe that half of the potential learning is probably lost.  Psychologically, critiques have a bad reputation of making students feel bad, because they present a chance for students and teachers to say unkind things.

Reasonable ground rules should be followed. As the teacher, I must remember to set an example. I generally announce a policy of no negative comments or suggestions. Invariably a student forgets and violates the rule, so I have to ask them to withdraw the comment and rephrase it. They soon catch on to ways of discussing artwork and learning from the discussion without being negative. This may seem severe, but read on before you dismiss this out of hand.

I watched Terry Barrett conduct a critique with our students at Goshen College. He started by asking, "What do you see?" Students made matter of fact observations without including a value judgment. Barrett affirmed the observation and asked for elaboration. His positive affirmation set a good example and encouraged more participation.

A standard thinking mode follow-up question used by many teachers is, "Why do you say that?" or "Why you think so?" also see #1 below

I attended a critique workshop in about 1975 with Douglas Stuart. I no longer have a copy of his list of questions. But his questions went something like this:
What do you notice first?
Why do you notice it?
What is the second thing you notice?
What feelings do you get from the work?
What do you think were the intentions of the artist?
Were the intentions obvious or obscure?

I once discussed critique methods with Dr. J. Daniel Hess, a colleague and a writing teacher. He had just written a book on criticism. I told him about the sandwich method we had discussed in grad school. In the sandwich method, the teacher starts with a compliment, then makes suggestions about correcting a mistake, and ends the conversation with another compliment. We sandwich PRAISE/CRITICISM/PRAISE.

Dan wisely pointed out that the student only remembers the meat (the critical part). It does not leave a good taste. Inspiration is lost. Motivation is dampened. This kind of criticism, even though the teacher tries to soften it, takes the wind out of the student's sail. Instead of being inspired, many students go into a mild depression. Not much creativity happens.

What can we say when we see what appears to be a mistake. Dan said that the teacher or peer doing the critique should to do it with questions -- not suggestions -- certainly not corrections. The teacher or coaching peer needs to phrase questions in ways that do not present them as problems for the person who produced the work. We present it as an issue of interest to the teacher or the coaching peer-- not as a defect in the artwork. The questioner may wish to ask for clarification of the creator's intentions without naming the problem directly. Once the clarification is made, the problem may be resolved or the art student creators may discover or recognize the issues on their own. By reframing things as an objective analysis of the visual effects being observed, we are searching, not blaming. We are doing it to learn. We are not doing it to make a correctioin. By treating things as discoveries, rather than as problems, we foster a positive studio culture. We can finish be thanking the student artist for presenting us with a great issue to discuss and learn about.

Why refrain from making suggestions?

When a student self-names the issue or problem in her own work, and asks for suggestions, we have the choice of making suggestions or of using some other kind of response. Frequently, I turn the question back and ask the student what ideas have come to mind. Often the student has already thought of something quite good. This allows me to encourage and congratulate, or simply say that it could certainly be worth trying. This feels so much better than the ego trip I would experience by making an expert suggestion (and not encouraging self-learning habits).

If the student has no ideas, I might try to help the student figure out an experiment that would reveal alternatives and options. Students do not need me to solve their problems. Students often do need to learn how I solve problems, but they do not need my solutions. Encouraging experimentation seems much better education than making suggestions. When we make suggestions, we are teaching students to be more dependent in their thinking and problem solving. When we encourage good question forming and experimentation, we are encouraging much higher level thinking skills.

Suggestions encourage the belief that others generally have better ideas (possibly true, but does not teach the ability to think). Suggestions are based on other peoples' experience rather then our own. Suggestions encourage dependency-thinking habits and learned helplessness. Sadly, in surveys my college students do while observing in art classes, they find that when students come to the teacher asking for help, art teachers make suggestions much more often than any other form of response. Some teachers are good at turning the questions back on the students, but very few are in the habit of encouraging and teaching experimentation. Unfortunately, our teaching habits may be sacrificing thinking neurons for the sake of one more nice picture quickly finished so we could move on the next mindless product.

Misunderstanding the work.

In the past, I have sometimes found that as a teacher I was misconstruing the student's intentions. My sandwich criticism not only discouraged the student, but it missed the mark because I had misinterpreted the student's intentions. By beginning with neutral observations and/or questions of clarification, I avoid both misunderstandings as well as discouraging comments. When students are given an opportunity to discover the issue themselves, they are more inspired to look for solutions.

In nurturing a creative art studio critique culture, the goal is to honestly study the work through observation, consideration of what we see, what we think the artist's intentions may have been, but not to make suggestions. A positive learning culture would mean that I have learned to phrase the kind of questions that would help the student artist become aware of the ways their own work is being seen as intended, or misconceived by the viewer.

For the purposes of discovery, maybe the critique questions need to be something on this order:

What questions would you ask the artist to encourage the artist to become even more creative?
What questions would you ask the artist to help you understand the work better?
What questions would you ask the artist to help the artist see the work more like you see it?

Bibliography and Additional Reading:

#1 - Ron Ritchhart, Patricia Palmer, Mark Church, & Shari Tishman. "THINKING ROUTINES: ESTABLISHING PATTERNS OF THINKING IN THE CLASSROOM"
Harvard Graduate School of Education (an unpublished draft)
Retrieved on April 27, 2013

Barrett, Terry. Talking About Student Art. 1997. Davis Publications.

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Goshen College

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