In dictionary terms a critique is an article or essay evaluating a literary or other work; review, [from Greek kritikē, from kritikos able to discern] whereas an assessment is the act of assessing, especially (in Britain) the evaluation of a student’s achievement on a course.
I’ve always enjoyed art, bringing to it a scientists eye, shaped in part by the purchase, at the age of eleven, of two second hand science books, Victorian in origin, one with plates of ferns, the other with plates showing “Common Objects of the Microscope”. If I went by the art teacher’s implied assessment in my first year at a Boy’s Grammar school, I’d say that I was a failure in art. His method of assessment was to line everyone up, holding up their pictures and move boys up or down the line until the final resting place was given a percentage mark, which we had to write on the back. I was usually towards one end of the line. I am sure it cut down on his marking, but did nothing for my self-esteem. We received no other feedback, so had no understanding of how we, as individuals, might improve. I thought I was useless at art, at twelve.
Fortunately, at the end of that year, I transferred to another Grammar school, with a significantly different ethos, where critique was a significant part of methodology. If something was not right, there was a rationale given and advice on how to improve. Teachers were adept at coaching learners. Having joined an evening art class in the equivalent of year 11, I discovered the school art teacher leading the class. I’d already gone into sciences as my main GCE choices, so it was a delight that part way through the year of the evening class, he suggested that I might also enter for GCE art, as an extra. To cut a long story short, I passed, so could now assume a modest natural talent.
In my own case, poorly managed assessment brought down my self-esteem, whereas critique and coaching supported my development.
Reflecting now, though, and in the context of recent blog writing about quality and capability, the two elements are also evident in formative and summative assessment, with formative assessment, to me, embedding aspects of critique, based on the formation of an opinion. Summative assessment can lead to seemingly more clear-cut statements, although in my own mind they are simply a moment of taking stock.
Assessment is normally based on clearly articulated or published criteria, with a judgement of whether the outcome demonstrates certain abilities, so that the assessor can say with some definition that “x can do…”. Some assessment situations also require a judgement of pass or not, with a pass at merit or distinction. These are bottom line capabilities, seen, for example in driving tests, music exams and Initial Teacher Education, each of which requires a level of competence in order to progress, with further guidance available.
Critique is what I think I do when I go to an art gallery or listen to music, usually starting from appreciation of what I like, through areas which make me less comfortable, to aspects that I don’t like. This is coupled with a rationale, so my critique is a descriptor, linked to personal insights. There has to be a “because”. As a reflective person, sometimes this is an insular activity, but, when in company, a shared reaction can become the stuff of dialogue, comparative and nuanced, and that’s the part that interests me in terms of classroom practice.
I think children and their teachers should engage in discussion of quality in work, in all subjects. With visualisers becoming a part of classroom practice, it is very easy to share outcomes and explore and diagnose aspects of the work, together, with children being enabled to explore the language and parameters of critique. Description, followed by speculation, enables the questioner to raise issues in the mind of the producer, to enable answers which might, in themselves, highlight the specific areas for improvement. I’d also expect classroom spaces to be awash with examples of quality work, on display, or in portfolios, which set the benchmark for expectation and reflection within the class. It is a holistic approach.
I am now beginning to view success criteria as surrogate mark schemes for a specific context. If they embed statements which clarify the steps that need to be taken in order to produce a piece of work of quality, they can be checked at the end to see if they have been followed.
However, on top of that, there needs to be the capacity to advise individuals about the quality within the finished work. These personalised targets, attached to the edge of the book, can summarise the qualities being sought from that learner adding to the potential for both critique and assessment. Assessment, in this scenario, becomes a “signing off” activity, with the critique proving a qualitative set of statements.
Learners can engage with success criteria and a number of schools embed systems where learners have to highlight areas of their work which, in their opinion, demonstrate a specific success criterion or personal target, which focuses marking. Self-diagnosis of outcomes is an essential skill of editing, drafting and redrafting activities.
I think the simplicity for me is to value descriptive and evaluative, reflective discussion, which is capable of being modelled, guided and scaffolded by an engaged adult. By learning to talk in this way, children can do it for themselves and each other and in so doing, prepare the ground for self-improvement.
Improvement judgements should not be the sole province of a teacher. Improvement should be a partnership.