Create Beautiful Work Through Feedback and Refinement

Would you like people to come into your classroom and gasp? Receive comments like, "Your math class reminds me of an art gallery!" Or get looks of disbelief when you tell them the work was created by High School students? Then you crave beautiful work.

Beautiful work is a term that was popularized by Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning. If you ever get the chance to see him or have him come to your school, it will transform your culture. He travels, giving professional development about why we and our students should not accept work that is of poor quality. These are not platitudes that can never be achieved in a typical classroom. He brings example of students work, from teachers all over, where you truly are amazed at the power of human creativity.

How does this happen? Why do we not see this more often in the classroom? The reason is that to achieve beautiful work you need three things:

1) Models of beautiful work: This could be a well written essay, an art piece, a well derived proof, but something that represents the standard that you wish your students to achieve. If you do not have such a model, then create one yourself. 

Once students see these models, it is easy to determine what it is that makes it high quality beautiful work. How can we expect students to create beautiful work if they have not ever seen it? Explicitly determine with your students what the standards of high quality are (complete sentences, clearly explained well thought out proofs, straight lines and angles, etc). The intention is not to create something to be duplicated exactly but to set as an example of quality.

2) A willingness to refine: Is your culture one where students are encouraged to do their best? Do your assignments or projects lend themselves to something worthy of taking the time to do well? Do you provide time for drafts and revisions? If the best reason a student has for doing well on an assignment is for a good grade, then I suggest you reflect upon how you can foster a more intrinsic desire to do well.

3) Peer Feedback: After you share your models and standards are created, students begin their work. Once they have completed their work inform them that this is their first draft and it is necessary to receive feedback in order to know what to refine. I have used the process of "3 before me" (3 students and then myself); or personal refinement, followed by peer feedback, and then finally feedback from me. 

I don't want to imply that only 3-5 revisions are necessary, it may take more, it could potentially take less. It depends on their prior skills, mindfulness, and the strength of the feedback they receive.

Effective feedback is not something we inherently do. We are quite good at judging whether or not someone else's work is beautiful to us or not, but not at articulating why. This is a skill that must be taught and practiced to become good at.

Effective feedback must be Kind, Helpful, and Specific:
  • Kind: Respectful of the fact that this is someone else's work and to judge without thinking of their feelings could kill the creative spirit and willingness to refine.
  • Helpful: Feedback is intended to help the recipient make their work better. It is not to steer them in a different direction but to help them more fully realize their vision. Feedback such as, "What if you used squares instead of circles," or "Could you change the dialog of this character to something more happy" is not helping the student make their work higher quality.
  • Specific: In order to actually refine, it must be known what it is that needs refinement. You cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater and start from scratch each time. It must be a process where each iteration builds upon the previous one. Therefore, specific feedback must be given in order for the recipient to know exactly what to work on.
  • There might be a tendency for your stronger students to receive feedback that is too praiseworthy and not actually helpful, or struggling students to receive too much feedback and be overwhelmed. Individual conversations between the teacher and student can help alleviate this and get everyone the support they need.
Do not be afraid of this process. While it may take more time than expected, the results will amaze you. Creativity will flow more freely in your classroom and your students will experience a deeper learning while you and the class collectively take on the responsibility of helping them to do their best work and understand. This is not simply for artistic "prettiness" it is a refinement of thought, understanding, and skill. It is just as important to refine for content as it is for aesthetic beauty, 

Imagine a world where everyone was proud of the work they had done. Typically, we consider this an endeavor only suited for artists and musicians but if everything you did was beautiful work, even that which we loathed to do, we would see a transformation in our classrooms and our world. Please foster that spirit of high quality work through cooperative feedback and refinement.

I encourage you to read the article Beautiful Work, or purchase his book, An Ethic of Excellence, which is relatively short but well worth your time.

With the permission of Ron Berger, I share with you a powerpoint that I created using some of the examples he most often shares to help others understand the concept of models, feedback, and refinement. I hope this information inspires and motivates you to create beautiful work with your students.