Critique with children

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 10:25 AM


Critique can be a valuable experience that even very young children can participate in (although we may not call it critique). When my school’s preschool students (age 3 and 4) shared their work with their classmates (a daily occurrence), they would explain what they had made, then they would ask for “questions, comments, or suggestions.”

The other students would then raise their hands, and the presenter would call on them. They could ask questions about the work. “Why did you put that part on?” They could make comments. “I like how you made the ladder.” They could make suggestions. “I think you should make that part yellow instead.”

The presenter would then respond to them. “I put that there because…” “Thank you.” “I might do that” or “No, thank you.” It was up to them whether they wanted to consider taking someone’s suggestion; if they didn’t want to, they needed to politely say, “no, thank you.” If the child said she did want to make some addition or change to her work, the teacher would note that on a post-it so it would be remembered the next day.

Critique is not only for sharing and talking about works of art — it can be used for sharing any kind of project work.

Sharing your work with others is a crucial part of project-based homeschooling. We really know something when we can explain it or teach it to someone else. And it’s important to make a contribution to the community. When we are working on our projects, we draw on community resources (museums, universities, libraries) and other people (experts, community members, librarians, etc.). When we produce work and share it with others, we are making our own contribution. We give as well as take; we’re part of the big conversation.

We started doing critiques with older children when we had a summer photography class. Much like the preschool class, the students would stand up in front of the group and show their work (first choosing the pieces they wanted to share — narrowing down their work was the first step), talk about it, and answer questions.

Parts of critique that are very useful for a child to learn/experience:

- sharing your work with others — beginning to think about the person who is seeing/hearing/experiencing your work

- beginning to anticipate your audience’s reaction while you are creating

- thinking about someone else’s point of view

- thinking about why you made the choices you did

- thinking about your own process: putting it into words

- thinking about accidental discoveries as well as deliberate choices

- articulating what you think and feel about someone else’s work

- learning to say something helpful — not necessarily about what you prefer, but to help the other person achieve his goal — learning to make good suggestions

- asking good, meaningful questions; making relevant observations

You can lead a critique like this with any group, maybe even siblings — but it is a learned skill. Children have to learn to make useful, meaningful comments, and they have to learn how to respond calmly and politely to the suggestions of others. Commit to doing it on a regular basis, and you give them the chance to develop those skills.


- let the child control the process — speaking first, calling on people

- start by having them share their work, their intentions, their plans

- prompting “comments, questions, or suggestions” reminds them of what is useful to share

- don’t allow negative comments

We start laying the groundwork for critique when we talk to children meaningfully about their work. This can start when your children are very small.

Ask questions like

- What did you make/do?

- Why did you want to make/do this?

- What do you like about it?

- Did you have any problems?

- Is there anything more you want to do with this?

- Is there anything you want to add?

- Is there anything you want to change?

- Why did you decide to do X here? (Encourage them to explain their choices.)

When you talk to your child about his work, you encourage him to think about it more deeply.

You don’t need to save critique for when a work is finished. Sharing what they’ve made, talking about their work and plans, listening to what their peers have to say — all of things are helpful to a child who is in the midst of a work-in-progress. They firm up their own ideas and can decide whether to incorporate the suggestions of others. They pause while making to consider their plans, which may help make their plans more complex.

In this kind of active learning community, children learn to share ideas, think about their choices, help others with their projects, and seek out other opinions when they get stuck.

They learn to collaborate to solve problems, brainstorm possibilities, and look more deeply into their own decisions and the decisions of others.

Yes, the art teacher is the teacher, but a creative studio art teacher is confident enough to NOT make suggestions. Teachers model empathic critique expressing affirmative curiosity. They phrase open questions that focus thinking and allow a diversity of student responses. Students learn to learn to be their own decider in art. The creative teacher coaches students to experiment and find out for themselves what works by empathically asking each other what they see, why it produces the effect, what they think it means, and what purpose they see for the work. The creative coach encourages teamwork and student ownership by deferring to students for their input. The teacher develops student participation by affirming the phrasing of good open questions. …

We increase our learning when the questions build awareness and call attention to discoveries. Creative work always includes unintended outcomes and consequences. We find them. We use them. We build knowledge. We become artistic. Empathic critique is a commonly used skill for a successful artist and a successful life. — Marvin Bartel



Comment by amy21 on October 15, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Thank you, such useful information as I work with my own kids and others, too. Not too long ago I followed some link and read a piece (I have no idea where) about how to get older kids to make more than a first effort when they're so used to being told "That's beautiful!" and nothing else from a young age. And I thought, if you don't start off with the empty praise from the beginning, you don't have to "get" older kids to make a second and third and fourth effort--they are used to talking about their work, and thus thinking about it, and making decisions on it, and *those* kids are naturally going to be invested in putting in the effort until *they* are satisfied.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 01:24 PM


if you don't start off with the empty praise from the beginning, you don't have to "get" older kids to make a second and third and fourth effort — they are used to talking about their work, and thus thinking about it, and making decisions on it, and *those* kids are naturally going to be invested in putting in the effort until *they* are satisfied.

beautifully said!

and that’s such an important point re: empty praise — if kids are used to hearing “beautiful!,” “awesome!,” “great!” every time they produce something, there’s no impetus to return to their work and make it better.

it’s so much more useful (and engaging) to talk to them about what they did and why — and where they think they can improve it or add to it.

Comment by Michelle on October 15, 2012 at 02:27 PM

I'm going to reread this several times and fully process it over the next couple of days. My initial reaction is that I love how you focus critiques on questions about the process and techniques and away (far, far away) from value judgement statements. Critiques should not be about whether something is "good" or "bad." I am shocked sometimes at how many adults don't understand the difference. Then again, if all they ever hear is "that's great," how would they learn any differently.

Thanks for this! Lots to think about.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 02:45 PM


Critiques should not be about whether something is "good" or "bad." I am shocked sometimes at how many adults don't understand the difference. Then again, if all they ever hear is "that's great," how would they learn any differently.

so true! they’re really just passing on what they know, but the focus is on personal opinion.

and i think that’s the common — and limited — idea of how we react to things: i like it/i don’t like it. thumbs up or thumbs down.

critique really is an opportunity for kids to strengthen their *own* opinions (i love what bartel says about them being “their own decider”) and *that* is what makes you strong enough to hear comments from other people. and how can they get help, or help others, or look closely and critically at their own work if they’re afraid to hear what other people think?

everyone who goes out in the world has to show their work and be able to weather the opinions of other people — or they never show their work, which is tragic. i think sharing work early and often helps make kids robust — they know what they want to say, they know they’re not perfect, they’re interestedin what other people think, and they can take or leave those suggestions/criticisms as they wish.

Comment by dawn suzette on October 15, 2012 at 07:27 PM

This is so helpful Lori. I have been encouraging the kids to come back to their work more and more. Looking at quality, focus & detail over quanity. I think adding this element will be helpful. Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 09:31 PM

dawn, it’s great to hear from you! ;o) hope you guys are doing well. xoxo

Comment by dawn on October 16, 2012 at 02:11 PM

i'm assuming that it is a crucial part of the process that the students are aware that they will be called upon to present and discuss their work. it makes a tremendous difference to my daughter (9), for example, in how and what she does depending on whether it will be shared with others. she has described some of her writing and visual art, for example, as *just for her* and prefers to keep both the process and the final product private. when she knows, though, that there is an expectation of sharing and being public and part of a larger conversation, like she does for book club, science fair, nature journaling, blogging, or many of the other activities we do, she is conscious of and attends to the audience at hand. we are also working on how to communicate with each other when she is looking for an opportunity for critique in her individual work vs. needing some outside validation that there is something appealing about it (*i like _______*) without going into too much detail or having a discussion.

i do have to say, though, that i think there is a definitely a place for the simple, general praise of *great job* when one is just venturing out into a new area. my son (5) is developing his expressiveness through drawing now, which is a huge thing for him, given that he has worked really hard at learning how to hold and use drawing tools to make the shapes and lines he wants to. i see the great internal satisfaction he gets from this by watching his face and hearing the excitement in his voice. the fact that he wants to share it with me because he is so proud makes my heart sing, and the reinforcement he gets from me reflects that back to him, making it a happier experience. i don't intend on keeping it this way, as i know that he and i will change and he will develop more expressive language so that we can have conversations with more complex ideas, but for right now, *good job* is the best thing i can say to him to help sustain his newfound ability and interest. it is not empty praise when i say it, nor do i think it is empty when he hears it, because it is offered and accepted with some mindfulness.

i want to know more about affirmative curiosity now! it sounds so different than what i grew up with!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 16, 2012 at 02:38 PM


i'm assuming that it is a crucial part of the process that the students are aware that they will be called upon to present and discuss their work.

yes! and actually, that’s a whole other interesting part of this. in preschool, the students decided whether they wanted to share anything — and they *always* wanted to share. but they could only share if they had actually produced some kind of work — which meant there was a built-in impetus to produce work. no teacher had to coax or cajole; they wanted to produce work because they wanted to share with the others.

a lot of visitors to my school simply could not understand why children free to play all day would ever do any work — but children love to produce meaningful work and share it. it’s something we’re born with, i think.

i think your point is important — that children sometimes produce work for themselves and don’t want to share it, but when they know it will be shared, they consider the audience.

i like your point, too, that “good job” isn’t always empty praise (sometimes we mean it wholeheartedly :).

i want to know more about affirmative curiosity now!

this, to me, is what project-based homeschooling is all about: cooperative, collaborative, positive, curious, open-ended, flexible, accepting a wide variety of responses.

Comment by Daniel on October 21, 2012 at 06:04 PM

Wonderful post! Much of the language you suggest here reminds me of the more formalized Visual Thinking Strategies approach: using open-ended questions and prompts to ground our interpretations of visual "art" in specific observation, and to discuss multiple viewpoints of the work. I'd think it really becomes something amazing when children get to see their own work given the same amount of serious consideration and discussion; all art, and work, is viewed for its potential to communicate and share meaning – and this is when Reggio's ideas about "art as language" really come alive, I think.

Also, I am now going to use the phrase "affirmative curiosity" at every possible opportunity.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 21, 2012 at 07:11 PM


yes, i love that phrase. :)

and thank you, daniel!

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