Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reverse Critique

This post is another installment in my series of observations about teaching techniques that I have experimented with in my design studio.

This week is final review week in the studio. Watching students frantically work to pull their final presentations together has gotten me thinking about something I tried earlier this semester, the reverse critique.

As the idiom goes, turnabout is fair play.
Pearson presentation pin-up

This semester I had been working on a competition entry for the Chicago Biennial Lakefront Kiosk design competition.  I decided to take one studio class and turn the tables – I would present my design project to the students and they would critique my creative work.

The concept of the reverse critique is a not a new idea.  I have heard about this technique being implemented in design studio courses at other institutions, but it was not something that I have experimented with myself, until now.  Here are a few observations from this activity.

I spent some time mentally rehearsing my presentation before the class, and I was actually a bit nervous in anticipation.  This surprised me because, well, I am the professor.  I get up in front of this same group of students each day and talk about things.  What was different this time?  The big difference was that I was presenting my own creative work.  It is like baring a little bit of your soul as a designer, to get up in front of an audience, and reveal your creative process. 

This reminds me of the importance of empathy for the task ahead of my students this week.  If I was even slightly nervous standing up and discussing my own work, how must they feel, as sophomores in architecture school, being asked to get up in front of professional architects who are poised and ready to criticize. 

For the students, this is a necessary and important part of an architectural education, learning to articulate and defend their creative work.  This is a skill that they must have as a future professional, and they will continue to improve in their ability to conceptualize and discuss their work as they progress through architecture school.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it ever gets easy to present creative work, and as the instructor, it is sometimes too easy for me to forget the nerves and pressure of a final review presentation.  The reverse crit was a good reminder, and gives me much needed perspective as an instructor.

The primary reason I tried this activity in the class was to model (or demonstrate) the type of performance that I want my students to engage in.  I wanted them to see how I approached the presentation, how I organized content and articulated ideas, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how I received critical feedback.  I try to find moments in my studio class where I can model professional behavior.   This was a good teaching opportunity to demonstrate how to participate in the ‘design dialog’ of a final presentation.

I addition to the manner in which I presented the work, the work itself becomes an example of sorts.  I took some time at the end of the critique to discuss how I approached the presentation, in particular the graphic decisions I made as a designer that specifically attempt to amplify the concept and tell the story of the design.  We talk a lot about story telling and articulating concepts in the studio, and the reverse critique was an opportunity to demonstrate these ideas firsthand through actual work.

I received good feedback about my work from the students.  They made some very valid and critical comments about the project.  They were probably too nice to me actually, but I am still the person giving them grades, and it is difficult to completely reverse the existing power dynamic. 

At this point in their education, my students are generally better at giving critical feedback to others than they are at being reflective and self critical about their own work.  This is to be expected, and yet through this reverse critique I hope that they begin to see that the ability to critically analyze someone else’s work is also an essential component of their own design process – a skill they will begin to master as they continue to mature as designers.