Students gaze at a wall lined with drawings ranging in quality from the sublime to the grotesque. The professor has decided that the students will take the lead in critiquing the work of their peers.
The silence is deafening.
After a moment, the most vocal student chimes in. The criticism is far from eloquent and lacks tact. Students slump in their seats from the withering commentary. A classmate raises a hand, offering encouraging but superficial praise. Uncertain as to how the work is being received, the student submitting the work has tuned out his peers.
The student-led critique is headed for disaster – but all is not lost!
By adopting techniques used in facilitative mediation, art instructors can elicit meaningful critiques from students, without polarizing the class.
The Mediator’s Tool Kit
I have intuitively used facilitative mediation skills for nearly a decade as a Professor of Foundation Studies at Savannah College of Art and Design — I just never realized it until I became a Rule 31 Listed Mediator; understanding the theory behind the practice allows me to have greater impact as an instructor.
Facilitative mediation relies on active listening, which allows the mediator to identify needs and interests, and encourages discussion through feedback. The combination of active listening and feedback form the basis of the “Mediator’s Tool Kit”; the most basic tools found in this kit are: restatement or reframing, clarification, summarization, and validation through acknowledgment.
Bringing It All Together
To encourage objectivity, professors require students to use elements and principles of design when critiquing art work – but even that can result in canned answers that slam the brakes on discourse.
For example, a student reviewing a contour drawing may reply with, “I like the use of line.” Obvious, yet meaningless. Another student may state, “I’m confused by this.” Honest, but vague.
Break through the monotony by identifying the interest, and then acknowledge that interest by restating the comment using objective, non-judgmental language. Once the student acknowledges your understanding of their basic sentiment, use open-ended questions to encourage clarification of their understanding, and then provide a sense of closure to the topic by summarizing your understanding of the student’s critique.
Here’s how the Mediator’s Tool Kit might be used in a drawing class:
Professor: “Jane, tell me about Bob’s contour drawing?” (Open-ended.)
Student: “I like his use of line.” (Subjective/vague.)
Professor: “Well, it is a contour drawing.” (Humor.) “What did Bob do that was successful, in your opinion?” (Clarification.)
Student: “I like the way his lines flow across the page.” (Subjective, but closer.)
Professor: “So, the drawing has clear movement?” (Non-judgmental restatement/reframing.)
Student: “Yes.” (Needs elaboration.)
Professor: “And how was movement created through his use of line?” (Open-ended question/clarification.)
Student: “It has rhythm.” (Identified a principle of organization; expand the thought.)
Professor: “I can see that.” (Validation/acknowledgement.) “How else did Bob use rhythm to create a sense of movement? How does it affect the overall composition?” (Clarification.)
Student: “Well, he uses line modulation. That breaks things up. Makes things interesting.”
(Emergent critical thinking, but overlooked an important concept.)
Professor: “What principle would that be?” (Open-ended, narrowly focused.)
Professor: “So, you’re saying that Bob’s composition is successful because he uses the element of line to convey the principles of movement, rhythm, and variety?” (Restatement and summarization.)
Student: “Yeah.” (Acknowledgment.)
Professor: “Very good. Is there anything else you’d like to say?” (Invitation.)
Student: “Not just yet.” (Student is most likely processing.)
Professor: “Great. We can come back to you later, if you like.”
Use the Tools
By using active listening skills from the Mediator’s Tool Kit — the same tools used by neutral facilitators in Alternative Dispute Resolution — the professor in this scenario responded to a subjective and banal answer in a way invites students to express thoughts and ideas using non-judgmental language, which fosters critical thinking. Use the tools. Critique sessions will become interactive, engaging, thought-provoking, and fun!
For more information, be sure to visit:
Community Mediation Center
Tennessee Valley Mediation Association