Constructive criticism, healthy dialogue

How does a musician learn to be a strong music workshop leader? One of the things I remember (and sometimes miss) most about my times at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I did my training, is the considerable amount of time my fellow students and I spend discussing and critiquing our own and each other’s workshop efforts. These conversations could go into amazing detail – not just about workshop content but about the words we’d used to describe tasks, or the way we’d phrased a question, and alternative wordings or gestures that might have generated different results. It was rich, painstaking constructive criticism and we all learned a lot from it.

When I took on the teaching of Community Music at NMIT this semester, I thought a lot about how I could engender a constructive culture of criticism and feedback in the class, getting all the students to engage deeply with the skills I’d be teaching them. One of their assessment tasks is to lead a short workshop in class, for their peers. I wanted these to be workshops that everyone contributed to – first by taking part, and then by sharing and analysing their experiences with the leader.

I decided to this using a peer-assessment model. Inspired by this blog post on The Teaching Tom-Tom, I worked with the students to develop a suitable rubric for use in class with the workshops, so that they would all be assessing each other’s work.

First we brainstormed a list of all the things a good workshop includes. The list of characteristics was later condensed down into six criteria on their assessment rubric.

Next we discussed context-relevant gradations. The students nominated a range of 5 grading categories –

  • Uninspired and uninspiring (harsh words, I felt, but the students were unanimous that this was a reasonable thing to label a workshop, and would be a good incentive to people to ensure that no-one would have a reason to tick this box)
  • Embryonic
  • Developing
  • Dress rehearsal
  • Gig-worthy

Then they divided into groups to devise the text that would go under each grade heading, for each of the 6 criteria. I wrote all the ‘Gig-worthy’ text so that they had something to work backwards from. I then took their contributions away, tweaked things slightly to ensure consistency across the gradations, and typed up a draft version of the rubric for their comments, and later approval.

“Make sure you are happy to have these grades and criteria applied to your own work,” I reminded them, “and that you are happy to use them to assess someone else’s.”

Has it worked? At this stage, halfway through our season of student-led workshops, I’d say it has been a successful strategy. The rubric gives focus to the discussions after each workshop. In general, I feel that the scores they give each other are a suitable reflection of the work that was done (although I do think they deem things ‘gig-worthy’ more readily than I do!). Most importantly, there seems to be a strong sense of ownership of the process and descriptions, and a willingness to consider the ways that strong work differs from weak or less convincing work, taking this into account when they plan and lead their own workshops.

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