“I want a classroom full of craftsmen.
I want students whose work is strong and accurate and beautiful.”
-Ron Berger, from An Ethic of Excellence

          While my research initially focused on how I could use critique to help students create beautiful work, as I dug further and further into the literature I realized that critique is only one tool that aids in the creation of beautiful work.  To transform the canvas of my classroom, what I really needed to do was cultivate a culture that consisted of many tools, or strategies that would allow students to understand that accomplishing the beautiful is a process.  

       I want to cultivate a culture in my classroom and an ethic among my students that places a value on the creation of beautiful work.  While beautiful work is aesthetically pleasing, key components that make it so are quality and value.  It is, simply put, art.  Whether it be a Zen garden, a tone, sculpted body, or an article in the school newspaper, it is a by-product of thought, action, collaboration offering varied perspectives and input, revision and often, publication to an audience.  Beautiful work is the hallmark of civilizations.  I’d like it to be the hallmark of my classroom.  I want my students to understand that their work is art, a portrait of themselves, reflective of their values, morals and state of being.  In creating beautiful work, students will begin the journey of discovering who they are and what potential they possess.

       How do I create the conditions that are necessary to transform my classroom into a place where my students and I can create beautiful work, thereby contributing to our own culture?  First, let’s take a look at how others define beautiful work.

What is beautiful work?

What is beautiful to one person may not be to another.  The term beautiful is, in and of itself, ambiguous and subjective. Merriam-Webster defines beautiful as having the qualities of beauty. Beauty, being the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit (2010).  Ron Berger, veteran public school teacher, author, states:

What I value most in teaching is the opportunity to support students to do beautiful work. I use the term beautiful work broadly: with my students it applies as much to their original scientific research and math solutions as to the eloquence of their writing or the precision of their architectural drafting. Always, in all subjects, there is the quest in my classroom for beauty, for quality, and we critique all that we do for its level of care, craftsmanship and value (2003). 

       Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon write about good work in their book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.  I believe that what they term good work is similar to what Berger calls beautiful work.  They define good work as being top quality and socially responsible. People who do good work are thoughtful about their responsibilities and the implications of their work (2001, p. 3).  This takes me back to the treadmill, or hamster wheel I referred to earlier.  If I provide the right conditions, perhaps my students will take their work more seriously. Take famous musician Yo-Yo Ma.  In his book 5 Minds for the Future Howard Gardner writes:

In June 2005, I asked the cellist Yo-Yo Ma what he considered to be good work in his role as a leading musical performer.  Based on much previous reflection, Ma outlined three distinct obligations: (1) to perform the repertoire as excellently as possible; (2) to be able to work together with other musicians, particularly under conditions where one has to proceed rapidly, and develop the necessary common understanding, and trust; (3) to pass on one’s knowledge, skills, understandings and orientation to succeeding generations, so that music he cherishes can endure (2006, p. 151).

In other words, Yo-Yo Ma defined good work as being top quality, dependent upon collaboration, and having a lasting impact or instructive influence on an audience.  

          Michael Bungay Stanier, author of Do More Great Work, echoes many of the ideas presented in Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, but broadens the definition of beautiful work by dividing work into 3 categories: bad work, good work and great work. According to Bungay Stanier (2010), bad work is a waste of time, energy and life.  It is work that is pointless.  It shows up as bureaucracy, interminable meetings, outdated processes that waste everyone’s time, and other ways of doing things that squelch you rather than help you grow (2010, p. 4).  This reminds me of the classroom in which students sit passively and work independently to complete worksheets designed by distant publishers to demonstrate their learning of grade level skills or content.   These students don’t necessarily know why they are doing these worksheets, or how they translate to the future, but they understand they must complete them for a grade.  Educational theorist John Dewey referred to this kind of work as a hallmark of traditional education in which the attitudes of pupils must, upon the whole, be one of docility, receptivity and obedience (1938, p. 18).

The second category, good work, is the work most of us do. Bungay Stanier states:

Good work is familiar, useful, productive work you do –and you likely do it well.  Good work blossoms from your training, your education, and the path you’ve traveled so far.  Good work is a source of comfort, nourishment and success.  There is a range of Good Work: At one end it’s engaging and interesting work; At the other it is mundane but you recognize its necessity and are happy enough to spend time doing it (2010, p.4).

I have devoted my career to good work, not knowing that there was a difference between good work and great work.  What makes great work different than good work? Much like Gardener’s (2001) definition of good work—work of expert quality that benefits the broader society, Bungay Stanier believes great work is the work that is meaningful to you, that has an impact and makes a difference.  It inspires, stretches, and provokes.  Great work is work that matters.  He goes on to explain that:

Great work is also a place of uncertainty and discomfort.  The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and there’s an element of risk and possible failure.  Because this is work that matters, work that you care about, you don’t want it to fail.  But because it’s new and challenging, there’s a chance that it might (p.5).

I do believe that I have had experiences with great work, but have often felt a level of discomfort while in the midst of great work because what my students and I were doing did not fit neatly within the realm of State standards, the district’s scope and sequence, or what other colleagues were doing in their classrooms.  I can’t help but relate this to my action research and the excitement I have had about pursuing something that is important to me, but at the same time the anxiety that comes with veering off the beaten path.  Students will most likely experience a similar array of emotions in my classroom as I invite them to help cultivate this culture of quality and expect them to perform in ways they may not have been asked to before.

Why is beautiful work important?

       I think Steve Seidel’s preface to Third Space: When Learning Matters (2005) captures the importance of great work.  He writes that beautiful work, or art, is a defining element of a culture and helps us transform our world from a random chaotic place into a pleasing and even beautiful environment—a profound, but possible, transformation and one sorely needed in most of our schools.

  Beautiful work is also not possible without skills.  We live in an era in which public education has been charged with accepting mediocrity and not preparing students for the world of work. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, educational expert Tony Wagner states teaching is about providing students not with a textbook curriculum but with a thinking curriculum that will serve them well into adulthood in a world that maybe quite different from the one we live in today (2008, p.163).   Wagner’s research and work with corporate executives defines critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, , adaptability, initiative, written and oral communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imaginiation as some of the skills today’s students will be required to have in the workplace.  All of these skills are required at some point in the process and production of beautiful work.

How can I cultivate a classroom culture that values beautiful work?

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game-it is the game.

In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

–Lou Gerstner, from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

      So, how do I get myself and my students off the treadmill, so that we all are creating work of which we are proud?  Culture is the key.  In Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes and Promises, Deal and Peterson define culture as “the glue, the hope and the faith that holds people together”(2009, p.5). In an article in Leadership magazine, Leslie Goldring (2002) wrote:

Underneath the operating network of our roles as teachers, classified staff and administrators lies a deeper, less visible structure called culture. Culture is a part of every group of people who gather together, whether in work groups, neighborhoods, schools or large corporations. Culture's power lies in the ability to dictate everything about a group, from what it discusses to the beliefs group members hold in common and the values the group teaches. Culture is a visible and usable tool in schools, where relationships tend to hold more power than official roles and titles. (p. 2).

As a teacher, I must work at creating a community in my classroom that works collaboratively, sees each other as experts in given areas, and values each other’s ideas.  I must work at cultivating a culture that values kindness, thoughtfulness, hard work, individuality, collaboration, critique, revision, and celebration of accomplishments.  I must provide meaningful assignments that speak to the core of the adolescent experience.  I must, as management consultant Marvin Bower said in his book The Will to Manage (1966) model for my students from the beginning of the year “the way we do things around here.”  In order to cultivate this culture and community in my classroom I will need to put certain conditions into place and assess these conditions periodically through student reflection and feedback. 


Recreating the Canvas: This is the Way We are Going to do Things Around Here.

Below, I discuss the tools that will help me foster a classroom culture that values beautiful work: collaboration, meaningful curriculum, critique, evaluation, reflection and celebration.


Learning is a Social Enterprise:  Cultivate a Community of Learners Based on Collaboration:

I have often thought learning is an individual accomplishment or process.  Yet, in the process of this research, while reading and writing, I have come to realize that learning is a social process.  As I come across something new or something I innately believed in, but had never seen in print before, I had the urge to tell someone and share this information.  What did they think about this?  My students do the same thing.  When working independently, I see them motioning or whispering to another student and pointing at the text or task at hand.  I often try to stop this behavior, which I initially suspect to be off task or disruptive, only to find that they are on task.  Learning is social and it can be disruptive to the rigid ideas of traditional schooling where students are vessels into which the teacher must pour information. 

Barbara Rogoff, distinguished professor of psychology at UCSC, has researched and written articles and books on collaboration and learning through participation.  She (1998) opens Chapter 14, from The Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 2: Cognition, Perception and Language (1998) with this quote by English philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. . . . [Each new generation enters] an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance (1962, p.199 as cited by Rogoff).

Hence, conversation is a crux of learning.  Rogoff’s research asserts that learning, or cognition, is the result of collaboration.  She defines collaboration as including face-to-face mutual involvements such as routine conversation, teaching, tutoring, and cooperative learning; side-by-side engagements; and participation in shared endeavors without physical copresence (1998, p. 680.) An example of a shared endeavor without physical copresence could be an email, the creation of a wiki between students in different locations, or a live chat with an expert across the country.  

Rogoff goes on to explain that collaboration has a positive influence or impact on the participant’s zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development, also referred to as zpd, was coined by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and is the gap between what a learner has already mastered and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (Coffey, 2009).   Rogoff  explains that central to Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that children’s participation in cultural activities with the guidance of others allows children to “internalize” their community’s tools for thinking (1998, p. 682).    This idea is imperative for all learners, but especially English language learners who are working double time to negotiate meaning between two worlds.  Learning requires repetition for these students, and what better way to get repetition than through rich conversation with peers?  Rogoff emphasizes that interactions in the zone of proximal development are the crucible of development and culture in that they allow children to participate in activities that would be impossible for them alone (1988,p. 682).   I see this on a daily basis, as students sitting in table groups clarify the task at hand through conversing.  As a teacher, I need to refrain from jumping to the conclusion that their talking is off-task. 


Beautiful Work Begins with Relevance: Offer Meaningful, Challenging Curriculum

       There is no doubt in my mind that some of the work we do in my class is more meaningful than others.  When students do not feel a personal connection or do not see the assignment as relevant why should they care?  Can I make the work as meaningful to my students as being a great musical performer is to Yo Yo Ma?  Probably not, as Ma has discovered and found his passion.  The likelihood that all of my students will be passionate about the humanities is not realistic.  I can, however, provide some of the elements that Ma refers to in the production of good work. 

       In Michael Slavkin’s article Engaging the Heart, Hand, Brain (2003)he writes that if schools provide a real-world, student-centered approach to education students will be more engaged. He also suggests that teachers can help students learn more effectively if they create opportunities for students to relate the curriculum to their personal lives, provide an environment that reveals multiple meanings of material, and allow students to see the dynamic nature of information.

People are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility.  These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement (Harvard Business Review, 2002). In 1968 psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s published the now famous article, One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?  This article has been one of the most requested publications from the Harvard Business School.  How do you motivate employees, or in my case, students?  His findings are summarized in these points:

·          Increase individual’s accountability for their work by removing some controls.

·          Give people responsibility for a complete process or unit of work.

·          Make information available directly to employees rather than sending it through their managers first.

·          Enable people to take on new, more difficult tasks they haven’t handled before.

·          Assign individuals specialized tasks that allow them to become experts (2002, p. 1).

Herzberg’s findings reiterate Vgotsky’s zone of proximal development and the fact that in the real world, or the world of work, people want to be challenged with meaningful work and they want to be trusted with that challenge.  Why would it be any different for students? 

In a recent article,  Paradise & Rogoff (2009) examine what they term family and community-based learning, or learning by observing and pitching in.  This type of learning contrasts with the tradition that is often seen in schools, which is “assembly-line instruction” (as cited in Rogoff  et al. 2003).  When people are learning by observing and pitching in they are participating in the everyday responsibilities of the community and are thus motivated because they understand their contributions are valued and have meaning.  This is the type of real-world work that Slavkin mentions in his article—learners working towards goals that are clearly relevant, so they assume a major responsibility for their learning (Paradise & Rogoff, p. 107).  Elisabeth Soep also mentions the importance of real-world work and accountability in her research on critique, which brings me to the next element I plan on cultivating in my classroom in the pursuit of beautiful work: critique.


Growing Through Critique, Evaluation and Reflection

Part of this community of collaboration, and learning by observing and pitching in, depends on the premise that my students and I develop and foster a shared understanding of the process of crafting beautiful work.  One of my major concerns before I began my action research was the lack of student ownership.  I complained that often times my students seemed to be just going through the motions and did not internalize the standards or criteria.  Instead of them being able to explain why they received a certain grade or score, they often relied on me.  I needed to make peer and self-assessment a routine part of my classroom practice, not as a way to level a grade, but as a way of checking in to guide the work…not as something teachers do, but as something we do as a community of people crafting beautiful work together.   Elisabeth Soep, producer and director at Youth Radio, defines assessment as a process of seeing and responding to a given piece of work (2006, p. 751).  Assessment can be done by an individual, called self-assessment, or among a group, called critique.

Critique is a serious examination or judgment of something (“WordNet,” n.d.).  BigCityArt.com explains that critique often refers to a discussion involving a group of students resulting from the assessment of those students’ work.  The critique should advance the students’ work, and convey a structure that will sustain the work (bigcityart.com, 2009).  I plan on using the two forms of critique Ron Berger writes about in his book An Ethic of Excellence as a tool to help students in my mixed-ability classroom come to a shared understanding of the components of beautiful work and as a result, craft their own high quality work.

          The first form of critique is instructional critique.  Instructional critique is when the teacher uses an exemplary model as a lesson to help students discover and generate the standards.  The key here is that students analyze the model and they generate the standards—not the teacher.  Berger calls this whole class critique.  He writes:

I use whole–class critique sessions as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group.  Sessions are structured to help students learn what constitutes good writing, math, science, or historical inquiry.  We critique an individual piece of work, or a number of pieces in a guided session together.  What better way is there to teach the elements of a good essay or science experiment than to thoughtfully analyze together student-created models? (2003, p.92)

Although I have used models of exemplary work to teach a lesson and set the standard in the past, I realize that for the most part, I have done the analyzing for the students—all the thinking.  What is the benefit of having the students do the thinking?  In Peer Collaboration and Critique: Using Student Voices to Improve Student Work (2010) teacher Juli Ruff found that when students analyze an exemplar and generate the criteria for quality work, they begin to internalize what they will need to do to achieve success.  They have a better understanding of what to include in the creation of a product, and how to evaluate it, or give feedback in a critique session with a peer.  Students begin to see each other as resources in the creation of a final product.  A community begins to take root.  Ruff explains:

When students examined models and came up with defining criteria for quality work, they were able to identify and negotiate the core principles in all good products...

The bottom line is that when students were set up for success through exemplar critiques, they felt more confident.  They knew not only what they were trying to achieve, but how to comment on it in their own and other’s work.  This in turn made them more invested (2010, p.159).

          The second type of critique is peer critique.  Peer critique is when two or more students review each other’s work to ask for help and give suggestions.  Berger has models and protocols for peer critique that I will implement and adapt to my own classroom. He trains his students to give kind, specific and helpful feedback.  How will this shift from teacher critique to peer critique affect the quality of their work?  Soep finds:

As young people learn to negotiate episodes of joint assessment, they develop habits and strategies for judging the quality of their own and their peers’ work.  They need practice in the exercise of outside authority with the absolute power to evaluate their performances even if ultimately, other people’s assessments matter deeply to them and help determine the fate of their work (2006, p. 767).

Wow.  What does this mean?  Participating in critique allows students to develop habits and strategies in determining quality and giving feedback.  Students need this practice in determining the effectiveness of their work, in becoming independent, confident thinkers, even if the teacher is the one who ultimately assigns a grade. 

          This is exactly what I’m looking for: students who understand the criteria for good work, can map a direction for how to get there, and rely on others to help them.  Along with critique, I will ask students to reflect on their learning, collaboration and progress through surveys and exit cards.  Reflection is a necessary step in internalizing learning and next steps.


Everyone Loves a Party: Celebrate

          One element of culture that Kent & Peterson write about in Shaping School Culture (2009) is celebrations.  Celebrations bring people together, communicate values, reinforce fundamental purposes and recognize the success and contributions of others (2009, p.101). In the past, students have turned in their work, I graded it, and it was handed back.  Done.  I want my students to understand that their work transcends a letter grade and placement in a file folder, that it is the result of effort and collaboration and should be seen as an accomplishment and shared with others.   At the end of each critique cycle and with a final product in hand I plan to celebrate students’ successes with class celebrations.  What will these celebrations look like? I think that that is up to my students.   If what I’m trying to do is create a culture, then students must have a say in what these celebrations will look like and how they will share their work.

          How can I cultivate a classroom culture where students value beautiful work?  The research I’ve read has led me to believe that there are many forces that go into the process of crafting beautiful work.  My action research will focus on cultivating a classroom culture that sees beautiful work as a meaningful result of effort, collaboration, critique and investment.