Empathic Critique as Discovery Session

Using empathic critique to foster the culture of collaborative discovery in studio art classes
Marvin Bartel  2008, 2017, 2020 author bio, author CONTACT, HOME

Are you an art teacher that avoids critique sessions? Art teachers tell me that they are skipping the critique because it has been a negative experience. How much learning are your students missing? Empathic critique is collaboration, not competition. Empathic class critique in studio art is not a debate session. It is a hunt for visual effects, meaning, purpose, and new ideas. All participants are acting in their own best interest by being their naturally helpful selves. Competition is replaced by mutual discovery.

In addition to facilitating art learning, the empathic critique culture helps students rediscover their basic relationship intelligence. They learn to leverage their own natural goodness and helpful instinct to intuit how to make the world a better place. In place of defensiveness and conflict, they experience the mutual benefits of cooperatively hunting and gathering good ideas. What may have been feared as mistakes, become coveted discoveries that promote new insights and learning. Once the studio has a culture of collaborative helpfulness and "friendly" competition, students become part of the teaching/learning network. A creative studio culture becomes a dynamic out-of-control learning machine. The teacher's role is rolled back. The teacher, as coach, does not dominate learning, but allows it by tending to the occasional misperceptions of badness. Teachers affirm, catalyze, and provide the lubricants to keep learning processes moving, and to reduce impediments, frustrations, defeatism, pessimism, and any sense of badness.

A positive empathic questioning critique process can be the way to make every art lesson teach twice as much. A good assignment, great practice routines, and active creative thinking during the production is great, but the positive empathic questioning critique helps students learn even more about the strategies of self-learning in art and in life. Over time, the studio class culture that develops a positive critique process will have students who are already thinking about the critique while they are producing their artwork. They are asking themselves the discovery questions. They are experimenting. They are learning. Creative art teachers love their job when their classes teach themselves in this way.

Positive empathic critique strategy never says what is wrong, and never makes "better-than-thou" suggestions. Empathic critique builds awareness through sincere inquiry and discovery. It avoids pious expert comments. It avoids comments that put down what a student has done. Empathic critiques simply assumes that every student is imbued with the desire to do their best work. No one intentionally makes bad work. Empathic studio art peer critique is non-judgmental. Empathic critique is based on open awareness questions phrased in a way that the creator of the work would want to hear it. The questioner is curious without being judgmental.

Empathic critique is the search to discover what has happened in the work. Since much of what happens in any creative endeavor is intuitive, capricious, and unintended; we naturally expect the unexpected and unintended to make significant contributions and make new insights possible. The empathic critique finds ways to allow the creator of the work to discover what has been noticed by others. The maker gets credit for the potential value of their own unintended outcomes (mistakes). The maker is made to feel empowered by self-awareness. The artist constructs new knowledge based on discoveries brought to light based on considerate questioning. The art studio class becomes a community of learning.

Virginia Postrel contends that a culture of “dynamism” is needed to make group process creativity to work well. (Postrel, 1998) An art class culture of dynamism is dynamic and positive. The opposite would be a "one-right-answer" culture, or the teacher as expert culture. Too much of school is already stuck in the one-right-answer culture. Many of our students need some help to bring back that wonderful preschool thinking when a new discovery was just a normal everyday joy of being.

Schools that are overly concerned wth standard content can freeze our brain's natural instincts and joys of discovery learning. Art classes have a valuable tradition of critique sessions. In their best form, critiques become exciting discovery sessions going beyond the mere review of known knowledge and awareness. A class critique, when it becomes a discovery session, provides a unique learning platform. A critique can bring out ideas, connections, and knowledge that neither the students nor the teacher had ever before known. Schools generally train and assess what is known, but seldom teach the acquisition of what even the teacher didn't know existed. When we do, it is authentic discovery. We are not only gaining from discovering new knowledge that is being discovered. We explore beyond the known boudaries. We nurture the inborn search-and-find learning insticts that may have atrofied for lack of practice.

"Dynamism gives individuals both the freedom to learn and the incentives to share what they discover. It not only permits but encourages decentralized experiments and competitive trial and error--the infinite series by which new knowledge is created. And, just as important, a dynamic civilization allows its members to gain from the things they themselves do not know but other people do." (Postrel pg 88)

Without being specific about critique, Postel gives us a great description of an ideal classroom critique culture. So many problems in the world could be alleviated if we could learn to listen to one another with a curious, tolerant, and unassuming attitude. Studio art critique can provide an important way for students to become acculturated for a life of focused collaborative problem solving and learning.

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. Teachers and students build skill in the collaborative phrasing open questions that focus thinking and allow a diversity of student responses. Students learn to learn to be their own choice maker 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.

Learning to experiment by learning to use a broad spectrum of self-critique and peer critique questions is the essence of what makes a successful artist. It is also the essence of successful science and many other disciplines, yet most school science labs never offer the chance to learn how to experiment for an unknown outcome. Most science students are learning that an unexpected outcome means that they made a mistake. Real scientists know that their unexpected outcomes may be important discoveries. Real artists know that there are no mistakes. Every artwork outcome is valid for what it is. And, the ability to phrase good open questions is an important teaching/learning skill for every aspect of life. As artists, we are continually questioning what we are doing based on how it may be seen by the viewer. Without being able to empathize with viewers of our work, our artwork would suffer. The same is true for most of life's choices.

Of course art choices and many of life's choices also come from the subconscious intuitive and/or they are habitual. We often just do it without thinking, but as we edit and review it, we are asking questions (whether or not we verbalize them). 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 can become a commonly used skill for a successful artist and a successful life.

With intentional encouragement, the methods of learning that are learned in an art class can transfer to rest of life. We can coach this when we ask our students how they make their choices when solving problems in other other classes. How do they learn from choices they make in games they play? How do they decide on topics for papers they write? How do they help their siblings, cousins, or friends with homework? Has anybody ever had buyer's remorse after spending all their savings on a toy or a gadget? Some teachers ask this kind of question during the 45 seconds after the class is done cleaning up before the dismissal bell rings. This may be one of best chances to coach transfer of learning. Most things that are worth learning in art class are also worth learning for the rest of life. Also see Teaching for Transfer of Learning.

Guidelines are needed. In empathic classroom critique, I hope for 100 percent participation. I try to call on quiet students and limit talkative ones. Each session moves to students whose works were not covered in a recent session. Students who are not yet familiar with empathic critique methods are told that they are prohibited from "contributing" negative comments.

They are told that open questions that are neutral or positive (no negative connotations) are needed. Questions that foster discovery are valued and encouraged. Questions that build awareness are affirmed. Students may need coaching on how to phrase open questions to promote awareness and discovery. Negative comments need to be prohibited and policed firmly with kindness. "Did you intend to say that in a negative way? Who can help us find a positive way to make discoveries around the visual phenomena that was discovered here?" Commendations are given when they phrase it well. Unexpected answers to questions are okay, but may need to be followed with clarification questions to ferret out the discovery.
Naturally, positive comments that are based on evidence are allowed.

As art teachers we can model empathic "critique talk" in our one-on-one encounters. Students ask us for our expertise. Of course, as art teachers, we often see immediately what is wrong with a student work, but is it best to teach them to be dependent on us? How do we help students become as aware and open to discovery as we are? I know this goes against what feels natural and honest for many of us, and some students may even be impatient with us when we withhold solutions to visual problems in the artwork. We all remember our own teachers who often told us immediately how fix our mistakes. Did they do as well teaching us how to search for our own discoveries? What if our teachers had modeled good questions to ask ourselves instead of gifting us the answers? Would we too be better at asking good productive questions?

When we avoid making negative comments, we will keep the learning channels open and receptive. When students are allowed see the positive aspects of unintended outcomes, and when they are encouraged to experiment and figure out an option, they become empowered. When their discoveries are affirmed, they are empowered to keep experimenting and making more discoveries. Many students will even begin to imitate our questioning style, spontaneously making discoveries and innovations as they the work. They are using intrinsic assessment (critique) to form their outcomes.

When talking one-on-one, I ask a student to show me two things at once. This allows me to ask which one of the two shows a particular attribute more successfully. This allows us to see everything as positive while building self-awareness and making discoveries. Students learn how to do this on their own while remaining positive and productive.

Empathic critique coaching leads to art students who creatively self-learn. It leads to self-critique awareness questions and discoveries during their own creative production time. This leads to artists that empathically consider how others will see and respond to their work. Studio art classes with a positive peer critique culture will have fewer discipline problems, higher motivational levels, and students will learn twice as much about thinking, feeling, and acting like an artist. Discovery learning is learned, and discovery learning assumes new ideas are being tried, experimentation is common, and the fear of the unknown is diminished.

Good critique makes every artwork into a launching pad for the next stage of the search. Empathic critique recognizes that we are all basically good people striving to become better.

As an art teacher, these are some things I have tried.
  1. I have them draw a name of one or two other students. Ask them to study the student's artwork and write first (see smart-soft open questions to try--below). They will be more confident during the discussion if they have had time to study and reflect. I start the discussion as soon as half or more of them are half finished writing. Quiet students are often surprisingly insightful when I give them time to write first.
  2. Do not allow negative comments. If it happens, nip it in the bud. I say, "Oops, no dissing." Please restate it as an open question. Make it neutral or positive." I call it SMART-SOFT critique.
  3. It may be best to require all participants to have one or more works in the fray. Those who have nothing to be critiqued may be better off to keep working and stay out of it this time.
  4. No suggestions are allowed. Instead, students have to learn how to phrase open questions that will help bring alternative solutions into consideration. We want open questions that stimulate thinking and problem solving.
  5. During the discussion ask the artist to wait until after others have talked before the artist "explains" the original intentions of the work. If we want to learn how to empathize, the artist needs to learn how others are reading the work. Empathic creative work takes practice in order to better understand the viewer. The work is the work, whether or not it gives the messages that were intended. Some have even defined the art product as the mere leftovers of the art process--which is the important part.

I like to begin the discussion on a positive appreciative note that acknowledges all the work represented. Using this time to rant or threaten is sure to kill motivation and produces passive resistance symptoms. It stunts the growth of a creative studio culture. If somebody is out of line, I try to use humor to remind them that we all have our bad days, but now is not the time or the place. The critique is the time to be nice in spite of ourselves. Empathy is more natural for some than others. Fostering empathy and creativity is a worthy educational goal for the sake of our student's future survival and success. Art class offers chances for both.

Stop before it gets boring. Those who are not participating this time, are the first to be asked next time. Start the next session by calling on the ones who did not contribute during the pervious session. It is good to let them know this plan in advance. Learning in a studio art class is not a spectator sport. Continue another session with the student's works that were missed this time. Keep a fair rotation going. Try a random system of selecting the starting work. Try a system where students suggest another student's work to discuss.


What do you see?
Why do we notice that?

What else do you see?

What is the most original or creative thing you see?
How would you guess it happened or how would you explain that?

What do you think it means?
Why do you think so?

How does it make you feel?
Why does it do that?

What open question does the work suggest to you? (state it in positive or neutral terms - no negatives)(open questions have more than one right answer)

What do you wonder about? (state it in positive or neutral terms - no negatives)

Some people are naturally disposed to innovation and willingness to look at unknowns. Others are so afraid that things won't work that they are paralyzed by their fear of mistakes. Some tend to be very anxious and needy in the sense that they depend on an established correct path to copy. Empathic critiques may be a way to help students find their way to a more confident self. Through empathic critiques they find that they are good people who can inquire and contribute in their own ways to create the world as a better place. Students may even discover that the same internalized habits of asking questions and experimenting with ideas will help them discover their way toward a better world view and philosophy of life.


The following note on using a SMART board for class critiques is copied by permission from the author. It was a note sent to the TAB Choise-Based art teacher user group.

Last year I started using Photobucket. But any kind of site like that can work. The thing is to be able to make the portfolios/galleries private if you don't want their work shared with the world. I mostly use this type of site for critiques. I upload all the images without any names, and we will look at images individually as a class (on a SMART board) or I have students work in groups to make comments (usually responding to some specific questions). Their images look much better this way as opposed to projected, but I can get away with this as I am in a computer lab...I also like how all the images can be viewed as a whole. It's much easier to make comparisons and distinctions that way. --- from: Jody Chapel, 8/15/2012.

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Virginia Postrel. (1998) The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress,  Simon and Schuster

About 1976 or 1977, I attended a Critique Dynamics workshop at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN., with Douglas Stewart of Sycamore, Illinois. He presented the importance of being both positive and informative in art student critiques. All negative and corrective comments were highly discouraged.

In 2005, Terry Barrett, who has written extensively on art critique in art education, was our Visiting Artist at Goshen College.  He often prompted students by asking: "What do you see?" He responded with an affirmative comment such as: "I am so glad you saw that. I had not noticed that." This reassured other students to contribute. He fostered positive and creative learning

In 1984, J. Daniel Hess and I were working on adjacent garden plots. We raised fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers. Dan was a writing teacher and I was an art teacher. He has written a number of books including: From the Other's Point of View: Perspectives from the North and South of the Rio Grande (1999), and An Invitation to Criticism (1984). One day, while on a break from gardening, we discussed ideas about classroom critique. I told Dan of a discussion in our graduate art education class when we had talked about using the sandwich method. In the sandwich method of critique we begin by saying something positive. Secondly, we explain the student's mistake or problem and make our suggestions. Thirdly, we top it off with another compliment about something they did well. Dan's response was that our students will only remember the meat--the bad stuff. Bad stuff sticks in their memory. It kills our creative passion and motivation. It's more empathic to use questions. Questions can be phrased neutrally or affirmatively. Rather than leaving the student with a feeling of failure, the teacher can use questions that present a position of wondering. The teacher can take the position of a collaborative learner. I credit Dan's critique of the sandwich method for the idea of empathic critique. Dan's explanation encouraged me to experiment, to learn, and to write this critique of critique. Even though he did not use the open question method on me, being friends and colleagues, he knew that I would accept his response as being empathic.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. 2008, updated March 15, 2017.

You may not publish or place this page on your web site unless you get permission.  Your questions, suggestions, and comments are appreciated. If you are an art teacher, you may copy and print this page for your own use, but not for other teachers. Send them to this page. Links to my pages are always welcome.



A previous 2002 version of this critique page is still posted as: Successful Art Class Critique at http://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/critique1.html

Another version of this essay is posted as QUESTIONS IN LEARNING ART

I welcome any and all kinds of feedback, empathic or not. If you find copy editing oversights, typos, missing words, etc., I appreciate an email to let me know so that I can fix them. Contact me.

Johnson, S. (2010) "Where good ideas come from." TEDGlobal. Filmed July, Posted September, 2010.

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