This article is part of a longer series on design thinking, a flexible framework for empathy-driven creative work. Previous articles addressed awareness, inquiry, research, and prototyping. This article is about the Highlight and Fix stage, where students revise their work.
The Critical Role of Revision
I have noticed that students often hate the revision phase. In the LAUNCH Cycle, they go from research to ideation and building a prototype. It seems cool. They’re excited about what they made. But then when we switch to testing and revising, they get frustrated. The same is true of revising a persuasive blog post or fixing a broken math problem or going back into a video and changing things up in the editing phase.
Part of this comes from fear. They don’t want the prototype to fail. No one does. No authors says, “Man, I hope this piece I worked ends up being scrapped completely from the book.” No coder says, “I really hope this string of code ends up failing to work.” For all the talk of “embracing failure,” the truth is that failing isn’t fun. It’s infuriating. At times, it feels devastating. Students are no different. They don’t want to feel like they wasted their time. So, there’s this intense fear with any creative work that you truly put your heart into, where you don’t want it to fail.
Other times it’s less about fear and more about the boredom that often accompanies the small tweaking of revision. In some cases, even with a product that students love, students will be tempted to ask, “Isn’t this good enough?” There’s a certain project fatigue that sets in when you’ve had to fix so many things and then you run into another round of revisions.
I don’t blame students for hating the revision process. I have so many times when I don’t want to revise. I don’t want to test what I did to see if it’ll work. I don’t want to face the fear that I wasted hours or days or months on a project. I also empathize with the boredom. I hate staring at a page of code knowing that a misplaced semicolon might be screwing the whole thing up.
Failing Versus Failure
Learning is an iterative process full of mistakes. However, we often experience smaller mistakes that lead to revisions. You write something and then revise it ever so slightly before publishing it. You teach a lesson in first hour and then make minor tweaks to it throughout the day until it’s awesome in fifth hour. However, when you truly struggle, you have moments when you fail bigtime and then have to find an entirely different approach.
Design thinking builds this notion of failing into the process. In some cases, it’s more about feedback and revision while other projects require testing and revision. But the idea is the same. Students test, revise, and iterate. In the LAUNCH process, we describe it as “Highlight and Fix.”
Often, high achieving students struggle with this process. They’re used to getting the right answer and getting it quickly. But this fixation on “getting it right” and working quickly makes students risk-averse. By contrast, quality revision helps develop grit. For all the talk of “grit” and “high standards” and “letting kids fail,” Angela Duckworth often talks about the role of sustained passion in developing grit. Similarly, I find it interesting that a growth mindset is rarely the result of a high-pressure, high standard, accountability-driven environment. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. There’s a certain slack necessary for developing a growth mindset.
Notice that there’s a difference between fail-ure and fail-ing. Failure is permanent while failing is a part of the learning process. We don’t want students to embrace failure. If you embrace failure, you’re the Cleveland Browns. But you do want to see students recognize how failing is a part of the learning process.
How to Help Students Embrace the Revision Process
There are certain things teachers can do to keep the testing and revision stage interesting:
- Change up the grouping so that a fresh set of eyes comes in to add some perspective in the testing phase. I love the writer’s workshop model for that reason. But I wonder if that should be happening more in a math or science class, too.
- Help students become better critics. What if we had a sort-of peer review process that went deeper than “two things I like and one thing to change?” This takes time, but it’s why ultimately creativity requires thoughtful consuming.
- Switch to a standards-based, mastery-based grading system so that students aren’t worried about what grade they will get if their first prototype isn’t very good. If students are graded throughout the project with an average applied to each piece, they will grow naturally risk-averse.
- Emphasize that all great products went through many iterations before they worked well. Share your stories of testing and revising. Talk openly about any struggles you might have had with perfectionism.
- Break up the revision so that students test a particular part of their prototype and revise it before moving on to another area of testing and revision. Sometimes a big testing phase (here’s everything wrong with your video) can feel overwhelming.
- Create the right atmosphere for revision. Often deep revision requires a thoughtful intensity borne out of silence. This can be tricky in the chaos of a maker project. I’ve found that it helps to provide quiet spaces for revision — even if that spaces is down the hallway. Ideally, we would have more spaces of quiet throughout school.
- Devote more time to revision. Part of why so many students struggle with the revision phase is that the deadlines are too tight or all revisions are expected to be done at home.
- Utilize student conferencing. In the past, I used two types of conferencing. The first was consulting (where I would provide advice when they were stuck) and the second was coaching (where I led students through self-reflection).
- Be open about the emotional roller coaster of the revision process. It helps when teachers are makers and can share the frustrations of making mistakes and having to revise.
It’s never going to be entirely easy. Revision will always have an element of fear and boredom built into it. However, over time it can become a normal, natural part of the design process.
What does this mean?
This Highlight and Fix phase is all about empowering students to own the assessment process. Note that the assessment process has to feel authentic to students. Assessment is a process, not a thing. We often say “take an assessment,” but this assessment here is about what you do rather than what you take. I’ve found that it helps to find inspiration outside of school.
When kids engage in authentic projects outside of school, they are likely to own the assessment process. So, as we think about assessment in a PBL classroom, it should look more like a skate park or a makerspace or a kitchen. It should be a space where assessment is happening everywhere, all the time.
The following are some examples of student-centered assessment practices. If you want to download these, fill out the form below:
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Self-assessments have an empowering effect. Instead of attributing academic success to a teacher or to luck, they see it as a result of their hard work. They grow more self-directed and independent and it’s because they’re constantly looking at their own progress. The following are some self-assessment options:
- Tracking Goals: Students create their own goals. These can be quantitative or qualitative. Then they keep track of the progress. It might mean a graph, a progress bar, or simply a description of progress.
- Self-reflections: Here students answer reflective questions about what they are learning, where they are struggling, and what they need to do next. Some of the questions might be specific and concrete while others are broad and abstract.
- Student Surveys: Sometimes students struggle with open-ended self-reflection questions. Surveys provide a blend of the objective and the subjective. So, they might use a Likert scale, selecting specific words from a bank, or ranking items. This added structure helps students make sense out of something that can feel abstract.
- Self-Assessment Rubrics: Students are able to look at the progression from emerging to mastering with specific descriptions in various categories. They are able to gain an accurate view of how they are doing, while also having a clear picture of where they need to be.
- Checklists: These can be a powerful diagnostic tool that students use before, during, and after a task. Pilots, doctors, and engineers all use checklists as a way to determine whether their work has fit specific criteria. When students use checklists, they are learning how to make sense out of systems. There’s actually a great book on checklists called The Checklist Manifesto that I highly recommend.
Sometimes you miss critical details in self-assessment. You can’t see your blind spots because . . . well . . . they’re your blind spots. In these moments, you need peer feedback to help you see a new perspective. The same is true of entire groups in the midst of a project. When you mix of students to engage in peer assessment, you get fresh ideas and help avoid tunnel vision.
This idea is built into some of the most innovative companies around. Take Pixar. They have a Brain Trust system where people pitch ideas, share their work, and ask for feedback. Everyone in the room has the freedom to criticize. And they do.
This can sound scary. However, it works at Pixar because they are a supportive community. You see, when trust and transparency are present, critical feedback can fuel creative thinking. As Catmull puts it in Creativity Inc., “We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.”
So, here are some structured, shorter ways to provide peer feedback:
- The 20-Minute Peer Feedback System: This critical friends approach begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It then moves into a chance to ask clarifying questions, get feedback, respond to feedback, and chart out next steps. Each of these stages lasts two-three minutes apiece. While that sounds fast, it can actually feel leisurely. Note that this can be used to assess both the process and the product.
- Structured Feedback with Sentence Stems: Here, you as a teacher provide specific sentence stems that your students can use to provide diagnostic, clarifying, or critical feedback.
- 3-2-1 Structure: This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have.
- See-Think-Wonder: Students give peer feedback by pointing out what they see in another product, what they think about it, and, finally, what questions they have.
- Feedback Carousel: Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group. Unlike the other feedback methods, students here are offering feedback without the original group member present. It also focuses almost entirely on the product.
- Peer Coaching: Students interview each other about the process, using the coaching questions from the student-teacher conferences to guide them if they struggle to come up with reflection questions.
Here’s a video of the 20-minute peer feedback system:
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