We like to track things. We come up with goals and metrics at the national, state, and local levels to ensure beyond doubt that our students are learning. As a society, we aren’t altogether comfortable with that which we can’t quantify. Can I see it? How can I measure it? How can I know if it worked or if it was good?”
But some things we can’t track and we can’t know. There aren’t formulas for inventing something new, or picking a good life partner, or for being a leader. Yes, for some things there are right answers, and there are things to measure and track; for some things, there are formulas. But for many things, we need good judgment.
Typically, we talk about “being judgmental” in a negative context. We try to teach our students not to judge one another. But being judgmental can be very positive and we want to teach our students how to have good judgment when there are no rules or formulas to guide them.
Training Students to Be Artists
As educators, we can easily lose sight of the big picture. In pursuit of test scores and compliance, we can forget that what we are tasked with is guiding students in a rewarding and meaningful life. We want to help them become artists at whatever they choose to do.
Elliot Eisner calls “making judgments” one of six artistically rooted forms of intelligence. He clarifies that:
By the term artist [we don’t] mean necessarily painters and dancers, poets and playwrights. We mean individuals who have developed the ideas, the sensibilities, the skills, and the imagination to create work that is well proportioned, skillfully executed, and imaginative, regardless of the domain in which an individual works.— Elliot W. Eisner
One thing to note is that artists, whether painters, surgeons, or teachers, regularly have to act in the absence of formulas. They make judgments about what color to use, about what tool to use, about what words to use. How do we teach students to be good at such judgment when there is no formula?
How Do We Teach Judgment
Learning how to be judgmental is a practice. It means that we can’t carefully curate our curriculum to contain only such material as can be tracked and measured. We need to regularly present activities that allow students to practice making their own judgments.
- Show students artwork they haven’t seen before. Ask them what they like and don’t like. If the art is related to your content area, that’s great, but it doesn’t have to be. Just give them practice in looking at something subjectively.
- Don’t give specific instructions. Instead, let students make judgments about the best method for accomplishing the task.
- Give students paragraphs of writing from different articles or books. Ask them to pick the paragraph they like the best and ask why. Did one of the paragraphs get an idea across more clearly? Was there a feeling or emotion conveyed? Is there a sentence that really pops?
- When working on a visual group project (such as a poster or collage) ask students to quietly arrange the visual as a group. Put the poster in the middle of the group. Tell students they can move any element of the poster whenever they choose. Sometimes, someone might move something you already moved and that’s ok. Just keep arranging and rearranging without talking until everyone in the group stops moving.
When students practice judging, they learn to listen to their own inner guide. Instead of looking to others for “correct” answers, they become people who can act when there is no clear answer. What’s more, they just get better at it. Young people who are not trusted to make judgments for themselves don’t hone the skill, which can often lead to poor judgment down the road.
As you start planning for the next semester, think about activities you can introduce that will give students practice in being judgmental.