There is a great deal written about how to receive and give feedback in ways that are effective. I wonder whether most school administrative teams, school districts, state education agencies, or educational policy makers understand and use research being generated to inform their processes for creating a feedback culture in their school.
I understand that we need systems of accountability in schools for administrators and teachers to engage in high-quality instruction and leadership. However, I do question whether the systems we have built actually produce the outcomes which we design for. I think we all agree that the outcomes we design for are: (1) excellent school leadership that supports high-quality teachers in every classroom; (2) teachers invested in their own professional growth intent on becoming a high-quality teacher meeting the needs of every child; and (3) engaging, meaningful and relevant learning environments that meet all students’ needs as their strive to reach their full potential.
Can each and every one of us look in the mirror each morning and say these outcomes are being achieved in all classrooms for all of students? Whether we teach in the private or public sector, my guess is that the answer to the question is either an unequivocal no or we would have a hard time pointing to evidence that clearly says yes. We also know that leaders and teachers around the country are sincerely trying hard to attend to these outcomes.
I would venture to say one reason why we struggle getting to “the promised land” is that we have yet to grapple with the difficulty of creating an effective culture of feedback in our schools.
In their Harvard Business Review article, The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write about the reasons why feedback is mostly ineffective in creating lasting change in individuals. I would propose that their framework represents a new way of thinking about how we create a culture of feedback in schools, both for leaders, teachers, and students. They start out by asking the question: how should we give and receive feedback? This question sets up an important framework. Creating a culture that is merely set up to give feedback is not sufficient. We also have to design a culture that is prepared to help people learn how to receive and use the feedback that is given. Think about it, in schools we mostly have systems designed to give feedback, whether in teacher and leader evaluation systems or in classrooms through a rigid grading system.
With respect to the meaning of feedback, the authors write:
Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better.
They point out that the research on whether this helps people learn and grow is clear:
Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.
If you are an English teacher, you might be saying to yourself, I don’t agree. “I give students feedback on their writing, they use my feedback and their writing improves on their next assignment.” However, if we are honest with ourselves, if that were true then shouldn’t 100% of our students master writing skills and see significant improvement in their writing over their 12+ years of schooling. We know from all types of measurements on student writing this outcome is not being realized.
Buckingham and Goodall discuss three myths that research on effective feedback debunks:
- that other people are more aware of our weaknesses than we are, therefore we must learn through their eyes and words for how to improve which they call the theory of the source of truth.
- that we are all “empty vessels” that can be filled up as a result of an expert telling us what to work on to improve, which they call their theory of learning.
- that a great performance can be described, defined and packaged so that another person can simply “open the package,” learn and apply it which they call their theory of excellence.
They go into each theory, describing them in detail with interesting examples to illustrate the theory in action, pointing out the fallacy of believing the theory to be universally true.
Here is a summary of some points they raise about the three theories:
- Humans are fallible so to expect someone to observe our work objectively and comment on it without bias is unreasonable (idiosyncratic rater effect)
- Recipients of feedback have to wade through a great deal of distortions in order to find something useful.
- We are all color-blind when it comes to abstract attributes, for example, what good teaching looks like.
- Learning is less about adding something that isn’t there and is more about refining or reinforcing what is already there.
- Our brains respond to feedback as a threat and as a result shuts itself down to learning.
- Neuroscience tells us that neurons grow and synaptic connections build in places where there are already neurons and connections.
- Feedback, to be useful, must meet us when we are in flow.
- Excellence in any endeavor is almost impossible to define and there are multiple pathways to excellence in doing something.
- Excellence is idiosyncratic.
- Each person’s version of excellence is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality.
One could draw the conclusion that an administrator, evaluating a teacher’s classroom performance, would be hard pressed to define, observe, model and transfer his or her understanding of good teaching to the teacher through objective feedback.
Identifying someone’s failing behaviors and giving him or her feedback on how to avoid the behaviors is not a recipe that leads to successfully changing behaviors. The authors suggest it is more effective to recognize behaviors that lead to specific outcomes and reinforce the behaviors by pointing them out to the person. As an observer, describe your experiences with the behaviors that caught your attention, focusing on those that are positive or excellent.
The authors share a table of responses that an observe can help a person to excel.
Good feedback results from using strategies that empower a person to recognize what needs to change in order to improve. The impetus to change has to come from within the person as a result of their recognition that there is room for improvement. The authors write:
Get him just thinking about that and seeing it in his mind’s eye what he actually felt and did and what happened next.
When giving feedback learn to ask questions that help a person look within him or herself. Questions like:
- What information do you know that suggests there is room for improvement?
- What have you already done that suggests you know what works in this situation?
- When you experienced something like this before, what did you do?
- What is some evidence that it is going well in the classroom?
- What are some things you could start doing now?
These types of questions are open-ended, inquiry-oriented, and helping shine a mirror in front of the person.
Here is their concluding statement which sums up the approach they believe the research says will have the greatest impact on changing behaviors tied to specific outcomes.
We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we really are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works.
If we take the time to understand the research and learn to practice giving feedback aligned to the research, then we will realize the first thing we have to do is change the way our feedback systems work. In addition, we will need to work intentionally in changing our culture so that people are more ready to accept and give feedback from the position of care and trust.
How to Get the Feedback You Need, Harvard Business Review
Busting Myths About Feedback: What Leaders Should Know, Center for Creative Leadership
How to Give Professional Feedback, Educational Leadership
Reinventing Performance Management, Harvard Business Review
Beyond Barriers Using Feedback, Learning Forward
Feedback Fallacy, Harvard Business Review
Courage to Seek Authentic Feedback, Education Week
Evaluating Teacher Evaluation, Education Week
How attributes of the feedback message affect subsequent feedback seeking: the interactive effects of feedback sign and type, Megan Medvedeff, et.al., Psychologica Belgica