Feedback: Initially bitter, but eventually sweet

The TED Talk above featuring Bill Gates talking about teacher feedback is not really the central point of this post but a good intro. Today I worked with 6 teachers on our School Support Initiative planning and it was an amazing session. We had to spend some time defining our goals for the project and figuring out what the focus of our work would be as we use some added time and resources to address some of the needs of students in our applied level classes. One major component of the SSI program is to identify an evidence based instructional technique that would be the main thrust of our efforts with these two cohorts of students. For this we referred to the work of Hattie. As far as instructional strategies, Hattie’s work ranks DESCRIPTIVE FEEDBACK as the most impactful.

With this in mind we set to work on figuring out what good descriptive feedback looks like and how it can be used to improve student learning, not just to justify a mark. I am an English teacher at heart and still cringe when I think about the number of essays that I marked and created copious amounts of notes and explanations for a final mark on an essay. What an amazing waste of time!!! I spent sometimes pages on top of pages and endless amounts of red ink, telling students how they had fallen short of the perfect piece, and it lead no where. Was I delusional to think that they actually took the time to consider all my comments and file them away in their memory, ready for the next time that they were to write a paper for me? I mean if you think that this feedback is meant to most help the ones struggling, then what are these comments when attached to a final and unalterable mark? I’ll tell you what it is: It is a detailed description of that students shortcomings and so no wonder they discard them as soon as they get them.

We decided that we had to look for ways to make the feedback part of the process. The math teachers in the group were trying to wrap their head around how to give personal feedback to each individual student when there are so many that need help. Some great questions that need more time and work but we came up with some characteristics  of good feedback.

This morning session really got me thinking and the part that got me thinking the most is the fact that it almost did not happen. The SSI project is an initiative from the ministry that has seen many different versions over the past 7 years. It has met with resistance from those that have spent a lot of time on it and some of my teachers came to me last week voicing their displeasure with the idea of being a part of it again. They acknowledged that they would like to see test scores go up but were tired of having to be pulled out of the classes so much to hear “experts” talk about how to fix their classes. I have to be honest that I got my back up a bit as I was not expecting this from this group and it felt like an attack on my leadership as they were not hearing me when I said that it was my understanding that the allotted time would be spent on local efforts with less time away from the class for them. I honestly was a bit shaken by this as it felt like they did not trust me. We talked it through and they agreed to cautiously proceed but I left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Then as we were talking today it suddenly hit me. As we talked about the power of effective descriptive feedback I realized that this is what those teachers were giving me. They came to me with some honest and well-earned concerns and so were giving me feedback so as to be a better leader. They were making me aware of what they needed to move forward. I was able to get some clarification from the superintendent about the scope of the project and by starting the meeting with that clarification, we were able to be so much more productive and I think we now have a concrete vision for what we are going to do moving forward.

I needed the feedback and I needed it at that moment. Timing is a huge component of descriptive feedback and so I, like our students, needed the feedback at a time when I could do something about it. If my teachers had kept their mouths shut and just went through the motions of the project and then at the end told me it was a waste of time, then there would have been nothing that I could do. This would amount to those students who read my comments on their essay, only to be frustrated that there was nothing they could do with them. I needed the honest and frankly courageous feedback that these teachers gave me so that I could put in place conditions for it to succeed. What a great lesson to learn in leadership and pedagogy.

I will add this about feedback though. Feedback has to be done properly or it can do more harm than good. If these teachers had been ones that regularly yell at the rain and roll their eyes every time talk about professional responsibility or ministry initiatives comes up, I probably would have dismissed it immediately. I have stated before that I really have a hard time making time for people who JUST complain. When you offer nothing more than the status quo as a solution, I really have to push myself to consider the points presented. I have to work on this but I can make a relation to the classroom here as well. Hattie’s work also states that one of the most influential factors impacting student success is a trust in and a connection to the teacher. If the one giving the feedback has already proven to be someone that is genuinely interested in helping, then it will be received in as something to build upon and work with. If it comes in the form of aggressive. PERMANENT red ink, then research has shown that it will do little more than increase the level of disengagement for that student and eventually cause more failure.

I am happy that I got the type of feedback that I got, from whom I got it, and at the time I got it. Let’s HOPE all our students are this fortunate.

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