The problem with feedback

Back in the 90’s, John Laws lead an ad campaign for Valvoline. It had the catchphrase of “oil ain’t oil”

It focused on the supposed quality and excellence of the oil in much the same way as John West did with salmon.

This focus on quality and excellence had me thinking lately about data and whether in fact ‘data ain’t data’ and that data is not neutral.

In an article for The Atlantic, Megan Ward provides a history of feedback. She touches on the origins associated with improving industrial machine efficiency and focus on finding fault. The problem is that in recent times it has been appropriated as a tool for managing people as a form of human machinery.

Positive ratings are a kind of holy grail on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and negative reviews can sink a burgeoning small business or mom-and-pop restaurant. That shift has created a misunderstanding about how feedback works. The original structure of the loop’s information regulation has been lost.

Ward explains that this confuses things and in the process we risk making the activity one of noise, rather than any sort of purposeful meaning and change.

I was particularly reminded of this during a recent holiday to Fiji. I had some points of frustration about the place where we stayed and thought that it might be worth providing feedback. However, what I realised the longer I stayed was that such feedback would most likely miss the mark. Rather than improve the experience for others, as I imagined the feedback should, it would more likely be weaponised and lead to worse working conditions for the staff. To put the issues in context, they were each dealt with in a timely manner. In some respects that is all you can ask for. In addition to this, it would take away from what actually made the whole time most hospitable, the people. I decided not to provide feedback.

Another scenario that comes to mind is performance reviews in schools. I remember there was political outrage a few years ago that the vast majority of teachers in Victoria seemingly moved up their increment each year. It was felt by some that the review process was not weeding out under performing teachers. The problem I had then (and have now) is that it is failure for the wrong purpose. Teachers are not steam engines in need of optimisation towards some sort of greatness. Instead, they require feedback and follow-up based on particular contexts and conditions. This is why performance reviews are different to coaching programs. Jon Andrews explains this difference as improvement verses development.


The question that often feels overlooked when it comes to feedback is who or what is it actually for? It is easy enough to collect clicks and likes, but without purpose it can quickly just become noise. Data ain’t data, to treat it so misunderstands its purpose and association with feedback.


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I recently attended the 5th National Coaching Conference for Educators held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I was not exactly sure what I would get from the conference. Having completed a course with Growth Coach International around leadership coaching a few months ago, I was interested in following up with my development as a coach. I was also interested in exploring strategies to support my work with schools and teachers with implementing technology. What I got was so much more.

There were so many thought provoking presenters, including Simon Breakspear, Rachel Lofthouse, Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Deb Netolicky. However, to riff on Marshall McLuhan, the medium was the message, with coaching being that medium. In regards to coaching and the conference, there were many ideas bandied. For me though three themes stood out: purpose, context and curiosity.

Purpose

So many conversations started with why, such as:

  • Investing in the capacity of people.
  • Improving instructional leadership to lift up schools.
  • Doing less, but doing it better.
  • Creating the conditions for effective learning
  • Focusing on impact, not just activity.
  • Unleashing the human potential.
  • Supporting the implied ‘other’ client, the learner in the classroom.
  • Developing teachers in their own context.

The consensus though was that coming up with a single purpose is as much about the answer, as it is about working through a process co-construction to understand what coaching means within a particular context.

Context

Schools are not simple places, nor are they all the same, each incorporates a range of complexities and influences. This includes the influence of space, such as the doings, sayings and relatings. The nuances associated with context was demonstrated through the case studies presented by Deb Netolicky and Alex Guedes. The challenge outlined when it comes to coaching is clarifying what is wanted and what is currently working.

A part of working out what works is identifying various strategies to support implementation and facilitation. How we talk to each other was pointed out as being central to any organisation, with conversation central to any coaching approach. Other possibilities shared included reflecting on video of teaching, recording audio and creating transcripts of coaching sessions. The reality though is that coaching is just one way of working together.

The message made time and again was that the context that must not be forgotten is that of the coachee. It is important to respect every conversation as it comes from a different perspective. Whatever kind of coaching is occurring, it is important that it is built on a respectful relationship.

Curiousity

No matter the intent or the context, schools need to provide coachee’s with a permission to be curious. Coaching, mentoring and guidance often occurs in the midst of play, sometimes literally in the playground. Some suggestions included supporting vulnerability, inquiry-based conversations, providing a safe place, encouraging dialogue, being non-judgemental and fostering the conditions of permanent beta. One of the challenges that impede much of this are the procedures which schools cannot get out of. Breaking with the culture of judgementoring and cruel optimism, Rachel Lofthouse talked about making practice privileged.


Having long attended various edtech conferences, one of the things that stood out was that I was in unfamiliar surrounds. Although I often participate in the monthly EduCoachOC chat and have acted as a mentor before, I have limited formal experience in regards to coaching.  Yet by its nature as being about coaching, the conference itself created an open environment in which to learn.

 

Some other links worth checking out:


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Behaviours
“Behaviours” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

I recently finished a two-day introductory course into coaching through Growth Coaching International. Their approach is based around three core ‘pillars’: a framework for the coaching conversation (the GROWTH model); core micro communication skills, and; coaching as a way of being. What interested me most was the notion of ‘coaching as a way of being’ and the impact that being a coach can have on all aspects of life.

One of the things that was spoken about was emotional intelligence and the importance to know thyself first and foremost. Popularised by Daniel Goleman, it is made up of four elements that encapsulate understanding of the self: self awareness, self management, social awareness and social skills. Whether it be different levels of empathy or strengths analysis, the discussion during the course seemed to came back to a concrete definition of who we each are. This ideal seemed to ignore the different situations within which each of us exist each and every day.

In The End of Average, Todd Rose unpacks the problem of the average man. In its place, he reinstates the individual and all of the nuances that this brings. One of Rose’s concerns is the lack of context when it comes to discussion of character traits, such as emotional intelligence. Going beyond the surveys which provide a list of strengths, the challenge is to understand the various situations within which these occur.

The strategy that Rose proposes is the notion of ‘if then’ signatures. That is, if it is a particular situation, then it will produce these traits. For example, we may act one way at home and another way in our workplace or one way while teaching a class and another while leading teachers.

I am not saying that such character tests do not have a use. I wonder if they can be used as a provocation to drive self awareness about who we might be depending of which situation. As always, comments welcome.


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creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by William M Ferriter: http://flickr.com/photos/plugusin/14823535028
 
It is so easy as educators to fall into the trap of: do as I say, not as I do. Education constantly gives lip service to lifelong learning, but how many actually practise it in a meaningful way? A part of the problem is that so often we neither know what it actually means to learn something as an adult or simply where to start. For some it is confronting to take the teachers hat off and approach this from the perspective of a learner. What is sometimes even more confronting though at times is teaching teachers, mentoring them through the learning process.
 
This year I have been lucky enough to be a part of the DEECD’s ‘Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century’ program. The premise behind it is to introduce educators to 21st century pedagogy and technologies through the use of the inquiry process. What could be understood as the ways of working, as well as the tools for working. This has involved a large amount of learning by doing for both myself as a coach and the participants I am responsible for.
 
As a part of the program, I have mentored a group of teachers through their own project(s). The group was initially brought together around the common theme of collaboration. From there we explored, chatted and posed a range of questions online, through a range of platforms. This finally led to the formation of our driving question: “How can we use technology to enhance collaboration in the classroom?” The thought was that instead of collaborating on a big project, that we would each work on something specific to our own context. Some chose to investigate the potential of Google Apps for Education as a means for students to collaborate in and out of the classroom. While others explored the power and potential of student blogs.

Throughout the process, there have been two aspects that have really challenged me. Firstly, what exactly is my place as a coach and mentor. For at times there has been little activity in the Google Community we created. Whose problem is this and what then is my role in elevating this situation? Secondly, I feel that there is a need at times to unlearn preconceived notions. One of the challenges is that it is not a traditional approach to professional development where educators are simply spoken to and told what to do or think, instead the programs involved a large amount of personal buy in.
 
In a recent post on the role of the instructor in student centred learning, Mary Stewert suggests that three key elements:
  1. authority and responsibility for the task
  2. providing guidance for the sidelines
  3. presence rather than defined role
The purpose of each is to continually find a balance between learning design and space for emergence in the push to facilitate collaborative learning communities. I really liked how Stewert outlined the place of the instructor as being important, but in a different way than usual. Erica McWilliam describes this as the ‘meddler in the middle’, still their, but with a different purpose. While coming from the perspective of coaching, +Cameron Paterson borrows from Needham in suggesting the leader needs to not only enable the conditions, but make sure learning in linking back to students.
 
The whole process has been challenging for although I have provided guidance and been present, in hindsight I fear that through my fervour and enthusiasm, I have been too present and provided far too much support, ironically undermining the space for the emergence of learning. Another coach actually allocated the role of leader to another team member, they therefore acted as a support for the support. I am feeling that this may have been a better model to push for. Associated with this need to lead without always being the actual leader, the other challenge I have faced is the need at times to unlearn.
 
In an interesting post discussing the constant to and fro between instructionism and constructionism, Paul Dunbar suggests that at times there is a third ‘ism’ needed to evolve the learning process, what he calls ‘destructivism’. As he states, “at certain points on the learning curve, some deconstruction needs to take place before the learner can move on to the next level.” The most obvious area for unlearning often relates to the roles and expectations in the learning space. Although this does not apply to everyone, many of us have a default setting associated with professional development which involves others doing the work for us. 
 
In addition to learners needing to ‘unlearn’, I have found that instructors sometimes need to unlearn certain habits too. For as +Cameron Paterson puts forward, “if we want teachers to take ownership for their learning, the coach cannot be the expert, as this creates learned helplessness on the part of the coached teachers.” Initially I would answer every question that was asked of me, overload the space with a wide array of resources. The problem with this is that I was taking the messiness out of the whole process. After this was pointed out to me, I turned to Diigo as a place to share various resources. My thoughts were that I was still sharing, but in a way that people had to go and look for the resources if they wanted it, rather than being served on a platter.
 
 
There have been some great posts relating to the challenges relating to professional development. From +Steve Brophy on the connected nature of learning, to +Corrie Barclay on the endless journey of being more effective. However, the one constant is that the best learning environments are driven by us not for us. Something often easier said than done. Just as Fisher and Fray suggest that we do not need another generation of teacher-dependent learners, so to do we not need another generation of leader-dependent teachers.
 
What has been your experiences of professional learning? What worked? What didn’t? What were the biggest challenges? How were you empowered? Or empowering?

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