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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My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This then is the first of a series of posts covering my own reading, with this one looking at learning objectives and feedback. For before anyone can address the act of instruction, it is essential to set up an environment in which learning can occur.

Learning Objectives

The first chapter addresses the question of why in regards to the environment. The authors make it clear that learning objectives are essential for efficiency and understanding. Specific, but not restrictive, on learning, rather than activities, objectives are the why which drives instruction. They allow for a sense of narrative, connecting with previous and future learning. Made visible to both students and parents, via a workbook, on a whiteboard, as a poster or through a website, objectives provide the means to continually remind and reiterate on the intent.

It needs to be noted that such objectives should not be about simply telling students what they will learn, rather they provide the opportunity for co-creation. As is stated,

Such objectives though do not necessarily have to always be set for students, with the creation of personal objectives providing an opportunity to build intrinsic motivation.

Such personalisation includes using a KWL to identify what students know and want to know or providing a range of choices while staying true to the original objective.

One of the catches with objectives is that they can take on many shapes and sizes. Whether it be the big ideas and enduring understandings offered thought Understanding by Design, through-lines and provocations as provided through the Inquiry Model, the often quoted concept of learning intentions and success criteria or Chris Harte’s focus on skillsets, mindsets and toolsets. In addition to this, there is a difference in the language and complexity of an objective based on the intended audience, whether it be a class of preps or a group of adults.

Feedback

Just as objectives help define the why of learning, feedback helps to maintain this. According to Hattie and Timperley (2007) feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement. The problem though is that this influence can be both good and bad.

Only perfect practice makes perfect performance. If students don’t receive specific feedback in a timely manner, then they will keep doing their work incorrectly and reinforce bad habits.

The other challenge beyond being ‘specific and timely’ is not overwhelming learners with too much information. As Pitler and Stone suggest,

Keep the dollops—spoon-size portions—frequent and always targeted on the learning objective.

It needs to be said that just as objectives should not be dictated to students, feedback is not solely the responsibility of the teacher. For just as Steve Wheeler suggests that, “pedagogy is leading people to a place where they can learn for themselves,” feedback should support students with the skills to provide themselves and their peers with appropriate feedback.

The most common form of feedback is through the use of rubrics. These help students identify when they have achieved a particular objective. It needs to be recognised that for some, such as Alfie Kohn, this supposed strength is in fact a rubrics biggest weakness. While Dean Shareski raises concerns about the use of exemplars as being restrictive, especially when it comes to creativity. One comprimise is to give students a voice in the creation of rubrics. The Buck Institute of Education provides a useful ‘Rubric for Rubrics‘ to help with this process. Some other strategies that can be used to support the feedback process include the creation of checklists, gallery walks, providing opportunity for critique and review, as well as using different visible thinking routines.


However you approach learning objectives or the feedback process, Pitler and Stone make clear that what is important is that,

Students know what they are supposed to be learning, have clear direction on how well they are progressing toward that learning objective, understand their role as learners, and have an engaging and interactive place to learn.

So what about you? What has been your experience in regards to setting the why of the learning environment? As always, comments welcome.


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I have not participated in #Rhizo15 as much as I would have liked to. However, I have definitely dwelled on the various topics. Although a little belated, this is something of a response to Dave Cormier’s wondering about the myth of content.


As a part of the roll out of my school’s instructional model. We all chose a topic which we would like to delve into next. I chose to focus on ‘feedback’. Partly because I have a real passion for sharing learning and see a lot of potential for using technology to listen to voices in and out of the classroom. I also really like working with the people who were leading the group.

Although I already had collected some articles and posts on the topic in the past, I thought that I would put it out to my PLN to see what they might have to offer. So I sent the following Tweet:

What follows is the collection of posts, links and resources I got in return:

Is the Feedback You’re Giving Students Helping or Hindering?

Jon Andrews directed me to this post from Dylan Wiliam discussing the importance of feedback and how it is connected with persistence and the growth mindset. It discusses how some feedback can actually be unhelpful in regards to improving.

Feedback on Learning

In addition to Dylan Wiliam’s website, Jon Andrews also shared a link to a short video from Wiliam on importance of giving learners effective feedback as an integral component of formative assessment.

Feedback and Mindset

Dan Haesler directed me to his resources from all his presentations. This includes some really good information on the connection between assessment, feedback and mindset.

Webinar unpacking Embedding Formative Assessment

Jason Borton and Ross Halliday both recommended Dylan Wiliam’s book Embedding Formative Assessment. While Borton also directed me to this video/webinar, where Wiliam explores some practical techniques that teachers can use to develop their formative assessment classroom practice.

Using Gallery Walks for Revision and Reflection

Michelle Hostrup recommended BIE’s work in regards to gallery walks as a model for peer feedback. It provides suggestions how to structure such activities to make them specific and meaningful.

Feedback Matters

Shaun Allison shared a post he wrote collecting together an array of quotes and strategies associated with feedback. The best part is that he provides actual images and examples for each of the strategies that he discusses.

Feedback: Medals and Missions

Jennifer English pointed me to post from Geoff Petty who focuses on the ideas of ‘medals and missions’. Petty supports his discussion with plenty of proformas and research to further unpack the various ideas and arguments.

Formative Assessment

Cameron Paterson linked me to the slides for a presentation he did on formative assessment. Not only does he provide a really clear narrative in regards to assessment, but it also includes a great array of links and quotes. One of the interesting ideas is the potential of students and teachers engaging in the practise of Reggio inspired documentation.

Feedback for Learning (ASCD Vol 70 Num 1)

Peter DeWitt recommended a collection of articles on feedback from ASCD. This includes pieces from Dylan Wiliam to John Hattie to Grant Wiggins. It is also has a great infographic on the seven things to remember about feedback. A great summary of Wiggins’ piece. Although some articles need to be purchased, there are a few that are free.

Austin’s Butterfly

Andrea Stringer shared a short video from Ron Berger which highlights the importance of critique and feedback when striving for excellence. This is one of those presentations that really captures anyone of any age.

Visible Learning

Riss Leung argued that you can’t go past the chapter in John Hattie’s Visible Learning for  unpacking both the research and how it can be applied in the classroom.

3 Variables That Profoundly Affect the Way We Respond to Feedback

Although not responding to my call-out, Tom Barrett shared a link to this video from Big Think in his post written at much the same time. According to Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, the co-authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, there are specific variables that distort the way we perceive feedback from others.


Having collected some people’s thoughts on feedback, it makes clear that content is actually people, as Cormier put it in his post. What is important isn’t that I find that one resource that satisfies what I already know and am looking for. Instead, as Cormier highlights,

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field.

With the discussion of people, stories and resources, I am again reminded of Dean Shareski’s adage about when we go to conferences,

If you leave with one or two people you can continue to learn with you’ve done well.

Too often we focus on collecting ideas and resources, as a stagnant process. Instead what we need to celebrate is the remixing and re-imagining ideas in new and innovative ways. As David Culberhouse describes in relation to the ideapreneur, a term coined by Peter Thiel in Zero to One,

The work of the ideapreneur is not always founded in the making, but often in the connecting of ideas and thinking that already exists in very new and novel ways.  Ideapreneurs are able to make connections that remix and reimagine our current world in very inventive and innovative ways.

If you have something to add, maybe a new idea or a different take on things. Comments are welcome as always.


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So, it is Week 6 of ‘Rhizomatic Learning’, the last planned week of the course, and the focus is how do we teach ourselves into uselessness? How do we empower people so they have the PERMISSION to learn without us?
 
What an interesting topic to end Rhizomatic Learning with, the notion of doing your job so that you are no longer required any more. Maybe the word job is the wrong word, but simply so that you are no longer a required commodity. The question then is what remains? I would argue that when all else has gone, we are left with learning. The problem with this is that so much of ‘learning’ is social, it comes from our connections with other, those clashes of ideas that once settled, develop into new beginnings. The first step then in making ourselves useless is to define who ‘we’ are. Teachers? Learners? Facilitators? Critical friends? Fire starters?
 
What is often missed in discussions about teaching is the inadvertent, incidental, non-traditional environments that don’t necessarily stem from college and higher-education. Take for example a swimming teacher who may have completed a set of modules. However, their ‘qualification’ to teach is often based on their own prior learning and experiences. 
 
I sat watching my two year old daughter’s swimming lesson the other day and wondered what made her teacher a ‘good’ teacher. I had already decided that she was good, especially that my daughter had come along in leaps and bounds since moving up to the next level (although still easily distracted, can’t change everything). Added to this, in the previous group, I had gotten in the pool with my daughter, but now she was going solo and it gave me a whole different view on things. A view from the outside.
 
Some of the attributes that I would say that made her a good teacher is that she is stern but fair, while her instructions are always pertinent and to the point. However, what stands out the most is that she compliments the kids whenever she gets the chance. Although she obviously works from a program, she never ceases to interrupt the lesson when needs be so as to support her students if they are struggling with a particular skill or adapting a lesson to extend them. The reality is that her focus on providing continual feedback and encouragement is the attribute that truly makes her stand out.

Coming back to Rhizomatic Learning, I am therefore left mulling over how +dave cormier has successfully ‘managed the MOOC’. I must be honest that the word ‘manage’ may be slightly misleading, inferring incorrectly a sense of power and control, I think that instead what the course has done is instigate learning throughout. In some respect this has now been coordinated by everyone, although Dave has ‘set’ the tasks and facilitated the communications and conversations. However, as was demonstrated by +Mariana Funes‘ post, much was left to the community to continue the learning.
 
Whoever it may be, whatever the situation is, I believe that the reality is that someone always needs to be stoking the fire, throwing more wood on it, as well as setting some boundaries to make sure that it doesn’t burn out of control. Now I don’t necessarily mean ‘boundaries’ to dictate what you can and cannot say, rather it is about highlighting fractures or providing critical responses. The reality is, we all need constructive criticism and feedback at some stage.
 
I am reminded of a comment +Steve Wheeler made about blogging that restricting it is like going to a party with a paper bag on your head. To add to that, I think that a blog that doesn’t open itself to readers is like going to a party with only one person. Although a blog is usually written by one person, it is the community which legitimises it. Whether it be adding a different perspective or providing push back. For example, I always love when +Richard Olsen writes back to my posts, questioning all those aspects and ideas that I take for granted.
 
To me, there will always be a need for an instigator, someone to stock the fire occasionally, keep it burning, but whether this needs to be a teacher or leader I am not so sure. I am really intrigued by the idea of guest hosted accounts such as @edutweetoz and @vicpln which are voices rotated throughout the online community. In the end, what needs to change is putting learning at the heart of education. In this environment everyone has their part to play. If we all see ourselves as learners then surely that is most of the job done.

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I have recently been posting a bit about the ideas of right and wrong, and how it really comes down to a question of choice and consequences. After a few discussions with some friends, it got me thinking that maybe it is choice, but also something else as well as. Focusing on choice allows us to come to some understanding of the situation, but it does not necessarily explain how we got to that particular situation and why some choices win out over others.

I was recently given some inadvertent feedback which made me come back to this topic. Some of my students wrote a scathing review of my subject from first semester for their school yearbook. Although I had sought their feedback and suggestions at the time, the review that they provided, for whatever reason, was different to the information that they had provided at the time. Clearly, there are many ways of interpreting this situation. Maybe they wrote this because they thought that it was funny? Maybe it is a reflection of poor teacher-student relationships, a product of a lack of rapport with the students or the class as a whole? Maybe the solitary voice of the review did not represent the whole class and it was just chance? Maybe my attempts to do things different, to get students involved, to get students driving the lessons, rather than merely chalk and talk, had its downside? Maybe the students did not feel comfortable in giving me what they felt would be honest feedback? Maybe the questions that I gave them did not allow them to give me the specific feedback in question. Whatever the reason, it definitely left me in a state of self-reflection.
 
Some of the things that were pointed out in the review were what I considered my strengths. When I arrived at the school a few years ago, there was a motto – “No Surprises”. Being quite a large school, spread across several campuses, one of the problems that occurred was that some things were seen as acceptable at one campus and not others, creating a sense of inconsistency. What the motto meant then was that there were no surprises for students and parents. So when students came into the classroom, they knew what was seen as acceptable, and when things such as the end of semester reports went home to parents, there were no shocks and inconsistencies. Since that time, the campuses have split apart and formed separate schools, but in many respects the motto still remains, at the very least it does for my own teaching. 

Whether it be in the yard or in the classroom, I try and create routines. I only need to holler ‘lining up time’ and the kids repeat it for me. If I walk into the classroom and by chance don’t have the title and learning intention clearly shown on the board, my students ask me what it is. If I need to speak with my classroom when they are on their laptops, I only need to tell them to close them to 45 degrees and they start shutting them and facing me. The dark side to all this is that sometimes students get bored of the mundane nature of routine. No matter that many of my habits and rituals were formed as solutions to past problems, there is always a danger that all students come to see in you in the end is a caricature. A parody where all that is remember are the absurdities.
Two things that stuck out in the review was that I always use Google Drive and that we supposedly did the same thing every week. I have had a long history with using Google Drive in the classroom, as I have posted about elsewhere. Basically, I came upon Google Drive as a solution to students losing their digital work on their laptops all the time, due to them being re-imaged or getting damaged. Another thing that I have introduced into my lessons is a focus on getting the students thinking and reflecting, rather than simply telling me what I already know. Associated with this refocus on the student are a range of activities that I use on a regular basis, such as collaborative brainstorming using Answergarden, getting students to pose their own questions to answer before exploring a topic or watching a video and completing a found out/made me think. I return to these habits again and again so that students can stop focusing on the how and the what and start focusing on the why. For learning at its heart should be about the learner, not the teacher teaching. The problem with this is that my students did not get past the what or the how and that is because sometimes the why needs to come first.

Although I may know why it was decided that we may be studying something, unless I properly sell this to the students, it is pointless. Even with all the blurbs, introductions, PMI’s and initial discussions, unless you provide plausible reason why something is worth learning about, there really should not be a surprise if students do not buy into it and find the learning boring. 

Maybe in the end, rather than who is right and wrong, it all comes down to who has the best sell. There are many factors that influence the ‘big sell’, such as charisma, power of persuasion, passion, good communication skills, support, friendship, uncomplicated narrative and what is the current status quo. The problem with the sell is that there is no recipe for how to successfully hook someone in. Sometimes it can be something innocuous, while other times it can take considerable time and effort. What is guaranteed is that if we don’t care to provide a reason why anyone should learn, we can’t really expect anyone to care in return.

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