Saturday, February 2, 2013

feedback - some readings and some questions

I try to read as much as possible, and I generally process the reading through writing. I don’t always offer it up here, on the school blog, but this is one of those times when I will.

At the beginning of the year, teachers were notified that we would be trained in the SPS Learning Model, which seems to be highly founded upon the work of John Hattie in his book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. We were also given Hattie’s follow up book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. I haven’t been able to read all of Visible Learning for Teachers, or I guess I should say that I haven’t chosen to spend my time reading it, since I do choose to read other books. Nonetheless, one of the ways that we as a school have decided to maximize our impact on learning is through implementing various feedback strategies.

Feedback was a term that I had previously heard bandied about, but now it has become ubiquitous in use, even among students. Rather than asking for “student input” or “ideas,” and rather than offering up “things to think about” or “redirecting,” we asked students for “feedback” and provided our own “feedback” to the students. I guess I have to admit that it came as a pretty significant surprise that teachers would be seeking feedback from students on a regular basis, regarding skills students had not learned yet or processes in which students were not practiced.

I’ll be honest, in all of the books that I have read that address feedback, I haven’t come across any that consider students or learners offering feedback to teachers or instructors. Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better and Getting Better by Doug Lemov, Katie Yezzi, and Erica Woolway, has a whole section dedicated to feedback, but not once can I recall feedback going from student to teacher. Geoff Colvin, in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, writes about feedback from a chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, a business mentor, within a music model regarding practice, but never from a student to teacher.

I also regularly check the Harvard Business Review website for interesting blog articles. On Friday, after 3.5 hours of professional learning, much on the topic of feedback, I found a blog on that same subject: “Sometimes Negative Feedback is Best” by Heidi Grant Halvorson. In the blog, Dr. Halvorson references studies by Stacey Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach. Finkelstein and Fishbach’s research on feedback is very instructive to me, and Dr. Halvorson does a great job of boiling down the most important parts. From her Harvard Business Review blog post:

Positive feedback (e.g., Here's what you did really well....) increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence. Negative feedback (e.g., Here's where you went wrong....), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.

When you don't really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it's negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

Here’s something pretty funny. When I was reading the original blog post, I stopped immediately when I saw the reference to the research by Finkelstein and Fishbach. I love research, and I love going to original sources. So that’s what I did. I googled “Stacey Finkelstein” and found her school homepage, which had links to three papers she had coauthored on feedback. I’ve only read one of the papers, “How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit,” which she coauthored with Ayelet Fishbach and Tal Eyal. And this isn’t even the paper that Dr. Halvorson references.

So I didn’t even finish the blog until after I had read the paper that wasn’t even referenced therein. That’s pretty funny, if you ask me. But other than being funny, it makes me think I need to approach feedback differently, when discussing, conferencing, and scoring my student work.

Here’s a bit of my internal dialogue after finally finishing reading both articles:

  • Are my students always novices? If so, should I never give negative feedback?
    • Most students are novices in the skills I’m practicing with them. My philosophy, and my students should know this, is that we’re NEVER FINISHED reading, writing, or practicing the many different skills utilized while reading or writing.  
    • By 8th grade, most students are experts at being students. They know how to “do” school really well. Some of them do school really well by showing they’re really smart. Some of them do school really well by showing they’re really good students. Some of them do school really well by showing they’re really good athletes. Some of them do school really well by showing they’re really good at having friends and entertaining people. In all of these situations, they’re experts at school.   
    • If I know a student is a novice in a certain situation—combining sentences, forming the structure of haiku, analyzing an argument—then I should probably not give negative feedback. Yeah, that makes sense. If I have a new student who doesn’t know how to use the system at our school for checking out books in the library, then they’re a novice. Negative feedback won’t work in that situation.
  • Are my students ever experts? Is this how I can justify giving negative feedback?  
    • See bullet two from previous questions.   
    • Sometimes, some students are experts at a skill while others are still novices. That’s why we also receive training in differentiated instruction, although it seems that idea isn’t as popular as it used to be. So, those students who are experts seem to need negative feedback, and also seem to be able to handle it.   
    • I guess if I’m unsure, I probably shouldn’t give negative feedback.   
    • What’s it take to become an expert? When is the transition from novice to expert? Is it visible? Or audible?
  • Seriously, what is feedback?   
    • Sometimes, I think I just teach. This looks and sounds different depending upon lots of factors. It always has the same goal, or desired end result, but it doesn’t always follow the same process, or predictable means.   
    • Sometimes I have to grade, even though I call it “scoring.” And when I score, I identify what students have done well and what they have done incorrectly. I recognize the cool stuff with smiley faces or check marks or positive comments. I point to the incorrect stuff with circles and arrows, and then I write how to fix the problem.   
    • Sometimes, unfortunately, when a student is doing something distracting or problematic in the classroom, I have to correct. I usually want this to happen privately, one on one, but it’s not always that way. A lot of times I’m pretty sure the students know what the right thing to do is, they just happened to have stopped thinking, because they’re 14. When I was 14 I often stopped thinking too. They, just like I did, sometimes need someone to snap them out of that loop so they can realize what’s going on. Usually, then, they can get things together.    
    • So, seriously, what is feedback? Is all that feedback? If it is, then this whole thing feels like some greedy teacher/administrator/writer/editor guy looking to make some money before retirement, so he comes up with a new phrase that everybody trendy now wants to use. Is none of it feedback? If that’s the case, then I’ve missed something terribly.
  • How come my school keeps emphasizing that I need to get feedback from my students, but nobody is writing about that? Is that really a thing? Or is this just another name for CQI?    
    • I don’t know how to answer this one. Certainly it must be a thing, because I guess Hattie may have written about it, and a big school district wouldn’t just make up something, just because.   
    • I’ve heard people talk about this CQI connection, but I’m not sure what to make of it. I guess I’m naïve and believe that dressing the wolf in sheep’s clothing is a cheap way to achieve anything. 


Anonymous said...

I am a new 8th grader just wanted to say AMAZING so far:)

Jessyka G said...

Hey Mr.Maerke, just wanted to say that you are a GREAT teacher:)