Be Better: Rethinking Feedback

9 Jan

A big mistake many of us in education make is to equate “feedback” on our work with judgment of our work. There’s good reason for why we do this: most of the feedback we get as educators comes in the form of performance evaluation — there is a prescribed set of criteria against which we get rated by our supervisors during class observations. But we should by no means think that this and this alone is “feedback” — it’s only one very narrow, very specific kind of feedback. In fact, I think this erroneous thinking gives “feedback” an undeserved bad name, because most of us equate it with that nerve-wracking experience of having a supervisor come in and judge our performance, and (let’s be honest) more often than not, little is really learned from this experience, especially if it only happens once a year.

This isn’t the meaning or purpose of feedback at all. Feedback is a dialogue. It’s a mirror. It’s an answer to the questions you have specifically about how to take your craft to the next level. Feedback is an opportunity for growth. Unfortunately, so few school systems seem designed to foster and promote opportunities for authentic, meaningful feedback for teachers and administrators. So many of the blog posts and articles on feedback I read, from both the education and business sectors, focus on how leaders can give feedback better, but we are missing the point entirely about feedback if we continue to think of it primarily as something that supervisors dole out to their charges.

Early in my career I had the wonderful fortune to take a teaching assignment at an international school in Hong Kong where I learned more in a year than I think I have in the whole decade since. One of the coolest things I learned there was the true nature and purpose of feedback. Instead of having a supervisor come in and observe my teaching, fill out a form, and provide me with some cursory comments, every member of the department was paired up with another, and we were expected to observe our feedback partner a minimum of three times per year. These observation and feedback sessions included sit-down discussions of our goals prior to the observation, and follow-up and feedback after.

My colleague, Kelley, and I were paired up, and I remember a distinct moment during our first post-observation feedback when the lightbulb went off for me: we were having this open, honest conversation about what had gone well and what could be improved, and I realized that it was entirely unlike any feedback session I’d ever had before. Something was missing. That something was anxiety. There was none. It was a totally authentic discussion about how my goals had not fully been reached based on my learning objectives, and we strategized ways that I might try another approach. But the whole conversation just felt so free and open — no worries or fears that she wouldn’t like my performance or rate me down, simply because there was no performance rating to be done. The sole purpose was feedback, not ranking, and this was accomplished beautifully by pairing up two colleagues in the same “rank.” I got more valuable feedback on my work, answers to my questions, and brainstormed solutions in that one session than I have gotten from supervisors combined in the whole decade since. The reason isn’t because my supervisors give bad feedback, but it’s because the design of the process is so inherently different. Supervisor evaluations are usually designed to ensure a kind of quality control check, whereas colleagues working together as learning coaches is designed to promote growth via authentic feedback.

And let’s not forget the other benefit of this style of feedback: I got to see several of her classes that year, and those of us who’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on a colleague’s classes know that they are often some of the best, most practical, and cheapest (free!) professional growth opportunities available. Watching Kelley interact with her students, try innovative assessment approaches, and teach familiar texts in new ways expanded my thinking about teaching and learning and set off a flurry of ideas in my brain about how I might adapt some of her approaches to fit my course needs.

Interestingly enough, there was never any supervisor at the end of the process asking to check off on our forms or judging our work as a team. We were simply expected to schedule the observations throughout the year at convenient times for us and carry them out, and we did. I think this also really helped shape the process, because it didn’t feel like another judgment of our work from above — it was a tool for us to use, and we took that seriously and used it to our advantage.

As a result of this experience, I have come up with my own series of feedback forms for colleagues who would like to try this feedback team approach, and they are available here MbD – MbC – FeedbackForm12&3. My only caveat is that they can seem a bit long — this is just the model that works for me; I’m highly verbal and like to write down all my ideas extensively (secretly I just really love filling out forms). So I’ve stipulated at the top that this process should not be arduous or another one of those “just-write-down-whatever-so-the-higher-ups-see-something-filled-in-and-get-off-our-backs” things. Working as a feedback team is really all about getting someone to give you the honest feedback you need to confirm your suspicions about what you do well and what you need to improve on, and be a sounding board and a source of inspiration for how you might move closer to your teaching/admin goals. So, by all means, use/adapt/edit/truncate the forms as you see fit. Do what works for you; if that means not writing anything down but going through all the useful prompts verbally, then go ahead and do that. It’s about making this kind of feedback work for you, not just ticking off another box on your to-do list.

If you aren’t able to work in feedback teams, you might try another humbling but helpful activity: filming your class and watching it, or ask a colleague friend to watch it with you and help point out some interesting obeservations. When I do this, I’m surprised by what I see on the footage that I didn’t see during the class — those students there in the corner zoned out, not engaged — how had I missed that? I only seemed to see the kids in front of me, attentive and interactive. Or how much I talk and cut kids off? Yeesh. Do I always do that?

Feedback is a popular buzzword in education right now, but I think we’ve misunderstood its true purpose and have mistaken it for performance evaluation. For sure this is one aspect of feedback, but it’s only one facet, and I’d argue that it’s often the least helpful kind of the three mentioned here. While there is a crucial place for performance evaluation and feedback by supervisors, there is an equally or more crucial place for peer-to-peer feedback and dialogue and self-assessment because of their inherent purpose: to provide feedback against teacher goals for learning/teaching in a non-judgmental format.

Imagine your school with every teacher engaged in a feedback team, tasked with observing and being observed at least twice a year. The conversation, creativity, and collaboration that develops out of this model is worth a dozen PD sessions. Try it — find a willing partner, department, or grade level and see what kind of results you get. I’m willing to bet that you’ll never again think of feedback as anything less than an ongoing, open dialogue — as it should be.



4 Responses to “Be Better: Rethinking Feedback”

  1. Scott MacClintic (@Smacclintic) January 10, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    Wonderful post Alexis! I could not agree more with several points. The value of REAL feedback absent evaluation is hugely beneficial and does not happen nearly enough. I am fortunate enough to team teach with a wonderful colleague every day so we engage in the types of discussions you mention every day. Has been the single best thing for me as a teacher. I sat in on a colleague’s class today before she has her “formal” evaluation and am about to send her a note. Your thoughts and ideas will help me craft my feedback to be certain. Thanks.

    • alexisswiggins January 10, 2013 at 2:58 am #

      I totally agree, Scott. Team teaching is an amazing way to grow and challenge yourself professionally. At that same school in Hong Kong, our humanities department (ELA, history, and religion) taught half the courses in teams and I was paired up with a veteran history teacher, George. To this day much of my teaching is infused with lessons I learned from George — I can’t say enough about how great that experience was. I wish more schools had the creativity, budget, and drive to experiment with team teaching. Glad you liked the post — thanks for sharing.

  2. Stacy Stephens January 11, 2013 at 4:24 am #

    Alexis, great post and so right on target. And like so many things in education is it so easy and simple, it is sort of a duh so why don’t we do it more often? I had a similar experience at my first international school and 12 years later I still reference it when I am asked (now in an administrative position) what I think works in teacher evaluation, however…still have not seen it systematically implemented in a school that I would in. I did however forward your post to several others. Maybe this time!

    • alexisswiggins January 11, 2013 at 4:36 am #

      That’s great, Stacy. I absolutely love the power of new technology in education for the purpose of sharing and spreading best practices. I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of it. Let me know more if anyone you know at your school or other schools implements this on a broad scale — would love to see more examples of it and hear how it works.

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