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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Delivering Effective Feedback ... to Everyone

By Peter DeWitt — October 21, 2013 5 min read
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As a learner, what is your goal every day? As teachers or school leaders we should always have a goal. Maybe we want to provide more inquiry-based lesson opportunities...or we have a student who seems to meltdown at certain times during the day and we are trying to find proactive ways to get him to stop.

What about our students? What are their goals as they walk into our classroom...or school? Do we care about what they want to learn...or what they know already? Or do we mostly care about what we think they will need to get jobs that “do not exist yet?”

Our students certainly have goals. At home, they may want to get a new level with one of their games. In sports they may want more hits when they are up to bat, or lower their 5K personal record (PR) in a cross-country race. Hopefully many of our students also want to increase their reading or comprehension level, or learn more about a certain subject.

The reality is that we should all care about learning, because when we have students who don’t, we are losing someone with great potential. And it’s effective feedback that will get us to engage those students.

Effective feedback should be one of our greatest goals when it comes to teaching or school leadership. Clearly, we should always care about safety, social-emotional learning, and physical health, but stretching the learning of students, teachers and school leaders through effective feedback is something we should strive to do all year long. Unfortunately we are so busy doing the million things during the day we are tasked to do that we do not always get a chance to offer feedback.

What, When, How and Why of Feedback

As much as we all want to hear “Nice job” or “Well done” that is not feedback. Its praise, which is important but it will not help us reach the next level. Feedback is about setting goals, even with our youngest students, and working toward meeting those goals. But even our youngest students come in with very different experiences. Some lack vocabulary while others live in a household where families often went on trips to museums and other destinations.

The hardest part of being a teacher or school leader is to know what each learner needs because everyone, including adults, enters with a set of skills that may be different than their peers. David Ausubel once said, “If I had to reduce all of the educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly.’ (1968). Students may be given the same task but may have to go about solving it differently.

So how do we know what the learner knows?

It’s through feedback that we learn. That feedback has to be an exchange between the student and teacher. Through those exchanges teachers can get a better understanding of what the student knows already and can move forward on stretching that learning.

Hattie says,

The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student; thus the key ingredients are being aware of the learning intentions, knowing when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, having sufficient understanding of the student's prior understanding as he or she comes to the task, and knowing enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is some sort of progressive development" (p.19).

That constant pursuit of learning can be both a challenge and fun, but there needs to be a goal in mind. This is what makes teaching and school leadership so difficult...but also very exciting. Hattie goes on to say,

The most fundamental component of teaching is imparting information to students, assessing and evaluating the students understanding of this information, and then matching the next teaching act to the present understandings of the student."

In our present times when we can find anything we want in a search engine, how will we as educators help students, teachers and leaders focus on an authentic goal and help them reach that goal and perhaps even surpass it? Just like any good learning lesson, failure comes with feedback. We make mistakes and learn from them.

What are the common mistakes we make?

In a forthcoming interview for Vanguard Magazine (SAANYS) Grant Wiggins said, “The most common mistake is when educators fail to link the feedback to a specific agreed upon goal.” Learning has to have both short-term and long term goals. The short term goal is to work with students to stretch their learning around a agreed upon area, and the long term goal is to inspire them to keep trying to improve their learning...regardless of what career path they take.

Effective Feedback to Teachers

But do school leaders provide effective feedback to teachers in a time when it is needed so much in this era of accountability? The bottom line is that accountability and mandates should not be the reason we all engage in feedback. It’s all about continuous improvement, but leaders do not always provide the feedback teachers need.

School leaders often make the same type of mistakes regarding feedback. They give praise or advice when feedback is needed. Wiggins went on to say, “When there is a short time frame the administrators fall into the trap of giving advice and not feedback. Administrators are busy and they feel as if they want to be useful, and to the novice administrator that means giving advice.”

Where school leaders providing feedback to teachers is concerned, feedback needs to be provided around an agreed-upon goal. For example, they may want to increase the amount of student autonomy in the classroom, or figure out how to use more hands-on science lessons in class when they are concerned about their class size. They may need feedback in increasing the success of small literacy rotations or breaking through a difficult math concept with a struggling group of students.

School leaders don’t need to give advice. They need to provide specific examples that will help teachers meet their goals. The feedback provided can be simple and concrete, and schools leaders can offer follow up videos (Teacher Channel) or links to articles and blogs that will provide additional examples. In the end, it all goes back to the agreed upon goal. In Seven Keys to Effective Feedback (ASCD) Grant Wiggins provided the following essentials to effective feedback to students, teachers and school leaders. It needs to be:

  • Goal-Referenced

  • Tangible and Transparent

  • Actionable

  • User-Friendly

  • Timely

  • Ongoing

  • Consistent

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DeWitt, Peter (2013). Fostering Growth: The Importance of Effective Feedback. Vanguard Magazine. School Administrators Association of New York State.

Hattie, John (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Routledge.

Wiggins, Grant (2012) Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. September 2012. Volume 70. Number 1. Feedback for Learning Pages 10-16. Educational Leadership. ASCD. Arlington, VA.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.