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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Relationships: The Yin to Feedback’s Yang

By Lisa Westman — October 19, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

This week marks the kick-off of my school district’s second annual yearlong mini-conference; a progressive approach to professional development which grants teachers an opportunity to deepen their learning of a topic of their choice. I facilitate the cohort version of this conference. For better or worse, when teachers choose my course they are with me all year. Therefore, my goal is to ensure an engaging and worthwhile program.

As I prepared the first session of this year’s cohort, I had a flashback to last year when I received my class list. I immediately noticed my building’s Assistant Principal, Courtney Goodman, had signed up for my course. She would be a member of our cohort and “observe” me facilitate all thirteen hours of the professional learning I had planned. Even though Courtney and I had worked together for several years, when I initially saw her name on my roster, I was quite nervous.

Well, fast forward one year, and this time when I saw Courtney’s name on my class list, my initial response was, “YES!” The reason for the change in my reaction is simple; the feedback Courtney offered me throughout last year’s course proved invaluable. In fact, with each subsequent session, I looked forward to receiving her emails and having conversations about the sessions. Courtney’s feedback helped me go deeper in my facilitation, and her questions helped me reflect on both my participants’ and my outcomes. Additionally, having frequent opportunities to converse with Courtney strengthened our relationship.

One Sentence Can Change Our Learning
Recently, I heard a keynote speech by Jo Boaler (founder of Stanford University’s YouCubed and math mindset guru.). Boaler shared results from a recent study of high school students regarding feedback:

All of the students wrote essays and received critical diagnostic feedback from their teachers, but half the students received an extra sentence on the bottom of the feedback. The students who received the extra sentence achieved higher grades a year later, even though the teachers did not know who received the sentence and there were no other differences between the groups. It may seem incredible that one sentence could change students' learning trajectories to the extent that they achieve at higher levels a year later, with no other change, but this was the extra sentence,

I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you.”

The results of the study Boaler referenced provide another example of the correlation between relationships and feedback. As I work to apply my learning from John Hattie’s meta-analysis of highly effective instructional practices, what becomes more and more apparent is how effective influences work in conjunction, not isolation, to positively affect student achievement.

Feedback and student-teacher relationships rank amongst the practices with the highest effect sizes at .75 and .72 respectively (above a .4 is considered effective). (Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers)

Statements like “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” contribute to a safe environment where mistakes are considered opportunities to learn. Students know the teacher is genuinely interested in their learning and therefore quickly build trusting relationships with them. When students (like all humans) trust and respect the person giving them feedback they are more likely to implement the comments.

In addition to a strong relationship, the feedback in it of itself must be considered. All feedback is not created equal. Feedback done right is reciprocal; it should enable the student to go deeper, and simultaneously inform the teacher’s next steps. Additionally, feedback only works when a goal is mutually established and understood by the teacher and student (you can read more about goal setting here). Once a goal is set the student must have a solid idea of what success looks like (success criteria) and the steps to achieve success. (learning intentions).

Hattie explains that there are four levels of feedback:

1) Feedback related to the task (for new learning/right or wrong)

2) Feedback related to the process (some degree of proficiency)

3) Feedback which promotes self-regulation (high degree of proficiency)

4) Feedback which elicits reflection

Additionally, quality feedback should answer one of three essential questions: Where am I going? How am I getting there? Where do I go next?

The level at which feedback is given will vary based on student need. As students delve deeper into their learning, the feedback should align accordingly to challenge and engage students appropriately.

Last year, my assistant principal gave me task feedback (participants were engaged...) however, she primarily gave me feedback at higher levels (I wonder how you can reiterate... to ensure a shared understanding...). This was the feedback pushed me. I never felt defensive or dismissive about the comments. I felt thankful. I valued what Courtney shared as I knew she cared about the learning of our participants and about my growth as an instructional coach.

Our students have similar needs. They also thrive when offered personalized feedback. For many teachers, providing this level of detail to students seems unattainable; doing so seemingly takes copious amounts of time. This is one reason the majority of teachers tend to give task-based feedback only (scores, grades, progress toward a standard, etc.). While task-based feedback is certainly necessary for students to set goals and get started, other levels of feedback are needed for students to go further in their learning.

Perhaps you have heard or even said something along the lines of, “I would like to provide this level of feedback, but, I don’t have enough time to do so.....” Well, you are not alone. “There just isn’t enough time” is a common sentiment amongst educators. In fact, a recent survey of 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 76% of teachers cited time as the thing they wanted most.

But, I am not sure time is what’s needed. Instead, we need to use our time differently. I often wonder, when we cut out giving feedback to “save time”, for what are we using that time? The answer, I believe, is to allow for more content coverage. But, this is like running in a hamster wheel. Students have a constant picture of where they are, but no path and no opportunity to go any further.

So, rather than concentrating on all the content that “needs” to be covered, shift the focus to assessing students’ current reality. Work with students to ensure they know where they need to go, strengthen your relationship with them along the way as you offer feedback at stopping points.

When students receive feedback suitable for their needs, they feel valued and are more likely to apply the given feedback. Ultimately, building relationships while providing targeted, actionable feedback will significantly increase the probability of student growth.

While changing the way we provide feedback may seem like a difficult undertaking, remember, “The greater the challenge, the higher probability that one seeks and needs feedback” (Hattie 21). Collaborate with a trusted instructional coach, colleague, or administrator. Or, reach out to me. I am happy to provide more information, examples, direction, and feedback.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

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.