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Finding Common Ground

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

Who Needs Feedback Anyway?

By Peter DeWitt — July 31, 2014 4 min read
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Feedback is a two-way street with multiple avenues.

Feedback. It feels as though we hear so much about it, but what is it? In professional settings, the definition of feedback looks very different depending on who you talk to. Some believe that it is when a teacher talks at a student or a principal talks at a teacher. Someone “in charge” provides their opinion and walks away. Sometimes it may even be when the adult in charge offers their directive...and believe that is the only feedback they have to offer to staff.

Feedback is often given by someone with “authority” over someone who may not have much authority at all. And that is why the definition of feedback needs to change.

Over the past few years, feedback has seen an increase in importance. Not just because of accountability rules, but because it makes sense. Educators are all considered lifelong learners, and as much as we have seen critics demean teachers and leaders in the press, we know that most teachers and principals take their jobs seriously and want to improve their practices.

Personally, since Educational Leadership (ASCD) published their September 2012 edition focused on Feedback for Learning, I saw feedback in a whole new light, and I was not the only one. The interactions school leaders had with staff became less about praise (although praise is still important!), and it became more about differentiating their input to help them better meet the needs of students.

Feedback became something teachers focused on because they wanted to provide their students with the important information they needed so they would know what they were doing when an adult wasn’t around to help. Feedback helps enable students to become assessment capable, so they can follow their own path in learning.

Feedback for Learning

In Visible Learning (2009, 2012), John Hattie puts a major focus on the importance of effective feedback. Hattie believes, and has researched, how effective feedback can have a large and positive effect on learning in the classroom. Learning...is what we always need to focus on.

Educators have a hard job because they need to focus on social-emotional learning, which is harder with students coming from distressed backgrounds. They need to keep in mind the importance of play in the younger years, and they need to focus on using curriculum and standards that are age-appropriate. Most of all, they need to put learning at the center of their classroom and school environment.

John Hattie believes there are three types of feedback. They are:

Task - Distinguishing correct from incorrect answers. The point for teachers is to offer feedback that will help bring students from surface level knowledge to a deeper understanding.

Process - This type of feedback focuses on the relationships among ideas (Visible Learning). It provides students the opportunity to explicitly learn from their errors. This is difficult because students, and most adults, want to be given the right answers. Process feedback helps students build resiliency so they will hopefully get to the point where they know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

Self-regulation - Task and process feedback lead to this point. This type of feedback is more about monitoring learning, and it is exactly the point where students know what to do when they don’t know what to do. This is where they can move forward in their learning, even when an adult isn’t around to help them.

What About Praise!

Hey, everyone likes a little praise. If you cook dinner for someone special, you most likely want to hear how good it is rather than be provided the areas you need to correct in order to make it better. No matter who you are, there are times you would rather hear praise than be provided with constant feedback.

However, when it comes to improving practice, praise does very little to help. Saying “Good job” “Well done” or “Wow...that was really swell” does nothing to help move a person forward. It helps self-esteem, but doesn’t help you in your learning curve.

Over the years, we have given too much praise and not enough feedback. And when I saw “we” I mean me as well. I cringe at how many times I wrote “Great job!” on the top of a student’s paper without telling them why they did a great job, and how they could do better. When I used too much praise I was focusing on achievement and not on growth.

Praise focuses on a job well done, which is a form of achievement. Feedback focuses on what the person did right and how they could improve. That makes the focus on growth. As important as achievement is in our present education system, growth is what should be more important.

In the End

Feedback is critically important to our growth as practioners, and to the growth of our students. However, it is not just provided by someone with authority over another. Feedback should be seen as a way to level the playing field. Leaders can give it to teachers, and teachers can give it to students, but students and teachers should be able to provide feedback to those who provide it to them. Feedback is a two-way street with multiple avenues.

In the end, all schools should have a culture that fosters feedback. Does yours?

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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.