Exploring Feedback

Chapter Seven in The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, by John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh is titled Creating the Right Context for Feedback. In this chapter, the authors stress that creating an environment for growing and learning means a focus on learning how to receive and give feedback positively.

I have written previously about feedback in teaching, coaching and leading (See: Feedback for Students and Teachers, Feedback: Knowing Relationships, and Feedback from Coaching.) Reading through this chapter, I was reminded of the consciousness we must have as providers and receivers of feedback. What does the term “feedback” mean?  What is my purpose for giving or requesting feedback? These are important questions as feedback is interpreted in many different ways.

Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh describe two purposes of feedback (page 80):

  • Affirming – this feedback is reinforcing and supports current practice, suggesting more of or continued use of identified practice or thinking
  • Modifying – invites an alternative way of thinking or doing.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well , identify that feedback can provide appreciation, coaching, or evaluation …all of which satisfy a different set of human needs. (Read an excerpt.)

  • Appreciation –  is about relationship and human connection. “It says, “thank you” and conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.” “When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working. They don’t want advice. They want appreciation.”
  • Coaching – “The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, a particular practice, or that person’s appearance or personality.”
  • Evaluation – An assessment, ranking, or rating. “Your middle school report card, your time in the 5k, the blue ribbon awarded your cherry pie, the acceptance of your marriage proposal – these are all evaluations. Your performance review – “outperforms” or “meets expectations” or “needs improvement”– is an evaluation. And so is that nickname your team has for you when you’re not around.”

Joellen Killion in The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning  moves away from using the terms givers and receivers of feedback as those terms suggest that feedback is a product to be exchanged and that it is primarily unidirectional. Receivers are often passive recipients and givers and receivers hold different status.  Seeing feedback as a process rather than product, and learning as the primary purpose of feedback, she uses the terms learner (the person actively engaged and even directing the feedback process) and learning partner (someone supporting the learner in the feedback process).

Killion describes self-generated feedback that “promotes metacognition, reflection, construction of new knowledge, and deconstruction of that knowledge to question its meaning and application in diverse situations. When learning partners are engaged they serve as facilitators and listening partners, clarifying, probing, and summarizing the learner’s process. The learning partner is a process facilitator not a content expert. In fact, expertise can interfere as the coach forms his own perceptions about effective practice and wants to be helpful.”

Relationships are critical to effective feedback:

“To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.” (Dylan Wiliam)

“It doesn’t matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t let in, how they make sense of what they are hearing, and whether they choose to change.” (Stone and Heen)

“Feedback without goal setting, without a conversation about what might be an alternative way of thinking and behaving, is just information. Feedback is less helpful, even damaging, if it is just an exercise in getting something off one’s chest.” (Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh)

My experience suggests that conversation is the key to building relationships that promote the effective use of feedback. A quality pre-conference where I can listen, understand, and communicate support for a teacher’s desired student outcomes sets the stage for feedback in a post conference. In this, communication “feedback” is defined. By keeping that feedback understanding throughout the observation and post conference, trust is built into an ongoing coaching partnership.

Consider using this blog to engage in a conversation about feedback with your staff. Encourage individuals to share how they have experienced feedback in the past and what they believe would best support their current learning/growth efforts.

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