Feedback….Knowing…Relationships - Steve Barkley


I attended an international schools workshop in Luxemburg with Dylan Wiliam who presented teaching strategies to increase student learning with formative assessment. One section of the workshop dealt with the role of feedback. Wiliam described that the research on feedback had great variance in results probably due to the fact that individuals respond differently to any feedback.



In an Education Leadership article, The Secret of Effective Feedback,  Wiliam states:

“The only thing that matters is what the student does with the feedback. If the feedback you’re giving your students is producing more of what you want, it’s probably good feedback. But if your feedback is getting you less of what you want, it probably needs to change. “

 As I listened to Wilam I considered that each comment he made regarding teachers’ feedback to impact student learning applied to coaches’ feedback to impact teacher learning, skill development and change.

In the same article he includes, “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.”

 Consider the application of these thoughts to coaching teachers:

Knowing is a critical element of effective coaching.  It’s why I place such importance on pre-conferencing conversations. When observing teachers without a pre-conference it is unlikely that the observer has sufficient” knowing” to make appropriate decisions about the kind of feedback most likely to gain positive teacher change.

Trust comes from the teacher knowing that the coach is working for the teacher. Without a pre-conference a coach misses the opportunity to clearly communicate that she is aware of what the teacher is committed to achieve and that this understanding will be key to the feedback the coach will provide.

These two elements reinforce my belief that trying to give feedback from walkthroughs is a difficult task. The walkthrough tends to look for the same data in each classroom and therefore isn’t personalized to the individual teacher. There isn’t an opportunity for the teacher to express a focus or purpose so trust in observer is hard to create.  I sense that it is best to keep the walkthrough as feedback to the school leadership that suggests common patterns or raises questions for more in depth exploration. (Earlier blog)

Grant Wiggins in an ASCD Educational Leadership article, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, describes the difference between feedback and advice.

You need more examples in your report.

You might want to use a lighter baseball bat.

You should have included some Essential Questions in your unit plan.

 These three statements are not feedback; they’re advice. Such advice out of the blue seems at best tangential and at worst unhelpful and annoying. Unless it is preceded by descriptive feedback, the natural response of the performer is to wonder, “Why are you suggesting this?”

 Wiggins identifies the problem with advice,” As coaches, teachers, and parents, we too often jump right to advice without first ensuring that the learner has sought, grasped, and tentatively accepted the feedback on which the advice is based.”

 It’s not uncommon for new teachers to receive conflicting advice from mentor, principal, and colleague. Giving advice too soon is a common mistake of new coaches and mentors. There is a desire to quickly solve a problem by offering suggestions (advise). This often puts the coach in a role of expert …someone to seek out when I have a problem, with an expectation that they will have the answer….or someone to avoid when I don’t want to be told that I should change.

We need your feedback

 Wiggins and Wiliam both offer ideas for engaging in the feedback process:

Wiggins- “… try asking the learner, “Given the feedback, do you have some ideas about how to improve?” This approach will build greater autonomy and confidence over the long haul. Once they are no longer rank novices, performers can often self-advise if asked to.” 

Wiliam- “… to your students. Ask them, “How are you using the feedback I’m giving to help you learn better?” If they can give you a good answer to that question, then your feedback is probably effective. And if they can’t, ask them what they would find useful. After all, they’re the clients.”

 When I am coaching I work to have the teacher identify, prior to the observation, the form of my feedback that she would find most helpful. Without that decision, my input later will be seen more supervisory than coaching. At times when the pre-observation conversation wasn’t an option, I begin a feedback conference with questions that help me personalize the feedback.

What feedback might you request from your teachers to allow you to assess your current feedback process?

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