We Still Don’t Know What Feedback Works: Bonus Track

I wrote a piece about research on feedback — how it’s helped me, how it hasn’t — for the Learning Scientists blog. I worked hard on the piece, you should go read it. I also had a great time working with Megan and Yana — both learning science researchers — who run the Learning Scientists blog, and you should check out their work too.

Over at their blog, I make an argument that research on feedback has not, so far, been able to make real recommendations for the classroom. This is inherent in the way the work has been done — mostly in lab settings. Laboratory work usually simulates classroom environments where feedback is occasional, spotty, and easy to identify. Most k-12 classrooms — even ones with mediocre teaching — are knotty webs of interaction. Our classrooms are rich with feedback.

Our question isn’t whether or how to give feedback. After all, we’re going to give lots of verbal feedback, and every teacher ends up giving written feedback too. Sometimes we give immediate feedback; other times its delayed. We respond to so many ideas and actions that, in teaching, we end up giving a little bit of everything, when it comes to feedback. The question is: how do we structure all this feedback so that it actually helps learning? What form should it take, and what routines can help us give feedback that advances learning?

Go read the piece! It’s not long.

There was something else I had to say about this, but it didn’t belong in the piece. It’s about whether “feedback” is the right thing for us all to be talking about in the first place.

After all, there was a time before people talked about giving or receiving feedback. It’s a relatively recent development, actually. Check out the term’s frequency in the Google database:

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The term originated in engineering contexts, and was only brought into education (and wider usage) later. Here’s Dylan Wiliam on the early history of the term:

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Jumping ahead a bit, Wiliam argues that the move from engineering to education was not an entirely smooth one:

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It’s been a while since I revisited this, there was a time when I was able to convince myself (mostly through Google Book searches, admittedly) that it was Skinner and the Behaviorists (solid band name) that helped shepherd the term into wider usage. Skinner’s version of feedback functioned a great deal as feedback does in engineering.  Feedback, for Skinner involved a bit of pain, a bit of pleasure, slowly conditioning a rat or person towards some greater truth. In these sorts of settings, yes, it makes some sense to talk about feedback all on its own. Learning has been immensely simplified into a positive or a negative association, so talk of feedback is clear and distinct. There is not major ambiguity as to what we are talking about.

In a classroom, though? If a teacher tells me that he “gave students some feedback” that could mean they did any of the following things: graded and returned their work; had a conversation one-on-one about an assignment; yelled at a kid for crossing a line; explained in a whole-class setting why a certain common answer was wrong; wrote a comment on a paper, without a grade; praised an answer; praised a person; sent a report card. And then we ask, “What’s the most effective way to give feedback?”

This is insane, and ultimately untenable. We can’t talk about how to give effective feedback for the same reason we can’t talk about how to effectively build a table.

What I’m putting my hopes into — and I said this at the end of my Learning Scientists piece — is in expanding the lens through which we look at feedback. If we are interested in creating opportunities for rich interactions between teacher and student that help learning, we need to describe whole routines of instruction that create these moments. The moment of feedback is a part of these routines, but the only way to make sense of them is to consider them as bits in entire movements of teaching. (Feedback is just an aria.)

Am I the only person to point this out? Hardly. I’ve borrowed this rant from others. Check out Kluger and DenisiValerie Shute, or Dylan Wiliam. They all call for expanding the scope of what we study — formative assessment, or feedback for learning, or formative feedback or whatever, but we have to study something more substantial than just feedback.

This is all pretty theoretical (see why it got cut?) but practically, here’s what it means: if someone tells you how to give effective feedback, do not believe them. Instead, try to find the larger routine where that effective feedback might thrive.


Best of 2016 (Q1)

If we’re going to have a book compilation of best posts at the end of the year, then I had better be a bit more scrupulous about collecting my favorite posts. Here are posts that I especially loved in January through March.

In Defense of Unsexy – Kate Nowak

We need you. Your kinda-lame-but-seems-to-do-the-trick exponent rule investigation is going to make you somebody’s superhero.

What I’m Looking For – Joe Schwartz

I’m often asked, “What do you look for when choosing a game or activity to bring to a class?”  Once it passes through the first, most important test of might a kid who doesn’t like math find thisengaging, I look for its potential to be extended or repurposed.

Lessons from Bowen and Darryl – Ben Blum-Smith

The biggest takeaway for me was how exceedingly careful they are with people talking to the whole room. First of all, in classes that are 2 hours a day, full group discussions are always 10 minutes or less. Secondly, when students are talking to the room it is always students that Bowen and Darryl have preselected to present a specific idea they have already thought about. They never ask for hands, and they never cold-call. This means they already know more or less what the students are going to say.

Why I am Not Quitting Teaching – Anne Schwartz

I have decided today like I decided every other day for the past 6 years not to quit teaching.  I am courageously sharing my decision to wake up tomorrow and walk back in to my classroom where 32-40 mostly sleepy faces will greet me with the love and affection of a grunt as I smile and hold open the door.

an evolution of my reaction to other people’s reactions when they learn i am a math teacher – Rachel Kernodle

I struggled with the way my woman-ness, and often my specific physical appearance, was commented upon – as though it is inherently strange or special for a young woman to have a passion for mathematics and still look like a woman. Men usually take it to a really uncomfortable place – “If I had a teacher like you, I wouldn’t have been able to focus in class.” “How do you handle the teenage boys in your class?” “I bet all of your male students have a crush on you.” I still have no scripted reaction to this category of remarks. It always leaves me feeling small, uncomfortable.

speaking of what names evoke… – Grace Chen

In this scenario, I have to write four characters: two colleagues, who are played by actors, and a principal and a student, who are referenced but not present in the interaction. And I have to name these four characters, and in doing so, either evoke or avoid particular stereotypes and assumptions about who they might be and how they might be. I could choose racially coded names that imply a particular background– and cast an actor who represents that background, or one who doesn’t in order to intentionally subvert expectations– or choose racially ambiguous names that could be read multiple ways– which leaves them open to interpretation (read: likely to be assumed White or, if the character is, say, a student in a low-income urban school who gets in trouble a lot, likely to be assumed Black or Latino) and subject to the pre-service teachers’ stereotypes and biases.

Test Run on Standards-Based Grading – Kent Haines

So I emerge from this process more skeptical of standards-based grading. But I am EVEN more skeptical of my current grading system. Yes, there are flaws in any grading system. But every time I encountered a flaw in standards-based grading, I thought “Well, does my current system address that problem any better?” The answer was usually no.

Professional Development is Broken But Be Careful How We Fix It – Ilana Horn

There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Ratios, Rates and Proportional Reasoning – Anna (A Nomadic Teacher)

I realized that my students had not been able to connect all of these situations and see the relationships between them. My goal had been to let them develop reasoning skills, looking at relationships, and connecting visual patterns to expressions in order to be able to formalize their explorations in the coming grades, but seeing them struggle with the knitting problem, I thought, how can I help them connect the visual patterns to a situation like the knitting problem?

I’d love to read your favorite posts of the past few months.

Little Things

Stand still when giving directions. Try your hardest not to shush anyone during directions — it makes it harder to hear.

Feedback comments should connect to something. And they should be very brief, like slogans. (Or, at least, that’s one way that comments can work.)

Don’t introduce two similar things at the same time. Pi-r-squared and 2-pi-r should happen on different days, different weeks. One at a time.

I want to make little flashcards for myself, to get better at solving tough geometry problems. On one side is a diagram, on the other is all the auxiliary lines you need to find the answer.

Oh shoot, there were a few other things knocking around in my head lately. Uhhh.

Writing a few bits of directions for later on the board is a decent use of class. Obviously, it’s better to do that before the bell, if possible. But having a visual of instructions is beneficial. (I bet there’s a benefit to having these instructions in physically different parts of a board, rather than on a slide. That’s just a guess.)

Sometimes what’s fun about teaching is the big things, but the last few weeks have been about the little stuff for me.