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:

Screenshot 2016-03-29 at 3.12.11 PM

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:

Screenshot 2016-03-29 at 2.53.01 PM.png

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

Screenshot 2016-03-29 at 2.55.26 PM.png

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.

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