Is Feedback A Chore?

But Wiliam offers two pieces of guidance that I think can create an effective, practical framework for using comments-only feedback.

  1. Students should do something with the feedback — and if it’s important to us, we should prioritize instructional time for them to do so.
  2. Opportunities for feedback should be structured such that the feedback is transferable beyond the task itself.

This framework suggests that much of the feedback I give is ineffective. If I don’t prioritize instructional time for students to respond to it, students who most need that feedback are unlikely to make effective use of it. And many tasks that I give feedback on are unlikely to lead to transferable learning, instead focusing student attention on concrete features of the task that will not support their learning in the future.

This is from Dylan Kane, who is one of the best classroom bloggers out there.

I’ve been grappling with the same issues Dylan brings up. I’ve recently written three pieces that try to get at my current approach. They also are my attempt to grapple with the limitations of research on feedback.

Feedback – We Still Don’t Know What Works

We Still Don’t Know What Works: Bonus Track

Beyond “Better-Luck-Next-Time” Feedback

Dylan’s post captures the idea that giving feedback is a chore, a regiment like dieting that we can discipline ourselves to keep. This attitude makes a lot of sense if feedback is an instructional “add-on,” something that goes over and above teaching. It’s extra, unnecessary, but (somehow) crucial.

My view is that it’s far more helpful to think about teaching routines that more naturally feature feedback, but are something more than “giving feedback.” This year I’ve nailed down one such routine in which written comments are just one helpful component: I give feedback to the class via an activity, and then use comments to connect that general, transferable lesson to my kids’ specific work.

It’s also my view that current research on feedback treats it like an “add-on.” I might be wrong, but I think that this is partly due to the lineage of “feedback.” It entered our lexicon through research on learning that did not grapple with classroom contexts. We teachers need to get better at expressing a view of the work that is truer to the work. When feedback is just slapped on to our teaching, it feels like a chore because it is a chore, because it’s sole purpose is to justify our judgement.

Is feedback good for learning? Are pencils good for learning? Feedback is the wrong thing to focus on. The right thing to focus on are the patterns of our teaching that we keep coming back to. Some of these involve written comments, others don’t.

Ultimately, we might need to stop thinking in terms of feedback. Meanwhile, we should look for routines that don’t make writing comments feel like a burden.


Only Within Its Own Context

De Waal argues that we should attempt to understand a species’ intelligence only within its own context, or umwelt: the animal’s “self-centered subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds.” There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. “It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about,” de Waal writes. (A squirrel’s life is about remembering where it stored its nuts; its intelligence is geospatial intelligence.) And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth. For example, they’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.) They’ve performed the ­famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror. Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.