The Weight of Feedback

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We spend boatloads of time in education circles talking about feedback.  We talk about how important feedback is both for teachers, for students, and for parents.  We talk about giving time for reflection so kids can process our feedback.  We talk about what is good actionable feedback that drives learning, and we talk about feedback that can be seen as a waste of words.  We talk about how to uplift our students and we talk about how to give our students opportunities to work through their failures.  We talk about feedback a lot.

Those of you who have taught any part of the essay writing process in any discipline know the frustration teachers have with giving feedback.  We spend hours writing feedback so that kids will take our feedback and make their work better.  Few actually read that feedback, and even when given opportunities to reflect on the feedback, we will see few results.

Being an English and History teacher, I know the soul crushing weight of giving feedback.  15 to 20 minutes per paper times 40 or more papers would equal how much time giving feedback? I’m sure there have also been times that I have been guilty of crushing my students with an excessive amount of feedback on their work.  There is always that paranoid part of me that thinks, “If I don’t say it all now, they will come back after the final grade and say, BUT YOU NEVER TOLD ME TO FIX THAT!”

Feedback is a two-way street.  You have to learn to give it, and you need to learn to receive it.  You have to know what to say, you have to know what is important for right now to drive student learning forward, and you have to know what to keep quiet about.  And kids need to have more experience using feedback to move their learning forward.  Students need to take the responsibility of learning on themselves, and rely more on their own instincts, rather than always relying on us to tell them what is wrong or right about what they have done.  It is a fine balance.

This problem of feedback was shown to me in a glaring example when I went out with my father and my daughter to play golf.  She is a tween, and has only swung a club a few times in her life.  My father, an accomplished 3 season coach during his career, began offering his instruction and feedback.  My daughter couldn’t take it.  He kept repeating various examples of what was wrong and he kept repeating what she needed to do to make it right.  When she couldn’t do it after many tries, she started to cry.

I explained that there IS crying in golf. (unlike baseball) I have cried numerous times when I was so frustrated by my efforts.  Crying is a great release of tension and usually helps be sluff off the bad and move on with the good.  And then I remembered what my dad had told me before we went out to play after a particularly hard lesson with my golf instructor.  I gave her a hug and said, “I think we are done.  You have lots of great feedback from Grandpa.  Now let’s go out and play.  But instead of trying to remember everything Grandpa told you, I want you to only focus on addressing the ball.  Put the club next to the ball, almost touching it.  Aim your body, feet, and club in the right direction, and swing.”

After a couple of holes, she began to be happy with her successes and didn’t get bogged down by her mistakes.  She only had to concentrate on one thing, she didn’t get bogged down in the parts that were unsuccessful.  She started to swing the club better and begin to see what was working and what was not working.  And she had to remember that this is a long process.  It takes years and lots of practice to become a decent golfer.  The point isn’t to be amazing, it is to enjoy the journey of trying to better your score each time.

I hope I remember this lesson when I start grading my student paragraphs this week.  The point isn’t to spend 15 minutes giving as much feedback as possible.  The point is to offer feedback of one to two things that will help right now to move the student forward. Yet at the same time we need to teach kids and parents that this is a process.  This isn’t about what 2 things need to be done to get a 7. It is about how do we help the student/your child progress, even if that means progress might be the same grade as last time.

My daughter loved her time out there once she began to have a bit of success.  What will I say to her on our next outing?  Use your wedge only in the fairway. Why use clubs you can’t hit, when you know you can move forward with the wedge?  Once you get really excellent with the wedge, then we can pull out the longer clubs for a new challenge.

If only History and English were that easy to teach in the current framework of a typical school.  Imagine saying to a kid, once you get really good at this concept, we will move forward, you aren’t behind, you are right where you need to be.  Imagine teaching to every individual child.  Imagine if I worked students toward competencies and outcomes instead of grades.  Imagine…

Enough of that.  I think I need to take my own advice.  Focus on one thing.  Just one thing.

Categories: Education

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