Friday, June 27, 2014

Questioning Wiggins' Definition of Feedback

Is this feedback or evaluation? From

Feedback vs. Evaluation

Imagine a baseball coach. The second basemen just struck out...again. After his at bat, the coach heads over to the player and puts her arm around his shoulder:
"Tommy, you haven't been hitting as well as you could've lately, amiright?"
Is this feedback? In a few places, Grant Wiggins argues that this is not feedback. Instead, this coach is offering an evaluation of the player's hitting. (See thisthat, and the other thing.)

So what would feedback to the struggling player look like? Feedback would be judgement-free and informative. It would call attention to facts of the matter that the hitter herself likely didn't notice. It would look like this:
"Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn't really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball."
Wiggins thinks that this is judgement-free. And there certainly is no explicit language indicating evaluation of the hitter. The coach could've lead with "That wasn't a great at-bat," but she didn't.  It's tempting to say that the coach is only providing the hitter with plain, value-neutral information. So where's the evaluation in the coach's feedback?

I think the evaluation is there, lurking in the background. After all, imagine what the batter is thinking when the coach comes up. He just struck out, and he settles back on the bench. He knows his job is to get on base, and he knows that swinging and missing is not what you're supposed to do in the game of baseball. He knows how his teammates are hitting, he knows what sort of team they're playing. He knows whether he's the only one who's striking out and what people are expecting of him. And then the coach provides him with all this information on why he swung and missed. Here's probably how he's hearing this:
"Coach is saying my technique isn't good."
And is he wrong? Everybody involved knows that you're supposed to hit the ball in baseball. That's the point of the game! The kid and the coach both know what's expected of the hitter, and that shared context colors the feedback accordingly.


Brief Linguistic Interlude

The point here is that you can say things without actually saying them. In philosophy of language or linguistics, this is called the pragmatics of speech. The context in which you say something contributes to its meaning. As a professor of mine put it, "I love cheese" can mean vastly different things depending on the conversational context.

  • A: "Don't you love cheese?" B: "I love cheese." 
  • A: "Do you love me?" B: "I love cheese."
In the first case, "I love cheese" means roughly that the respondent enjoys cheese. In the second case, B is saying something else: "No, I don't love you. I do love cheese."


Can Evaluation Be Avoided?

Let's bring this back to math class. What your students hear when you give them information isn't just what you say. There's often a whole world of unspoken ideas communicated to a kid that depends on the classroom context.

Say that you give a kid the sort of feedback that Wiggins suggests is judgement-free:
On the first three problems you distributed the exponent to the terms inside the parentheses and ended up with a non-equivalent expression. On the fourth question you FOILed and ended up with an expression equivalent to the original.
If the task was to discover equivalent expressions, the kid is likely hearing something like an evaluation:
I screwed up the first three because I used a bad math-move. I should have FOILed for all of the problems. 
What Wiggins' calls "feedback" still contains plenty of evaluation, it's just happening silently as a result of the larger context. I think that it's much, much harder to give non-evaluative feedback than Wiggins suggests it is. (See his response here.)

What are the implications of all of this for giving responses to kids? I can imagine a few reactions:
  • Evaluation is inevitable: "There's no way to give kids judgement-free feedback. This shows that really there's nothing wrong with evaluating kids, and actually it's often helpful, as long as its done in a respectful way."
  • Purge evaluation from feedback: "Given how hard it is to give kids judgement-free feedback, we need to work especially hard to remove judgement from the feedback that we give kids."
  • That's not what feedback is: "Feedback can't be conceived as judgement-free information, since context always infuses information with judgement. We need a new definition of feedback."
  • Just do your best: "Yes, context can insert judgement into judgement-free language. You can't avoid it, but you can try to minimize how prominent that evaluation is in your feedback."
Part of this discussion needs to include research on the way evaluation can ruin feedback, and it'll also drive us to understand the how it is that feedback is supposed to help kids learn stuff. Wiggins sees feedback as helping learning by giving students information that they're missing. Maybe there are other purposes for feedback, though. 

Tell me, readers: what did I get wrong here? Did I get anything right?


  1. Personally, I don't feel that evaluation is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly times when it can be useful to communicate to another person what your judgment is. What *is* important is in not mistaking evaluation for feedback. I think there are probably plenty of teachers/supervisors/managers/executives who offer up evaluation and believe that they are giving useful feedback. And there are definitely alternative ways to give feedback that have varying levels of implied judgment:
    (1) "I think if you did X, but in Y way, it would be better/easier/faster."
    (2) "Why didn't you do X in Y way? It would have been better/easier/faster."

  2. One area that you did not discuss is the timeliness of when feedback is delivered. That can greatly contribute to whether the comments are interpreted as evaluative, feedback, or advice. In your baseball scenario I would consider the coach’s comments as feedback until such point when the player is benched. Then is becomes evaluative. As long as the player is still in the game and the feedback is ongoing, it’s formative feedback—that’s the coach’s reality. However the player’s reality may construe it as evaluative and therein lies the rub.

    As difficult as it may be we cannot, as Hao states, mistake evaluation for feedback. There is a distinction between the two and both teacher and student need to have a common understanding.

    1. Increasingly I wonder whether we're not better off ditching the term "feedback" and changing the question. Instead of asking "how do we give effective feedback to kids?" we could instead ask "how to do we effectively respond to kids?" and then we lay out the options: we could explicitly evaluate, we could give information, we could ask a question, we could give advice, we could say nothing, etc.

  3. Hi, Michael. Have you seen Fred Jones' book "Tools for Teaching?" His perspective on giving feedback helped my teaching practice enormously, and I commend it to you. Here are a couple of key points I took away from Jones:

    1. First acknowledge what a kid did right. I think we can all relate to the natural tendency as humans to zero in on the errors, the parts that need fixing. But kids need affirmation before they are willing to *listen* to your corrective feedback. So in math class this might sound like this: "You defined your variables correctly, set up the equation correctly, and did well to add 3 to both sides. THE NEXT STEP IS TO DIVIDE BOTH SIDES BY 2." End of interaction.

    Contrast that with how a naive person would handle this: "You should divide by 2 here." The point is to acknowledge that humans are emotional creatures.

    2. Be concise. Naive teachers (i.e. most teachers, including and especially me) give feedback this way: "You need to divide by 3, and then take the result and square it. That will give you a binomial, which you can then factor using the difference of squares property. Next, apply exponent rules. Remember that anything to the zero power is 1, and don't forget to reduce the fraction at the end." Contract that approach with this one: " divide by 3." MOVE TO NEXT STUDENT. We have to have confidence that kids can act on our single-direction feedback, and then resume the process of flailing and floundering that we call "learning." And there is more: we have to create the kind of class culture where the kid has some recourse if he divides by 3 and is still stuck. Does he routinely ask his neighbor/team for help when he is stuck, or is his only option to wait 15 minutes for the teacher to come around again? Does he get off task when he is stuck, or does he know how to be resourceful? etc.

    Couple of further remarks on your post: "Tommy, you haven't been hitting as well as you could've lately, amiright?" I agree that if the coach's feedback begins and ends with this sentence, he is kidding himself if he things he is helping Tommy improve. But I actually can see this being a good lead-in to the more specific and technical feedback in your other coaching-feedback scenario. If the coach has a good relationship with Tommy, then it sounds like he is communicating his *belief* in Tommy: he is effectively saying "Tommy, you and I both know you can do better. Let's work on this together."

    Last remark: you give the example of -4/-8 = -2, oops it's actually positive 2. Whether this constitutes feedback, evaulation, or some hybrid is, again, context-dependent. Is the kid learning about dividing negative numbers here? Then telling him the answer is negative might be counter-productive -- he needs to learn the *principle,* so feedback should point him in the direction of the principle, not the result of applying it. More likely, the kid is learning about slope, and negative numbers are just a background skill. In that case, I want to know whether the kid A) knows the principle and just made a careless error, in which case feedback might consist of a cue to "check your work," or B) the kid actually doesn't the the principle, in which case a discussion of the principle seems warranted.

    As to your larger point, that evaluation is really present in all interactions whether we want to admit it or not: I agree. Every action we take towards other people is probably received as judgmental on some level. The extent to which people are willing to listen to our feedback depends on the health of our relationships. But Wiggins' larger point about minimizing (if not avoiding) the evaluative component is probably still true.

    1. I should check out that book -- thanks for the recommendation. And I agree with your point about minimizing evaluation. I think that being sensitive to the ways that context can imbue a comment with that evaluative component can help us further minimize it.

      By the way, "check your work" wouldn't count as feedback in Wiggins framework, as it's not a straightforward offering of information. He'd call that advice.

      And I think where I'm headed is that thinking about what is or what isn't feedback is probably not a good use of our time. Feedback, in any event, is a very recent concept, and it's not at all obvious to me that it's the right one to focus on. There are a lot of ways to respond to kids' work, and we need all of them available to us.