Saturday, November 15, 2014

Against the Feedback Menu (Post 4 of 10)

So you're giving a presentation to teachers. It's called "Giving Effective Feedback to Students." You've got slides. You've got an audience. You've got 60 minutes.

How do you spend it?

The way we teachers talk about feedback, you're likely to present about the menu of options that teachers have for giving feedback. You'll talk about written vs. oral feedback; positive vs. negative feedback; individual vs. whole-class; timely vs. delayed feedback; lengthy vs. brief feedback; feedback for learning vs. feedback for evaluation.

That's certainly what's going on in Types of Feedback and Their Purposes:

Here's an opinion about how we talk about feedback: this is an insane way to talk about feedback.

What makes this crazy is the extraordinarily high level of abstraction. It's so high-level that it's practically philosophical: "What is good?", "How should we write?", "What's best to do?"

In a different planet, we would talk about teaching situations and how to improve them. That seems more sensible to me than talking about things that improve learning and then matching them to various scenarios, post-hoc.

By analogy, imagine that I was presenting on "Giving Effective Drugs to Patients" instead of "Giving Effective Feedback to Students."

My first slide would, of course, cite a relevant research table showing -- conclusively! -- that giving drugs helps patient outcomes.

Of course, first we would have to define "drugs." (The first sign that we're dealing at too high a level of abstraction -- we don't even know what we're talking about!) 

Too many doctors just prescribe Asprin for everything, don't you find? (Compare to: "Feedback vs. Advice".

Now, time to dig into the details! Doctors have to make important decisions about the amount of drugs, as well as the timing.

And don't forget - no two patients are the same!

My point here is not to compare teaching to medicine. They're very different fields! I'm making a more limited analogy between the way we talk about instructional techniques and the way doctors talk about medical strategies.

"What is the most effective way to use drugs?" is an incredibly general question, and not a particularly helpful one. A better question to ask would start with the ailments: "What's the most effective way to treat whooping cough?" or whatever.

So too in math education. The "menu of options" style of presentation is pervasive in talk about teaching, but it doesn't have to be. A more productive route, I think, would be to start thinking about various specific teaching-scenarios that are common throughout the profession. How do we make good teaching decisions in these scenarios?

What sorts of scenarios am I talking about? Here are two that I'm spinning off of earlier posts in this series.
  • Toni's Fixed Mindset: How do you help a talented student who is socially unable to admit to any mathematical limitations to learn a complex skill, like proof? (Post #3)
  • Misinterpreting Bar Graphs: How do you best help a class that has a wide variety of minor, but significant misconceptions that can't be addressed all it once through whole-class instruction? (Post #2)
In the case of Toni, I argued that the best feedback was whole-class, oral instruction that lead to students choosing just one solution to revise. In the case of the bar graphs, I argued for giving individual "highlight"-style feedback and group-time to revise the entire assignment.

Written vs. Oral? Whole-class vs. Individual? Immediate vs. Delayed?

How much good can come of these questions?


This is the fourth post in a series on feedback. To read the rest of the posts click here.

1 comment:

  1. Here's another: "Giving effective advice to architects".
    Your subject is a good case for working from real examples, so is the teaching of calculus !