Saturday, November 8, 2014

Kids Learn From Second Drafts (2 of 10)

In this post, I'd like to argue that "giving feedback" is a lousy teaching concept. I'll suggest that instead of worrying about how to give effective feedback, we'd be better off thinking about how to help students improve their work in a second draft.

I've pointed out that there is significant, widespread disagreement within the teaching profession about the usefulness of feedback to learning. And I think that "feedback" only has itself to blame. It's a famously difficult concept to define, probably due to the convoluted route it took from its origins in electrical engineering through group dynamics, finally landing into the psychology of learning and then into popular usage. Along the way, "feedback" went from meaning something precise ("when the output of a system in turn becomes an input") to something vague ("when a person says a thing to another person about some thing that the first person did").

Because of the vagueness of the term, to tell a teacher "give some feedback" gives him practically no guidance. I think that more helpful advice would be to tell a teacher, "help the kids to improve their work," or "have them do a second draft of their classwork."

Consider a quick scenario. Suppose that you're teaching eleven 3rd Graders how to read bar graphs. You finish a first round of instruction and give them this bar graph and some questions to answer.

You collect their work, and read their responses in more detail. Their thinking is varied. Some ideas are mistakes, and (as always) there are aspects of their work that could be better. In particular...
  • Some students looked at the gap between 180 and 200 and concluded that there were only 20 non-walkers from Parks School.
  • In response to "How many students either bike or walk to Lincoln School?" some students wrote "60 and 40" instead of "100."
  • When prompted to explain some of the differences between these two schools, some kids stop short of conjecturing what the underlying differences between Parks and Lincoln might be.
A teacher who wants to help these kids by "giving feedback" might do any number of things. She might go through the questions one by one with students in whole-group. Or he might indicate right/wrong on the page and ask students to make corrections. Or she might make the corrections on the page for the student. Or he might ask students to check each others' work. 

You might start wondering, what are we trying to accomplish with this feedback? When does it lead to learning? When is it a waste of time?

Here's my motto: Kids learn from improving their work, and effective feedback is whatever it takes to make that improvement.

What I ended up doing with this 3rd Grade class was highlighting in blue something that I thought was really great in their work, and something in yellow that I thought they could improve. I handed back their work and let them work with partners on improving (and finishing) their assignment while I circulated and had conversations where I checked in.

In the course of things, a "20 non-walkers" student understood had a chance to think things through and improve their answer.

Students who didn't know how to explain the data had a chance to improve their work.

The feedback that we'll end up giving is going to vary drastically depending on the math, the students, and the teacher. I give written feedback, verbal feedback, whole-class feedback, individual feedback, small-group feedback, questions as feedback, observations as feedback, advice as feedback.

The only non-negotiable here is the goal. The goal is to help kids see ways that they can improve their work and then to give them a chance to do so.

At this point, a good skeptic might be doubting whether a student improving their work really leads to learning. Or whether creating a second draft is more effective than other forms of instructional activities, like directly telling or working on a task that's related to the first. These are good, important questions. 

In the next post in this series, I'll make the case that there are times when improving student work is the best instructional move available.

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


  1. Mike, I absolutely agree with you on this one. At the high school level, I find myself telling students that they need to treat written submissions no differently than a paper they would turn in for an English class. Did you read it over before you submitted it to me? Did you have someone else read it before you submitted? Did you consider revising it at all? Many of the literacy / writing strategies kids encounter in their schooling can easily be leveraged into math classrooms. Traditional "feedback" often provides too narrow a path to improvement. The best feedback we can provide is to cause students to view math written work as an equal to english written task.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Bob!

      I'll add that even work that isn't treated like a "paper" can be improved via a second draft. I'm not advocating for English-language stylistic feedback here.

      Even quizzes with fairly closed questions that can be answered without a ton of justification and with no prose might be good candidates for second drafts.

  2. Having taught a fair amount of electronics where we focus on feedback in op-amp circuits, this post really resonates (pun?) with me. In that situation, you're trying to keep the signal from running to the rails (or infinity) so you provide negative feedback to make sure that happens. Positive feedback usually just burns things up. So using the term in a teaching context has been at times problematic for me. However, now that I've dived into the deep end of standards-based grading, I realize that I do a lot of what I just described: I give students feedback to bring them back to the path, correcting tangents that aren't useful, or wrong thinking that's getting them into trouble. I mention the connection with SBG because in the past my "feedback" was really justification for the grade I was giving back. Now my students can go back and improve that assignment/standard in the future, so the electronics feedback context works better.

    My question for you is whether we need to bring the definition of feedback back to its roots or just stop using it because it's so vague?

    1. We certainly don't have to stop using the word! There's nothing to be gained by forbidding the usage of "discovery," "traditional," "feedback" or "active learning," even though these words give little guidance for instruction.

      Better to just shift the conversation a bit. For instance, depending on what feedback means, I could certainly agree that you're giving your students feedback. But are you asking them to improve their initial work? Would you say that all your students are working on second drafts?

      In this series of posts I'd like to make the case that asking students to create a second draft can be a helpful teaching move. It often leads to learning, which means that I won't be content to just give kids the option to improve their work, but instead I'll ask them to all improve their work.

      In short: giving feedback sometimes leads to learning, but asking kids to improve their initial work leads to learning more often. That's why I want to shift the terms of our conversation.

  3. What I wonder is what value there is in letting kids spend so much time working on and providing the wrong answer.

    This is where judicious questions during the first round stops all those wrong answers.

    This is the educationrealist--not sure if the login processing is acknowledging this.

    1. If I could always teach everything effectively during the first round, I promise you, I would!

      Now that I know about the "20 non-walkers" issue I will certainly bring it up during my initial instruction next year. And some of these other issues are also worth raising during that first conversation.

      I think we'd agree that there are always gaps between what we're trying to teach and what the kids end up learning. This post starts at the moment after initial instruction ends, and the kids don't all get it.

  4. This gets at some of the improvement you see from 1 to 1 conversations and tutoring. You give means of improvement to students on what they're doing.

    Re: 20 nonwalkers. Is giving them the chance to make that mistake important? If you address it in intro, there's no opportunity for feedback on them not attending to it.

    1. This is the sort of experiment that I'm sure has been done in cognitive psych. Which leads to more memorable learning: a brief test where they make a mistake followed by feedback, or explicit initial instruction?

  5. Michael
    This brings back memories of a grad school prof who returned every first draft paper with nothing but small checkmarks next to passages. The check mark meant that we were to look carefully at this passage. No distinction between check = outstanding argument or check = argument needs revision or check = some grammar blunder. I never thought more about my own writing than I did for him. Although I loved it, I was also in my 40s and more mature and more responsible than my students tend to be. I wonder how I could model something along those lines in a way that my overextended juniors and seniors could deal with an extra round of work and grow in a meaningful way from the exercise.

  6. OK. I'll play.

    First of all, you've argued yourself 180 degrees. Your thesis is that giving feedback is a lousy teaching concept, and you conclude that a wide variety of feedback gives students "ways that they can improve their work and then to give them a chance to do so."

    I take issue with this statement. "there is significant, widespread disagreement within the teaching profession about the usefulness of feedback to learning." [citation needed]

    No practitioner I ever talked to disagreed with the usefulness of feedback. No expert I ever read questioned the usefulness of feedback. People like Black, Wiliam, Sutton, Wormeli, O'Conner and countless more that I can't think of right now seem pretty sold on the idea.

    I hope that where you're headed with this series is an exploration of the varying quality of feedback. Evaluative feedback is virtually useless. Saying "good job" does absolutely nothing to move a learner forward.

    Useful feedback provides learners (and all of them, from the weakest to the strongest) with personal next-steps. I agree that this feedback doesn't have to be given by the teacher. Useful feedback can come from peers, the teacher, self-reflection, exemplars, and a myriad of other ways.

    1. You seem to be reading me as taking issue with feedback. No way! As you point out, I love giving feedback. My issue is with the lousiness, or maybe just the vagueness, of "giving feedback" as a bit of teaching language.

      Just yesterday I overheard two awesome teachers chatting in my department.

      A: "Hey, do you give feedback on every homework assignment?"
      B: "Yeah, yeah I do."
      A: "I should really do that. Do they appreciate it?"
      B: "Well, no! [laughs] They mostly toss it away. But it's good for me to go through it because you learn all their misconceptions."

      This is the sort of confusion that I'm hearing online also. That giving feedback is useful is a widespread teacher belief, but what we intend by "giving feedback" often varies wildly.

      So, what do we do?

      I hope that where you're headed with this series is an exploration of the varying quality of feedback. Evaluative feedback is virtually useless. Saying "good job" does absolutely nothing to move a learner forward.

      Instead of cataloging instances of useful or useless feedback - a task I've attempted on this blog before - I'm trying to champion the concept of "second drafts" as a way to direct the feedback that we give.

      Why does evaluative feedback fail? Because it doesn't help (or require) the student to improve their work.

      Why does corrective feedback fail? Because it takes away the opportunity for a student to improve their work.

      Why do kids throw out their feedback? Because they aren't being asked to improve their work.

      I'm trying to carve out a piece of technical language that can aptly describe just how it is that feedback can help. "Second drafts" might not be the only purpose for useful feedback, but it's the one I want to take on here. I invite others to propose and describe other productive uses for feedback.

  7. Perhaps your second drafts definition actually describes when feedback is most effective feedback—when it occurs during the learning process so students can act on it. I think sometimes students don’t implement feedback because they don’t see learning as a cycle of continuous improvement and that’s our fault. We’ve created a classroom culture of turning work in and moving on.

    The PD I sat in on yesterday was devoted to feedback and how it links to student self-assessment, goal setting, and moving one step closer to becoming a self-directed learner. Those are other productive uses for feedback worth considering.