Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Four Myths of Feedback (1 of 10)

Is this good feedback? Circling the areas of mistakes, highlighting areas of concern, debugging students' work?

Is this? Asking questions, explaining the mistake that a student made?

More puzzles:
  • Why do some teachers report that their students just crumple up their feedback, while others teachers swear by the feedback cycle?
  • Why do some teachers report giving written feedback to be inefficient and exhausting, while others find it manageable?
  • How can we bridge these huge gaps in teacher perceptions? Why hasn't research settled these questions for teachers already?
My hypothesis is that we're talking past each other. Do kids like feedback? Which kids? Is written feedback exhausting? Well, what sort of feedback are you talking about? 

So much of teaching is in the details. Unless we give these details in our writing about teaching we can hardly be sure what we're talking about. Without classroom evidence, discussions get very fuzzy, very quickly.

In this series of posts I'm going to use stories from my classes to argue for the viability of a certain kind of feedback. In particular, I have my aim set against four claims about feedback that I consider to be myths. 

Without further ado, here they are, your myths!

Four Myths of Feedback
  1. Oral feedback is always better than written feedback.
  2. When it comes to feedback, the more the better!
  3. When it comes to feedback, the sooner the better!
  4. Feedback is all about helping students understand the mistakes they've made.
Don't agree? I'm not surprised! These statements have been presented entirely without context or grounding in any classroom. My job over the next 9 posts in this series is to put flesh on the bone of these claims with some believable evidence from my classroom.

You have two jobs. First, to be productively skeptical. I'm going to be providing you with enough detail that you'll be able to disagree with my interpretations of the classroom. As far as I can tell, this is rare for a writer about teaching to do, and I'm looking forward to our disagreements.

Your second job is to think of stories from your own teaching that might add to the feedback picture. My classroom has its own particular constraints. So does your's. We'll learn a bunch from the collage that emerges from the volley of classroom stories.

This is the first post in a series on feedback. Once they're all written I'll link 'em up here at the bottom of the post. In the fuuuutre.

Update: Welcome to the future! Here's the whole series. (link)


  1. Small thought: How does your current situation of teaching at a no-grade school shift your thinking on feedback? Is it easier for you to think about and give feedback if you don't have to worry about attaching numbers to things as well?

    1. I don't know! I'm sure it's impacting me somehow.

      The cool thing about this project (if I do say so myself) is that I'm going to describe my practice in detail. I'm going to explain how what I do is situated in my school, my classroom, with my kids. You'll see my thinking, you'll be able to decide if you disagree with the decisions I'm making with my kids, and if any of it could be adopted to your situation.

      No two classrooms are ever alike. How do we bridge that gap? Most try to bridge the gap with generalities, but I'm betting that I can better bridge it with particularities.

  2. "Why do some teachers report that their students just crumple up their feedback, while others teachers swear by the feedback cycle?"

    I think the key thing here might be the last word in your question, cycle, as it implies that something specific is to be done with the feedback, which results in more feedback and improvement. I think I am often not clear enough with my goals for giving feedback. What do I want from my students when I give them feedback? Do I want them to think about this and remember for "next time" they face a situation like this? That seems like sort of wishful thinking. Or do I want them to immediately revise and improve their work? What is the structure that will allow the latter to happen, how do I communicate that, how do I grade that, etc. Lots to think about.

  3. My frustration comes from still living in two worlds: class work receives feedback only while report cards show percents/letter grades. Students, parents, and teachers find the two incompatible and difficult to explain at times. Regardless of the usefulness of the written feedback, students and parents continue to ask, "Yeah, but what's the grade?" (Audible sigh) Until my district has a strong foothold in only one world, the no-grade version, this will continue to be frustrating for everyone involved.

    1. Yikes, that sounds frustrating. Do you grade everything that students hand in? Is there anything that can go ungraded?