Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Conclusion (Post 10 of 10)

In conclusion, teaching has a writing problem.

Part of the problem, I've been arguing, is that in education we talk about the wrong things. We talk about concepts that don't get at the heart of classroom teaching -- concepts like feedback -- and so we ask questions that are impossible to answer. As a consequence, these questions -- like how do you give effective feedback? -- are very difficult to respond to. They require the ability to split hairs and to generalize. Academic researchers and consultants are very well-suited to these tasks. Teachers aren't.

And so almost all the writing about teaching comes from researchers or consultants, people who are no longer k-12 classroom teachers. This would be a fine state of affairs if it worked. But writing about teaching rarely does.

My favorite writer about feedback is Dylan Wiliam. His work is as smart as Edutopia's is silly and reductive. Here's a picture that makes him look like a super-villain:

I heartily recommend Embedded Formative Assessment. There's a great passage in there where Wiliam realizes how difficult it is to communicate about feedback.
In 1998, when Paul Black and I published "Inside the Black Box," we recommended that feedback during learning be in the form of comments rather than grades, and many teachers took this to heart. Unfortunately, in many cases, the feedback was not particularly helpful. Typically, the feedback would focus on what was deficient about the work submitted, which the students were not able to resubmit, rather than on what to do to improve their future learning.
Got it! Focus on what the kid can do to improve, right?
I remember talking to a middle school student who was looking at the feedback his teacher had given him on a science assignment. The teacher had written, "You need to be more systematic in planning your scientific inquiries." I asked the student what that meant to him, and he said, "I don't know. If I knew how to be more systematical, I would have been more systematic the first time."
So Wiliam needs a way to say exactly how feedback can tell a kid how to improve. What does he land on?
To be effective, feedback needs to direct attention to what's next rather than focusing on how well or badly the student did on the work.
Feedback should cause thinking. 
If, however, we embrace the idea of feedback as a recipe for future action, then it is easy to see how to make feedback work constructively.
It seems to me that Mr. "Be More Systematic" probably thought that his feedback focused on what's next, caused thinking, and gave a recipe for future action. Wiliam's metaphors and slogans are not enough.


It's not Wiliam's fault. He's trying to tackle an incredibly broad subject. (The chapter is titled Feedback That Moves Learning Forward. All of it??)

Here's an embarrassing belief that I have: classroom teachers have a chance to make things better. Nobody in education is better equipped to find the most helpful way to think or write about classroom teaching than classroom teachers. We have the stories. We have the teachers -- novice and experienced -- that we talk to daily. We know what our colleagues find helpful. We know our kids.

When we write about teaching, we have to play to our advantage. We have experience, stories and students to work with. What we lack is precisely what researchers and consultants have -- wide-ranging perspective and time. I think a lot of the silliness we see in education writing comes from writers trying to hit the scope and abstraction of university research. (It's like writing an op-ed in binary.)

There is so much fantastic story-telling from teachers that I read, but just telling stories isn't going to be enough. If we want to contribute to our common knowledge about teaching we need to try to do something with our stories. To analyze them, to collect them, to point out patterns and to generalize from them. That's one of the challenges that teachers writing about teaching face.

Maybe. I think.


  1. I've argued that revision is a central concept in teaching. No way this covers the entire (but wildly abstract) formative assessment landscape. What other core concepts could we break formative assessment/feedback in to?
  2. It's easy to help other teachers improve their repertoire of activities or teaching moves. (Just tell us, and we add it to the mental list.) But can we also share our decision-making, how we navigate through our repertoire?
  3. Is there an intellectually respectable way for teachers to write about teaching that other teachers will want to read?
  4. Is there an intellectually respectable way for classroom teachers to write about teaching that university researchers will want to read?
This is the last post in a series about feedback. To read the rest of the series, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Each of these posts has given me something to think about and encouraged me to try something new. It's my first year and every day teaches me something I never learned in all of the research-based classes I had in college. I began the year with blind retakes and I commonly used spoken feedback, but I switched to revision after you began this series. While I cannot use revision for every assignment or assessment, the process has definitely put meaning behind the phrase, "Have students learn from their mistakes." It's been intriguing to see how serious students have taken the opportunities to revise work and figure out their mistakes.

    Your questions leave me more to think about. Are blogs the most effective (and most practical) way for teachers to write and learn about teaching? Should I write about every day in my classroom a la Justin Aion, describe the experiences that work well, or write about the successes and struggles of making the abstract concepts from math understandable to concrete (6th grader) minds?

    Is an answer to our questions found in saturating existing educational journals with articles written by teachers? Sometimes I open an ed journal, look at the table of contents, and think, "No teachers wrote anything in here? How do I know this is realistic?"

    Maybe researchers and teachers need to build long-term professional relationships that go beyond particular studies or projects?

    I appreciate all of your writing, but this series in particular pushed me to consider each decision I make about grading and feedback. It's a topic I rarely considered in college other than reading up on SBG. Thank you for your writing. I think this type of analysis by classroom teachers is part of an answer to all of our questions.