A matter of feedback…

Feedback. We give it all the time. We receive it frequently; whether we ask for it or not. We know it makes a difference in our teaching. But, from experience, it’s definitely not an easy thing to get right. That is, if there even is a right way to do feedback. This blog post is a tentative first step into exploring how good our feedback as teachers really is, and how we can make it even better. I aim to explore different aspects of feedback over the next few posts and delve into specific, practical areas of feedback for use in the classroom.

Many areas of education create debate. But I’m hopeful that feedback might be one aspect that the majority of educators agree is vital as part of effective learning and teaching. Despite this commonality in realising the importance of feedback, the ways in which students receive feedback varies greatly. We need to recognise that various approaches are indeed needed to suit individual subject specialisms, ages, and stages as well as school context. Feedback in music, will look very different to feedback in maths. Yes there may be some common threads and key similarities in what makes both sets of feedback effective, but each will suit the specific subject and the learning taking place. It’s like exercise – we know we need to do it, we know it makes a difference but we all take our own approaches to making it work for us in terms of the where, when and how. Not everyone is a marathon runner. But that does not make the gymnast any less fit. If feedback across a school follows core key priorities in terms of its purpose and impact, there is room to manoeuvre the specifics of the feedback itself.

The first two aspects of Feedback which I will explore in this post, are not technically feedback at all. But I believe they lay the foundations for effective feedback, integrating beautifully with high quality learning and teaching as well as building strong relationships. And so it is, that feedback isn’t something which stands along, instead it forms part of an important loop.

Everyone needs feedback. It helps us get better. When I make a new recipe, I want feedback from my tasters. So that I can make it again even better. When I go for a run, I want to check strava for instant feedback on my pace and how it compares to previous runs. So that I can try and do even better next time. And when I read my son a bedtime story, it’s good to hear his feedback so I can make my voices and silly sounds much improved the following evening. Feedback helps us get better. And as teachers, we all want that for our young people. So why wouldn’t we spend big parts of every lesson giving individual feedback?

Well, Sometimes we will. Sometimes we need to and it helps move learners forward. But we also need time to teach. So it comes back to opportunity cost, which I touched upon here. If we are giving feedback, we are not doing something else. That’s why I think it’s important to minimise the need for feedback in the first place and find efficient ways to give meaningful feedback when time is tight. If lessons are taught well from the outset using clear learning intentions and success criteria; if teachers clearly explain and model the learning, if teachers guide the learning and then give opportunities for deliberate practice, the likelihood that learners get it wrong or need feedback to correct, is less likely. Of course feedback will always be necessary to move learners forward but if we can spend less time correcting common errors which might have been overridden by better instruction, then the time can be used to give really personalised and impactful feedback.

So we’ve established that feedback is a gift because it aids improvement. But it needs to be viewed in that way through the classroom and school culture. An ethos of continual improvement not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better. In order to create that learning environment, there requires a strong relationship between giver and receiver. For feedback to land in a way which allows it it be used to propel forward, there needs to be a shared understanding of why the feedback is being given. Like so much of our work in the classroom, a positive relationship between teacher and pupil is vital in order for feedback to be listened to and acted upon. Pupils need to trust and respect their teacher, and understand that the feedback given is because the giver genuinely wants the young person to do well. A learning partnership, when both sides are working hard for the best outcome is desirable. When a relationship breaks down, young people are less likely to buy into the need to improve.

I don’t think any of the feedback foundations is ground-breaking, indeed good teachers do these almost without thinking about it. What becomes more tricky is implementing effective feedback, and sustaining it. Like the exercise analogy, we all know we should go to our gym class on a Monday night or get up early for a run before work, but when it’s dark and wet, our intentions can often be sidelined for ease and comfort.

How do we ensure that within a busy classroom, teachers racing through the curriculum don’t fall into the trap of feedback which is easy and comfortable? Instead, how do we make use of these optimal conditions for feedback which we have created, and that our practices really maximise the impact?

Part 2 to follow.

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