A few years back I read a book about teaching by Joseph McDonald who is Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University.  At the time when the book, Teaching, Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft, was published (1992), Joe McDonald was senior researcher at the Coalition of Essential Schools and a professor of education at Brown University.  The book, whose title intrigued me, is about Joe’s own searching to understand the craft of teaching.  Along with students and colleagues, whose voices are also in the book, he tries to unearth what is IT that makes a teacher effective?  Which reflective processes are helpful?  What advice is useful – and from who – and when?  What is the role of observation and feedback on learning how to teach?

In reading other blogs and discussions I see many teachers’ discomfort with being observed and explorations on why that is so.  Over more than 20 years of supervising teaching practica I have had the privilege of observing in, literally, hundreds of classrooms and working with that many teachers.  Preceding and following the observations there has always been discussion and some form of feedback.  I’ve never observed a class with a checklist but rather with an eye and a mind towards what will serve the learning of that teacher.  Of course, I have not always been successful in providing feedback that will help the teacher in their own teaching practice.  Sometimes I have missed the mark.

An idea that McDonald shares in this book has remained with me.  It’s one of those ideas I think about often and remember to mention to student teachers I am observing.  It is the notion of “The Conspiracy of Certainty”.    You’ll need to read McDonald’s book to get the full flavor and eloquence of how he talks about this concept.  Meanwhile, here’s the gist:  Teachers, whether they’re teaching nursery school or Ph.D. candidates and everything in between, tend to feel inadequate to the task.  Not only do we tend to believe that we are not capable or not as capable as we should be but we also believe that OTHER teachers (perhaps the person teaching in the room next door) have a better grasp on the process and know what to do.  We become convinced that there is a right way to do it out there and that we, foolish as we are, haven’t discovered it yet.  We wait for the shoe to drop and for someone – perhaps that person coming to observe us – who will be the one who is going to discover our inadequacy.

That might sound like too broad a statement but I can say this:  Every teacher I have shared that idea with has nodded his or her head vigorously and launched in to a discussion of their own personal feelings of inadequacy.  Some teachers go so far as to say they feel like a fraud because, in fact, they really don’t know what they’re doing.

We think others – researchers, authors, conference speakers, prolific bloggers etc. are more certain than we are.  And so we try to nail down that which cannot be fixed in place:  The uncertain craft that is teaching.

So what happens if we give up our search for certainty and embrace all of the gray area that is the teaching and learning process?  More on this topic soon.

Having made the case why I don’t believe in anonymous feedback, I am looking again at the other side to think about how and when it could be usefully employed.

I stand my ground that as a one-way activity (student to teacher) and especially occurring only once or twice in a course – particularly only at the end – anonymous feedback presents the danger of being unwise, unkind and irresponsible.

Here’s a model I discussed with a colleague this week that I think has merit.

The presuppositions are:

1)  the teacher and students are in an ongoing educational relationship in which learning to give and receive effective feedback is a part of the educational process;

2) the teacher has some level of control over his / her curriculum and is able to make at least moderate adjustments to their teaching, based upon feedback.

The process my colleague described, which appealed to me is this:

At regular intervals (every week, month etc. – but never only at the end of the term) the teacher elicits feedback from the students.  It can include rating/numbers/scoring of some kind.  The feedback also must include narrative comments and encourages the students to be specific about what teaching and learning activities they find useful and why; and what they don’t feel useful and why.  This feedback is anonymous.  Students are encouraged to be respectful and honest.  The teacher clearly states that criticism is welcome, as is positive comments.

The teacher takes time and goes through the feedback organizing it in whatever way makes sense.  This organization includes both putting together the ratings/numbers but also compiling the narrative feedback.

The teacher then presents this feedback to the class.  It can be in the form of charts or could be on a power point slide; it could be on handouts.  The teacher can talk through the feedback or simply put it out for the class to look at and respond to.

In small groups the students discuss the feedback.  They are encouraged to discuss together and to include disagreements or agreements with various points of the feedback.  After a period of time – the groups are invited to offer some thoughts to the teacher.  I think it would be most powerful if these were oral summaries from a spokesperson for the group.  If time is an issue, the thoughts could be written down.  Either way, they might be suggestions for changes.  They might also be noting where there were stark differences in the feedback (e.g. 4 students loved that activity and 4 students hated it).  The students are encouraged to think about their learning from the perspective of themselves, the group and the teacher.

The teacher can choose to respond to their reactions in the moment or to come back the next class with his/her suggestions for improvements and changes.  The teacher can also acknowledge if something is going particularly well and promise to build on that.

This, to me, creates a very different dynamic and tone, one that I would be most happy to engage with.  Give the students their own feedback data and let them grapple with it.  Share the responsibility for a class going well or getting better.  This feels respectful and educative to me.