Archive for November, 2013

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.



Having spent years teaching and training teachers including helping to develop the skill of giving and receiving feedback, I know it is not an easy process.  In fact it is far easier to give lousy feedback than skillful.  We all make mistakes.  But feedback is a fundamental aspect of life and is particularly critical in the teaching and learning environment.  How do we learn best?  I would propose we all learn best through experience, personal reflection on that experience coupled with feedback from others.  We can’t do it all by ourselves.

Larry Porter has a classic article about the subject of effective feedback.  Here’s the URL which, for some reason, I am unable to make live right now:

I have learned quite a lot about the art of feedback through my own experiences and mistakes (and reflections on both) and have settled on the idea that feedback must be asked for, delivered skillfully and be rooted in a context and a relationship, including an educational one, in order to be relevant.

As difficult and delicate the process of giving and receiving feedback is let me explain, briefly, why I think anonymous feedback is especially irresponsible in our current time.

Like it or not, we live in an age of instant communication on multiple platforms including live, reality shows and online chat commentary.  Individuals are invited to offer their thoughts and opinions in every possible sector:  politics, entertainment, food, religion, popular culture and so on.  Almost anything goes and almost anything can be said in one forum or another; the more direct and unfiltered the comment is often considered the better.  Honest opinions are good.  Let it all hang out.  Sniping seems to be OK.

Recently I was participating in an online chat space sponsored by a major sports television network during the US Baseball World Series.  I observed that as emotions ran high individuals using mere handles as names (e.g. “Boston Bob”) were given license say anything they wanted.  The facilitators of the chat seemed to encourage rabid, angry and insulting comments.  Granted, this was a sports venue where insulting the other team is seen as part of the game.  Meanwhile, in another online venue, You Tube, one can simply sign in, again using an anonymous name, and say whatever you want about anything at all; whether you are qualified to have an opinion about something matters not at all.  The point is to have and express your opinions, no holds barred.

I did a little tour around the internet and found countless cases of individuals being asked and encouraged to spout off, with no responsibility for what was said nor for what the impact might be on the recipient(s).  More often than not, the anonymous feedback is rather ruthless and mean.  It is rare (and somewhat uplifting) to see anonymous feedback filled with positive, unconditional regard for another human being.

While this type of ruthless feedback might be acceptable and fine for the process of kicking someone off the island or for commenting on an individual’s home video of themselves singing ‘I have a Dream”, if is not appropriate nor acceptable for educational environments.

Feedback is best when it is rooted in a relationship and in an environment where everyone wants the other to learn and succeed.  This includes a student being able to hold the idea that the teacher is also a human, who makes mistakes and who is still learning.  Yes, the teacher needs to be ready to hear what has not worked or where we have fallen down.  We need to have some tough skin and enough self-awareness, compassion and empathy not to take our hurt feelings out on the student.  Meanwhile, the student needs to develop their capacity for giving and receiving feedback from a place of integrity, care and human decency.  When feedback, whether positive or critical, is delivered from a stance of care, everyone benefits.

Students need to realize that teachers are learning humans just as they are.

I’m taking a stand in any program or situation where anonymous feedback is insisted upon.  At a minimum, it must be coupled with an attempt at honest, owned, respectful feedback that can lead to learning and growth for all involved.

At the end of the day, giving and receiving feedback is a skill that has to be developed.  It is a critical skill, in my opinion, especially in these times when common courtesy and compassionate communication seem to be lacking in many situations in our world.

Some insights from Porter’s Article, cited above:

Effective Feedback
1. Describes the behavior that led to the feedback: “You are finishing my sentences for me…”
2. Comes as soon as appropriate after the behavior – immediately if possible; later if events make that necessary (something more important going on, you need time to “cool down,”).
3. Is direct from sender to receiver.
4. Includes the sender’s real feelings about the behavior, insofar as they are relevant to the feedback: “I get frustrated when I’m trying to make a point and you keep finishing my sentences.”
5. Is checked for clarity, to ensure that the receiver fully understands what’s being conveyed: “Do you understand what I mean when I say you seem to be sending me a double message?”
6. Asks relevant questions which seek information (has a problem-solving quality) with the receiver knowing why the information is sought and having a clear sense that the sender does not know the answer.
7. Specifies consequences of the behavior: “When you keep finishing my sentences, I get frustrated and want to stop talking to you.” “If you keep finishing my sentences, I won’t want to spend much time talking with you in the future.”
8. Is solicited or desired by the receiver.
9. Refers to behaviors about which the receiver can do something if s/he wants to: “I wish you’d stop interrupting me.”

Ineffective Feedback
1.  Uses evaluative/judgmental statements: “You’re being rude.” Or, generalized ones: “You’re trying to control the conversation.”
2.  Is delayed, saved up and “dumped.” Also known as ambushing. The more time that passes, the “safer” it is to give feedback. Induces guilt and anger in the receiver because after time has passed there’s usually not much s/he can do about it.
3.  Indirect or ricocheted: “Tom, how do you feel when Jim cracks his knuckles?” also known as “let’s you and him fight.”
4.  Feelings are concealed, denied or misrepresented: feelings are “smuggled” into the interaction by being sarcastic, sulking, competing to see who’s “right.” Other indicators: speculations on the receiver’s intentions, motivations or psychological “problems:” “You’re driving me nuts;” “You’re just trying to see how much you can get away with;” “You have a need to get even with the world.”
5.  Not checked. Sender assumes clarity or, often, is not interested in whether the receiver understands fully: “Stop interrupting me with ‘yes, buts!’“

6.  Asks questions that are really statements: “Do you think I’m going to let you get away with that?” Or, questions that sound like traps: “How many times have you been late this week?” Experts at the “question game” can easily combine the two: “How do you think that makes me feel?” “Do you behave that way at home too?”
7.  Provides vague consequences: “That kind of behavior is going to get you in trouble.” Or specifies no consequences, substituting, other kinds of leverage, such as “shoulds:” “You shouldn’t do that.”
8.  Is imposed on the receiver, often for his/her “own good.”
9.  Refers to behavioral over which the receiver has little or no control: “I wish you’d laugh at my jokes.”