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:

http://www.nspe.org/resources/pdfs/mentoring/Effective_Feedback_for_Mentoring.pdf

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.”