The Reality of Feedback
What type of feedback do you seek the most in regards to your teaching practice?
Over the past couple of years, I have experienced quite a steep learning curve in regards to my own professional learning journey. To this day, the most rewarding part of my career has been all of the years I taught physical education to my students. When I reflect back on the beginning of my career teaching PE, like many teachers new to the field of education, I had so much to learn. Having played competitive sport throughout high school and university, I placed great value on fitness training and exercise. Without question, this led to me setting up my physical education program in a way that reflected these strong values that I held. I believed that all kids needed to understand the value of sport and being fit. I blindly went about my days being driven by these values thus expecting my students to all embrace these values as well in physical education. I was the fitness testing king!
From those early days of teaching physical education to the last day I taught PE at Nanjing International School in China in 2015, I put a tremendous amount of time and energy into my teaching practice. I always considered myself to be the type of teacher who sought feedback and used this feedback to put specific strategies into action that would help me continually improve my practice. I'm quite proud of the teacher that I became but, by no means, did I consider this journey complete. However, I now look at this journey through a different lens.
In 2015-2016, I dove into a year of full-time consulting and had the good fortune of traveling around to various parts of the world, working with teachers, mostly in international schools, helping them to refine their teaching practice and re-design their physical education programs. This led to working with teachers beyond physical education in music, visual arts and classroom teachers. It was during this time that I started to see lots of variety in the way teachers delivered their lessons and units. Although many of these teachers were well-intentioned and had the best interest of their students at heart, I began to notice similar patterns in regards to a willingness, on their part, to address certain limitations or under developed areas of their teaching. That's not to say that the teachers I worked with were unwilling to learn, to grow and to develop their teaching skills, but what I did notice was that giving honest feedback was often met with an awkward silence that was boarder line quite uncomfortable at times.
It made me reflect on my own ability to accept honest and genuine feedback when I was teaching. Was I more after praise and positive feedback when I was teaching or was I genuinely open to critical feedback of my practice? Was it easier for me to focus on my strengths and what I was doing well than actually digging into repetitive patterns in my teaching that might have held me back from being a better educator? The number one problem I could identify within myself when I reflected back on my own practice was my inability to depersonalize critical feedback . As I invested so much time and energy into my learning as a teacher, I placed a lot of pride in what I did. Our ability to depersonalize critical feedback can often be the number one culprit in holding us back from deeply improving upon our teaching practice.
After a year of full-time consulting, I accepted a new role working as a Pedagogical Coordinator at the KAUST School in Saudi Arabia. A great opportunity to work with teachers helping them to improve their practice but through the specific lens of cognitive coaching. Cognitive coaching is rooted in the fundamental philosophy that there is greatness within all of us that can be unlocked by helping teachers tap into their internal resources. This model of coaching bases itself on assisting teachers with constructing specific data to be collected in regards to their teaching practice. This data is collected by the cognitive coach who observes the teacher in action with their students. Once the data is collected, the cognitive coach has a reflective conversation with the teacher seeking their perspective on how the lesson went. The data is then shared and discussed to support that teacher with identifying needed areas of development and potential strategies that could be applied to future teaching and learning to improve practice.
Critical feedback becomes the responsibility of the teacher and the coach, but is easier done through the collection of data to support the teacher's growth. However, the reality is that most teachers don't have a cognitive coach, so this type of learning journey becomes a bit more difficult, yet in my opinion, not unattainable. The key is DATA!! Perhaps it's enlisting the support of a trusted colleague to come into your class and observe you teach. What you need to do is to think about key areas of your teaching you would like to know more about. These areas might include:
Teacher Talk Time: How much time of your class is taken up with whole group discussions, giving instructions, or lecturing your students? (aim should be 20% total)
Questioning: What types of questions are you asking your students? Deep or surface level? How long do you wait for responses? Are you asking open or closed ended questions? (both are OK depending on the situation)
Engagement: To what extent are your students on track and engaged in the lesson?
I'm certainly not trying to make this process sound easy, but it's worth tinkering with and seeing what type of data might be collected on your teaching. Once you receive this data, the big responsibility then is on your shoulders as to next steps that you might put into action depending on the results of the data. Some teachers do nothing with it after receiving it. Try not to go down this route.
Everything I've discussed in this blog up to this point is all about teacher improvement and the willingness to be involved in a process that allows educators to work on their strengths but also address limitations as well. In a perfect world, ALL teachers would understand the value of feedback and the role that it plays in helping to genuinely improve upon our practice.
However, the reality is that many of us still operate in the sphere of wanting praise or positive feedback rather than critical feedback. It is human instinct to want to feel good, to be confirmed, and validated in regards to our work. Everyone of us wants to do a good job. A well-known 'change' consultant I know, recently shared his statistics in regards to the work he has done around the world in regards to helping educators/administrators improve upon their job performance. What he told me is that, based on his experience, somewhere around 70% of educators default to assuming feedback should be or needs to be positive and that less than 10% of teachers see critical feedback as being potentially useful. Hearing these statistics made me reflect more deeply on my own practice when I was teaching and to question how open I was to critical feedback. Although I feel I improved in this area my last few years of teaching, I still feel as though I was among the 70% of teachers defaulting to a stance that feedback should be positive.
So, in closing off this blog post, I would like to ask any person reading this to reflect upon how you absorb critical feedback. Obviously, it's all in the way it is delivered, but even if delivered in a neutral, non-threatening manner, are you able to depersonalize this feedback and move forward in a way that allows you to genuinely embrace it in an effort to improve upon your practice. And lastly, I'm not implying there is no place for praise or positive feedback. Without question we all need it. However, to what extent do you balance the need for praise, yet accept and/or invite critical feedback into your professional practice. Happy teaching folks.
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KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.