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Make the feedback loop your 2021 teaching takeaway

By Christine Lewis

I am very grateful to be teaching in a growth-focused institution where we are encouraged to make incremental changes – what we call “10% shifts” – that slowly move our curriculum and pedagogy forward in a dynamic, yet manageable way. In order to prepare for next year, I have taken time to reflect on all I’ve been exposed to during this year of COVID-19 through the magic of Zoom, looking for one area that could positively impact student outcomes with small tweaks and some careful lesson design. The area that rose above all the rest for me was that of formative assessment and the feedback loop (which are inseparable).

John Hattie, who spent decades comparing data from hundreds of studies on strategy effectiveness in academic settings, is often cited for stating, “The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback’” (1992). The key here is the word simplest. As I aim to have a more lasting effect on outcomes for my students, I also have to balance time constraints, current curricular expectations, and basic bandwidth for change after a demanding school year, so improving feedback practices presents itself as a great strategy for me to harness.

The problem is that while effect size for feedback is often high, it is also a classroom practice that can unfortunately have the opposite effect and damage learning potential. An example of this is the use of excessive praise, which is often feedback used to bolster confidence in young people that backfires by producing shame when a child perceives they are falling short of previously celebrated levels of social capital. 

Luckily for me, there are some great minds who have dedicated their efforts to understanding the psychology and impact of feedback and shared this in the form of clear “to do” lists I can follow to avoid the pitfalls of old habits that might unwittingly harm. Here is some of what I learned this year:

  1. Feedback is not effective if it flows in just one direction. I have to ask myself, how I am facilitating feedback not only from myself as mentor to the student, but also, from the student back to me as I seek to adjust instruction for greatest impact, from student to student to leverage collective knowledge and build a culture of growth, and from the student back to themselves as they reflect on their products using leveled examples and other tools of analysis.
  2. If I give a grade first, my feedback for growth will have little impact. In fact, there needs to be multiple opportunities to receive feedback before a final product is submitted. It should be part of my lesson process over time rather than simply a culminating criticism of final results.
  3. Elementary students are better able to see areas for growth in other people’s work. To address this idea, I’m working on ways to interact with feedback that make my students think rather than doing all of that work myself. Dylan Wiliam, author of Creating the Schools Our Children Need, suggests facilitating peer feedback reviews where teacher comments are matched with products in small groups. This makes students think about what the feedback means, and then search to see how each piece of work meets, or doesn’t meet, the guidance on the card. This takes planning and practice, but it fills my heart with joy to see students looking deeply at the work of peers. My personal twist is that I include specific positive feedback to match along with areas for growth.
  4. Every student needs feedback, not only the ones who are struggling to produce work to your expectations. This is a small shift in practice I see producing great results within my classroom. At first I thought it would take me so much time to offer a specific point of growth for every one of my students, but the more I do it, the easier it is and the difference in the classroom community is worth it. I hadn’t realized that something as simple as this would nurture a growth-oriented sense of belonging for all my students by making receiving and using feedback the norm for all, regardless of their perceived level of skill. 
  5. A young learner’s emotional response to the feedback you give determines whether it will have any positive impact; you must intentionally establish a trusted-mentor relationship. This idea is enormously important for us to remember, which is why it has its own place in The Elementary Roadmap: MBE Strategies for Teaching & Learning, created by elementary educators for elementary educators as a reference and guide toward evidence-based practices that lead to achievement. It is also easy to say, but hard to do on a daily basis. This is an area where personal work is needed and where hidden biases, unconscious conditioning, and the ups and downs of our own adult lives can derail our good intentions. We all need help and a support group of like-minded educators to empower us on this journey.

Perhaps the most helpful metaphor I was ever given as a teacher was that of the role of the GPS in my car. A friend and mentor from the Center for Responsive Schools, Michelle Gill, was talking with a group of educators as we tackled the idea of how to change the tone of our feedback to make it more effective for our young students to hear and use. She described the calm, clear articulation of directions given by a GPS and went on to ask whether it would be at all helpful if the GPS voice first criticized us for missing a turning before it gave us the new pathway needed to get back on track. The idea of my GPS voicing frustration with my mistakes and misinterpretation of the directions given really hit home. I was able to feel empathy for the unnecessary stress that would result from this tone if I was already upset about making a mistake and wanted only to be guided back toward my desired destination. Holding this image in my mind has animated my efforts over the years as I continually seek to elicit evidence of learning and fully integrate effective feedback in my elementary environment.

Looking ahead to the 2021-2022 school year, I feel uplifted and optimistic because of the many generous voices who have shared their knowledge and expertise this year. As a generalist elementary educator who wishes to create optimal learning conditions for the students in my care, I appreciate the higher academic community who are reaching out to us to confirm practices that lead to achievement, as well as offer warnings when they see misinterpretations of research that could lead to negative outcomes. This is the indispensable feedback loop between practitioners and researchers, which helps us move toward our goal of academic achievement for all. 

Christine Lewis is the Lower School Teaching and Learning Strategist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the CTTL Lower School Research Lead. For the past 14 years, Christine has served the St. Andrew’s community, teaching kindergarten through fourth grade, as well as supporting the school’s early childhood and elementary faculty as they investigate research-informed, evidence-driven pedagogy for academic growth and student well-being. She is a constant learner, focused on the broad body of emerging research in the fields of education, human development, psychology, neurobiology, and sociology.