IATEFL 2017 – In one ear and out the other: does feedback work? (Lorraine Kennedy)

You’ve got to love IATEFL Online! This year I didn’t make it to IATEFL for both personal and professional reasons; the first time since 2012 that I haven’t attended for at least some of the days. I wasn’t able to follow IATEFL Online at the time of the conference, but I think it’s marvellous that all that footage is stored for so long, giving teachers across the world the chance to access it when they are able to. As for me, finally I am addressing the “IATEFL 2017” gap that is no longer in the conferences category of this blog!

I decided to start by watching Lorraine Kennedy speak about feedback as it is something that I think about a lot in my professional day-to-day life: I am currently working for the ELTC at the University of Sheffield International College and the teaching here is focused on academic skills for students who hope to start an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in the following academic year. The academic writing strand is built on the process of drafting work, receiving feedback, reflecting on it and responding it, in order to develop sufficient skills to survive and hopefully thrive in the university environment. The question of how to improve the quality of my feedback, both written and spoken (in tutorials) is one that I continuously ask. While this talk focuses on giving feedback to in-service teachers rather than students, some of it is bound to be transferable with a little thought!

Lorraine starts by pointing out that we are all both givers and receivers of feedback. She also reminds us that feedback is prominent in the world today, so much so that we often ignore requests to give it (e.g. your hotel, the flight you travelled over on etc, all of them apparently want your feedback!). In one ear and out the other. She describes an article based on research done back in 1996 that says that 1/3 of feedback has a positive result, 1/3 has no result at all and 1/3 has negative results. So that means 2/3 of feedback has no effect or a negative effect. To Lorraine this means we need to take a step back and think about it and review our thinking on it. She informs us that Deloitte Consulting Company are trying to take performance management out of the workplace, as it isn’t working.

Her first main question is: What is the point of feedback and does anything change when we give it? We need to stop and think about some fresh questions – what will I achieve by giving feedback? Does the person I’m speaking to want my feedback? Have they requested it? How can we explore the issues that we want to discuss in feedback effectively? – and we need to start with the assumption that people will not necessarily accept feedback. Giving feedback is not by definition positive or constructive, it is just an act or a form of communication. Only feedback that is accepted is likely to have an impact. Lorraine’s focus is in-service feedback for growth and professional development.

Having raised these questions she moves on to provide a definition for feedback:

Nobody is questioning that feedback done the right way is a good thing. The Hattie definition has a broad range of providers for feedback – reading a book is a form of feedback, rather than the stricter definition of expert to novice feedback. The traditional format for feedback is the sandwich approach – good, bad, good. She wonders if it has any impact on teaching practice rather than documentation just being put in a drawer and kept for inspectors to look at. She also remembers what it was like first and foremost to receive feedback – terrifying to be observed and receive feedback on that. Then she became more confident receiving feedback and also became better at assessing herself and less bothered about someone else’s opinion. She wonders how many other people experience that. The same went for giving feedback. She was uncomfortable initially and then through becoming a coach it became a more positive experience.

Lorraine is interested in 3 areas.

1) Which is better positive or negative feedback? The research will say things like if someone is a novice, focus on their effort/commitment/progress but if someone is quite experienced, you need to be more ‘brutal’ – are you successful all the time? If not, come on, let’s look at the constructive things we should look at and focus on that. It depends on the individual, the context and whether the person is listening in the first place.

2) Mindsets – growth mindsets and fixed mindsets:

Everyone likes giving feedback to the “growth mindset” people, the fixed mindset not so much. The idea is that we should work towards developing a growth mindset in everybody. What do you do with people who have been around for a while as vs children?

3) Feedback styles – there is a lot of work out there on communication styles and feedback is one aspect of that. One of the most difficult conversations to deal with is giving feedback. How to make it palatable and make people listen? Some people like it direct, no touchy feely stuff, some are the opposite. But how helpful is that? We can’t read other peoples’ minds to know if they are open to feedback and what style they appreciate unless we know them very well and even then they may change depending on the day.

Lorraine puts forward the following:

If it is unwanted or not valued, perhaps you are wasting your time. So the starting point is to be with the receiver mentality and think how does the receiver want feedback and who from? Perhaps it is not you.

She then makes some suggestions:

  • remove the word feedback from the language – has negative connotations and teachers tend to become weary of receiving it. “Really? Am I still not good enough? Do I still have to prove myself through an observation?” Instead, talk about “insight” into working performance – as a more neutral/positive term/concept.
  • use a coaching conversation technique. It doesn’t matter if you are the boss or a peer, this approach dictates that the person who has been observed takes the lead. The assumption is that if they are engaged and leading the conversation, then they are much more likely to engage willingly in that professional conversation. It could be “what would you like to talk about? what aspect of your development would you like to discuss?” (This does not apply to substandard performances but people who are well-established in the establishment).
  • coaching should lead to mentoring: the conversation should lead to your input as “giver of feedback” being requested e.g. “what would be your one suggestion to improve what I have done?” to which you could respond: “which bit would you like me to focus on?” So it is specific and requested by the individual.
  • more self-assessment should be used, so that teachers can start to lead on their own self-assessment more (performance management or observations). Very little need to tell people what to do different For this to work you need SMART objectives and it needs to be clear how progress is being measured/looked at. Encourage people to watch other people so they have benchmarks and point of comparison.
  • explore teacher beliefs about teaching and learning: it’s an important place to start. What is good classroom management? How do teachers teach well? What is a good teacher? What is effective learning? When you start with these kinds of questions you find common ground or differences of opinion to build the conversation, so that you know what perspective they are coming from and how to reach them.
  • focus on development not evaluation: if people are developing then quality results and evaluation will happen. Development is a better starting place. Goal-setting is a priority – future focus not past focus and goals need regular review. Takes the emphasis off process and puts the emphasis on results. Focus on how to impact positively on student progress and confidence? View the principles of teaching through that lens.
  • a variety of observation practices: video, audio, camera focused on the students, followed up with a coaching conversation is also valuable. Peer observation is also valuable but only when it is well set up and when people doing observations have been trained in having the post-observation dialogue. People do appreciate professional dialogue with their peers and also from managers who take the role of a peer.
  • encourage teachers to get feedback from students directly: what worked for you today? what did you find challenging? what would help next time? Five minutes at the end of a class. You can make it more formal if you wish. If we can get teachers to engage with student feedback then you won’t need to go through the managers – the teachers can report to the managers what they are learning from the students. It should be a regular part of teaching and learning.
  • establish learning culture led by teachers: creating collaborative opportunities, positive culture of growth and development. (I think my workplace does this well, with teacher-led scholarship circles)

In conclusion:

The progress being made by students doesn’t just mean results or what students got in a test, but many useful formative mechanisms in place to look at effort, confidence, support, growth, engagement etc.

Lorraine finally changes Stephen Covey’s quote to: “Begin with the students in mind” when you think about feedback in that line, greater impact on teaching and learning will result.

Here are the references she used:

Just a reminder that you can watch the full talk here.

I found this a very interesting talk and while it is focused on in-service teacher development, I wonder how I could incorporate some of what she has discussed into the feedback tutorials I have to give students based on their academic writing. As I said at the start of this post, I have done a lot of thinking about feedback, and giving feedback, since I have been working here and giving it on a fairly regular basis.

I think the process of reflecting each time on what I do, and what I could do differently, has helped me improve a bit each time. Partly I have become more confident about delivering the feedback (mirroring what Lorraine said) and so rather than being nervous I enjoy the experience of working with the students to help them improve. This is connected with increased confidence in being able to identify key areas for students to work on, that will have the most impact on improving their academic writing, and point them towards resources to help them with those. I know I used to give too much feedback initially, out of a desire to help the students as much as I could, such that it was nigh on impossible for the students a) to take it all in and b) to respond to it all in the time frame available to them. I think both the quantity and clarity of my feedback – or feed-forward if we must – has improved in this respect. Students receive the written feedback in advance of the tutorial, so they have time to look at it before they come and see me. To capitalise on this, where I used to launch straight into what I wanted to say, I now start the tutorial by asking the student if they have any questions about the written feedback or if they have any issues with their writing that they particularly want to discuss with me. Nine times out of ten, they do. Hopefully once these are dealt with,  this means they are more receptive to the rest of what I have to say and are less distracted by what they may have been worrying about up till that point. 

This term I intend to read up on and implement relevant coaching conversation techniques in my tutorials, to see if I can continue to increase their effectiveness for my students. I suspect there may be more posts in future relating to feedback!

Questions for you, if you got this far: 

  • How do you feel about giving feedback?
  • What kinds of feedback do you have to give in your job?
  • How has your style of giving feedback changed over time?
  • How would you like it to change in future?
  • What resources have you found useful in helping you with giving feedback? (Blog posts, journal articles etc)

(Feel free to pick out any of the questions that interest you and ignore the rest, or answer them all, whatever suits!)