Category Archives: Feedback

Peer Feedback Matters.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a ton of experimenting in my sixth grade classroom with peer feedback — structured opportunities for students to give and receive feedback from one another.  

That’s primarily a function of efficiency.   Teaching close to 120 students with a wide range of skills and abilities every single year makes it darn near impossible for me alone to provide feedback to the learners in my classroom.  If the best feedback is both timely and directive — an argument that Bob Marzano made nearly a decade ago — we need to teach students to look for guidance and support from one another rather than simply waiting to receive feedback from classroom teachers, who are perpetually buried in stacks of papers that need to be graded.

Every time that I pitch peer feedback to other educators, however, I’m met with real skepticism.  Teachers doubt the value of the feedback that students can provide to each other.  That’s a legitimate concern, given that most students have little experience giving feedback to — and receiving feedback from — one another in traditional classrooms.

The solution, though, isn’t to avoid peer feedback.  The solution is to give students lots of experience and practice with peer feedback.  The more structured opportunities that students have giving and receiving feedback with one another, the more skilled they will become.  And the more skilled that students become with peer feedback, the less teachers have to worry about whether or not the experience will be worthwhile.

So how do you ensure that peer feedback experiences are productive?  Start by encouraging students to give each other observations instead of evaluations.  

Statements like, “I really like” , “You’ve done a great job on _________” or “You need to improve your _____, ” are the kinds of comments that students are used to giving to one another.  After all, they are the kinds of comments they’ve long received from the teachers and other adult mentors in their lives.

But they are also evaluative — implying a judgment — and that’s when peer feedback can feel intimidating and awkward.  Sometimes, peers shy away from giving negative feedback to one another because they are afraid of hurting feelings.  Other times, peers are hesitant to receive feedback from one another because they don’t see classmates as authority figures capable of making accurate judgments.  The result is mediocre feedback experiences, hurt feelings, or both.

Instead, teach your students to use statements like “I notice that _____,” or “I’m not sure that I see ______ in your work.”  Those phrases are simply observations.  They don’t imply a judgment at all, leaving the recipient to decide what the feedback means about the overall quality of a work product.

Best of all, encouraging students to make observations instead of evaluations is easy.  Getting started requires nothing more than sharing lots of examples of observational sentence starters with students.  You can also compile lists of samples of comments made during peer feedback sessions and ask students to identify the statements that are observations and the statements that are evaluations.

Dylan Wiliam likes to argue that we need to turn feedback into “detective work.”  His central argument is a simple one:  The best feedback is gathered by — rather than given to — learners.  Well structured peer feedback experiences built on observations instead of evaluations can give BOTH students involved — the giver and the recipient — chances to act like detectives by reflecting on how well individual work products align with success criteria.

That means time spent in peer feedback experiences is time that everyone spends learning.

To learn more about the role that peer feedback can play in your classroom, check out Bill’s newest book, Creating a Culture of Feedback.  


Related Radical Reads:

Is REAL Formative Assessment Even Possible?

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Handwashing?

Turning Feedback into Detective Work

 

First Comes Achievement. Then Comes Confidence.

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit here on the Radical titled Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid.  In it, I shared the story of my daughter — who came home broken one day because her progress report wasn’t what she expected it to be.  Her peers were earning threes and fours, but her report was covered in twos — and while she knows little about what those numbers really mean, she felt like a failure.  That broke my heart.

A reader named David Cain — who happens to have an equally vibrant six year old daughter — stopped by and left a brilliant comment that you should read in full.  Here’s the part that caught my eye, though:

Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes. Her own genius shines through the narrow parameters of a grading and assessment system that was poorly able to meet the needs of twentieth-century learning, let alone 21.5-century learning.

David’s right, isn’t he.  EVERY kid learns much, much more than the “expected outcomes” during the course of any given school year.

(click here to enlarge/view/download original image on Flickr)

Slide_MaththatREALLYMattered

Whether it happens inside or outside of our classrooms, our kids are always learning.

Some master new interpersonal skills, giving them the ability to work in groups or to serve as a leader in formal or informal settings.  Some become more confident in themselves, proving once and for all that they really are competent and capable learners.  Some discover their lifelong passions, falling in love with a topic or a subject that leaves them energized every time that they think about it.  Some begin to recognize the connection between their own actions and success, developing the independence characteristic of successful individuals.

Some fail for the first time — and then realize that moving beyond failure is simply a part of a life well-lived.  Some wrestle with difficult friendships and the impact that those relationships can have on one’s well-being and sense of satisfaction.  Some start to see criticism as a form of coaching, designed to improve rather than to destroy.  Some realize that an entire world’s worth of learning is an Internet connection away and begin clicking their way to new discoveries on their own.

What does this all mean for us classroom teacher types?

First, we need to stop defining our students as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that schools are required to report on.  

Doing so cheapens “the whole child” that we used to be so passionate about protecting.  In our quest to identify and then remediate “struggling students”(read: the kids likely to score poorly on standardized reading and math exams at the end of the school year), we’ve forgotten that there are plenty of reasons that those exact same students deserve to be celebrated. And whether we will admit it or not, overlooking the successes of struggling students influences our interactions with the kids in our classrooms.  If you are genuinely convinced that a kid is a failure, how likely are you to work hard to help them succeed?

#stewinthatchat

But more importantly, we also have to make sure that our students don’t define THEMSELVES as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that we are required to report on.

What I worry about the most with my daughter — who is a mirror reflection of many of the kids in my classroom — is that she has already begun to doubt herself.  She knows that doing well in school is important.  She knows that the “report card” — which is filled out by someone who is always judging her, is sent home in a special envelope a few times a year, and must be signed by her mom and dad — matters more than anything else that happens in school.  She also knows that (1). Kids are being ranked and sorted by the numbers that appear on those report cards and that (2). She’s at the bottom of the pile.

What she doesn’t know is that in a lot of ways, she’s MORE than the intellectual equal of her peers.  She may not have mastered all of her word families yet, but she probably knows more about life in Colonial America than anyone in her class.  It’s true that she’s a level or two behind in her reading, but ask her about how the structures and functions of individual plants aid in the survival of species, and she’ll talk your ear off.  “Tell me more, Daddy!” — proof of her curiosity and her appetite for learning — comes out of her mouth a thousand times a day.

One of the quotes that is currently driving my own thinking about classroom feedback and assessment comes from this Jan Chappius and Rick Stiggins article.  They write:

First comes achievement and then comes confidence.  With increased confidence, comes the belief that learning is possible.  Success must be framed in terms of academic attainments that represent a significant personal stretch.  Focused effort with an expectation of success is essential.  Students must come to honestly believe that what counts here — indeed the only thing that counts here — is that learning results from the effort expended.

If Chappius and Stiggins are right that achievement precedes confidence, that confidence determines effort and that effort leads to success, then our top assessment priority must be to point out to every student the places where they ARE achieving and where they HAVE succeeded through focused effort.  But that can’t happen when our definitions of “achievement” and “success” are limited to “mastering expected outcomes.”  That can only happen when we start to celebrate the unexpected outcomes that our kids are mastering.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

 

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Most of Radical Nation knows that I am the proud father of a beautiful, funny, curious girl named Reece.  I love darn near everything about her — the sweet notes that she’s taken to leaving on my nightstand, her excitement about riding bikes or learning to hit a baseball, the fact that Who Was history biographies are her favorite things to read, the constant questions that she’s asking in an attempt to understand the world around her.  “Tell me something about science Dad,” or “Tell me something about our Presidents” are the most common conversation starters in our home.

Need proof that she’s something special?  A recent homework assignment asked her to generate a survey question to ask others that had three potential responses.  The example on the classroom handout was, “What color eyes do you have – Blue, Brown or Green?” Reece’s question:  “Who was your favorite person in history — Clara Barton, Einstein or Picasso?”

#loveher

But she came home from school broken the other day.

She’d gotten her progress report for the fourth quarter and it was full of low scores for things like her ability to sound out letters and to fluently read text.  She was also in a panic over her weekly spelling test — which she always struggles on because letter sounds really aren’t her strength.  “Dad, I’m dumb.  Everyone else is smarter than me — they don’t have any ones on their progress reports — and my friends say they are better than I am because I have ones on my report card and they have lots of fours and I don’t have any fours,” she said while crying her way through her bedtime routine.

Her tears tore me up.  I felt like I had failed her somehow by not finding a way to help her master her reading and spelling just as fast as her classmates even though I know that reading is a developmental skill that takes some kids longer to master than others; I was angry that progress reports had turned into an “I’m better than you are” competition in her social group; and I was panicked about the realization that my daughter was falling behind academically simply because I know what “falling behind” can mean for her long term future.

Mostly, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that anxiety over grades — which continue to define everything about the work that we do in traditional schools — has creeped into the back of my daughter’s  joyful, unpredictable mind.  Instead of seeing the scores on her progress report as nothing more than evidence that we can use to spot areas where she needs more practice and polishing, she sees them — like most students and parents who have spent their lives being ranked and sorted by the public school system — as a judgment of her self-worth as person.  In her mind, her progress report is proof positive that she’s “not as good” as her peers.

And she’s only six years old.

#sheesh

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t hold my daughter’s school, teacher, or classmates accountable for any of this.  Progress reports are required by our system and grades are “just how we’ve always done things” in education.  What’s more, there’s nothing inaccurate about the marks that Reece has earned.  She really does struggle with letter sounds, she really hasn’t gotten as far down the road to being a reader as her peers, and she really is still spelling phonetically.  If I were filling out her progress report, she would have earned the exact same marks.

But it leaves me even more committed to the notion that the kind of feedback that we provide to students in our classrooms needs to change.

Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

If that kind of ongoing student-involved assessment were the norm in our classrooms, progress reports would be a source of celebration and continued reflection — instead of embarrassment and shame — for kids like Reece.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Welcoming the Newest Radical

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

The REAL Feedback Experts in Your Building

One of my best buds is a brilliant Canadian elementary school teacher named Diana Williams.  She’s this super motivated, talented woman who finds great ideas and then runs with them — challenging both her own practice and the practice of others along the way.

Recently, Diana has been tinkering a bit with the feedback practices that I’ve been pushing here on the Radical — and while chaperoning a school band trip to an out-of-town performance, she had a Eureka moment:

(click here to view image credits and download on Flickr)
Slide - Rehersals as Feedback

Diana’s right, isn’t she?  There ARE places in our schools where high-quality feedback is the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  

In fact, every art teacher, chorus teacher, band director and coach in your building knows just how to turn feedback into detective work for their students.  After all, they’ve spent their lives polishing and perfecting knowledge and skills in performance-based fields.  As Diana — who was a musician before ever becoming a teacher — explains:

In my own training I had this immediate feedback/application cycle and the thinking skills that are inherit in that process/feedback modeled for and with me and practiced until it became unconscious muscle memory.

That’s true for your softball coach too, guys.  And for your carpentry teacher and your auto mechanics instructor, your drama director, your family and consumer science teacher, and your dance instructor.  They are all highly trained experts with first-hand experience with the kind of feedback/application cycle that Diana describes.

That also means every experience that your students have had in classes beyond the core curriculum has probably been FULL of examples of high quality feedback.

They’ve already learned to set goals and measure their progress against examples of excellence.  They’ve already started identifying areas of personal strength and weakness — and they’ve already felt the satisfaction that comes from discovering that forward progress IS possible.

THAT’s why kids dig electives more than any other part of their day.  It’s the ONE place where they can see evidence of their own improvement on a moment by moment basis.  And THAT’s why we need to push against cheap attempts to cut “the specials” from our school days in order to save cash and/or prioritize “academics.”

The simple truth is that learning to receive and react to feedback — a skill that has natural connections to classes outside of the “core” curriculum — may be the most important academic skill that students ever learn.

#truDATchat

__________________

Related Radical Reads:

The Best Feedback is Gathered, Not Given

New Feedback Activity:  Not Yet/You Bet Lists

New Feedback Activity: The Best Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

The Best Feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN

All y’all know that I’ve been completely consumed by reimagining the role that feedback should play in the modern classroom, right?  I’ve been reading darn near everything written by experts like Dylan Wiliam, Grant Wiggins, John Hattie, Rick Stiggins, Jan Chappuis, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.  More importantly, I’ve been tinkering with the feedback practices in my classroom for the better part of the past four years.

If there’s any single thought that holds together the key findings of all of these folks, it’s that the best feedback is GATHERED, not GIVEN:

(click here to view and download original image on Flickr)

Slide - Gathered By Filled

Here’s why:  When we reverse the traditional roles that teachers and learners play in the classroom feedback cycle, we are helping our students to recognize that the people who are the MOST successful in our world AREN’T those who can take critique from a boss and adjust their actions/behaviors/work products accordingly.

The MOST successful people in our world are constantly critiquing THEMSELVES.  They are identifying meaningful goals worth pursuing, looking for exemplars to measure their own performances against, setting criteria for determining success, measuring their own progress, and constantly adjusting their goals, their decisions, their actions and their direction on the fly.

To borrow a related thought from Mortimer Adler, author of The Paideia Proposal:

All genuine learning is active, not passive.  It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory.  It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.

So ask yourself this:  How often is the feedback process that you are using with students active and not passive?  How often does it turn your students into the main agents in a process of discovery, using their minds to create meaning and find sense in their own patterns of performance?

#toughquestion

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Related Radical Reads:

New Feedback Activity:  Unit Analysis Forms

New Feedback Activity:  Not Yet/You Bet Lists

New Feedback Activity: The Best Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process