Feedback, Affirmation, and the Delusion of Good Work

Despite the concern educators frequently express about the challenges of time in the scheduled life of school, most do still find time for conversations with colleagues. It might be over a morning or lunch break, or at either end of the school day, nonetheless they all value being able to connect with colleagues and share what’s on their minds.

The irony of this is that so much of what is shared can be reflections of life outside school over the watercooler, or what might be called transactional conversations: a scheduling or room change, a search for a resource or a student discipline matter that needs attention.

The result is that school schedules unfortunately rarely provide enough space or time for genuine professional reflection and conversation. Fortunately, this appears to be changing slowly and we are seeing more of the Elmore-style instructional rounds, peer observation and peer coaching in formats such as “triads”.

In Leadership for Powerful Learning (2015), authors David Hopkins and Wayne Craig describe the power of teachers working in triads.

The primary function of triad, peer coaching is to learn through observing and help colleagues by providing information about how students respond—not to give expert advice…

The opportunity for individual teachers to engage in collegial work with two other peers broadens the experiences of the team members, expands their professional conversations, and allows for multiple perspectives about topics and solutions. Teachers work in assigned or self-selected groups of three, taking turns participating in three distinct roles: coach, coachee, and observer.

The critical role of “observer” adds an outside perspective that might be lost if teachers worked only in pairs, allowing teachers an opportunity to effectively provide descriptive feedback and ask skillful questions that encourage more reflective processing.

This format requires active, rather than passive, involvement and gives all participants experience in giving and receiving feedback, and observing others’ teaching practices.”

As exciting and effective as these emerging professional practices are, they can also be at the heart of some very difficult conversations. Unfortunately, it’s the quality of feedback that seems to be where the value of peer observation and coaching too often falls down.

While a shared language around learning, agreed protocols or norms and appropriate school culture are essential preconditions, ultimately it’s the nature of the professional dialogue where the rubber hits the road.

As Shelia Heen explains in a recent Ted talk, she and her colleagues at the Harvard Negotiation Project found that when they asked any group, from any industry, from any country what were their toughest conversations, feedback came up as their response every time.

However, the really interesting piece about that finding was that while many people had focused on how to give feedback, few had focused on how to receive it.

In any exchange around feedback, isn’t it really the receiver who is in charge? It’s the receiver who decides what they’re going to let in, it’s the receiver who decides what sense they’re going to make of it, and they are the ones who decide whether and how they ultimately choose to change.

Deen previously co-authored the top-selling Difficult Conversations with Harvard colleague Douglas Stone, a practical guide on how to talk about “what matters most”, even when the subject is really, really uncomfortable.

After a decade of working around that topic, it naturally led to their most recent book, Thanks for the Feedback. They open it by asking “What if we could see receiving feedback as a skill, and we could be better at learning from feedback, taking charge of it and driving our own learning?”

What are the implications of that for your role in your school?

As Deen suggests, when we receive feedback we are torn between the two emotions: the need to learn and grow, contrasting with the need to be accepted and respected for the way we are now. We might all need and thrive on affirmation at various times, but our need for it can also stop us from learning more about ourselves and who we are.

It’s way too easy to wallow in the delusion that you are doing good work, and not recognize you are getting in your own way. It’s the anchor that holds us back, and maybe if we were more aware of how to receive feedback we would have more opportunity to learn and grow?

We now live in a world of perpetual change, and our ability to stay relevant depends as much on our own self-awareness as it does on our ability to accept advice and feedback in our practice, be it in a classroom, or as a school or District leader.

Certainly, that starts with a commitment to set up the conditions to review and reflect more frequently on our work. Not as a random, occasional event but rather as a continuous professional expectation around practice.

However, the really important point about feedback and how you receive it, is how it, in turn, reflects on the expectations you have of your students. If you are truly committed to student agency, one of the most important skills that allow them to learn and improve from the work they undertake is their ability to both give and receive feedback.

Peer review and feedback by and for students is only real when the adults in the room experience it as a natural part of their professional learning also, and we can only negotiate the difficult conversations that inevitably naturally arise if we focus as much on receiving feedback as we do on giving it.

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1 thought on “Feedback, Affirmation, and the Delusion of Good Work”

  1. Susan

    Thank you – a great read. I will use this as a staff Pd conversation starter

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