The Role of Feedback in Deep Learning and Motivation – As teachers we strive to assist our students by providing timely, focused and goal-directed feedback. But have you ever stopped to think that focusing on feedback might be counterproductive? This is because most feedback is about “TELLING” the students.
Anyone who has kids knows that there is a limit to how much they learn from being told! They don’t learn by being told to stay out of the way of the swing. They get hit once, and they learn. The issue is that students very often do not understand what feedback implies for their own work.
What happens is that feedback gets more and more elaborate and this actually doesn’t help students become independent. We have to ask ourselves – ‘what skills do we want our students to master’?
I say, that we need them to be able to make good judgements. We need them to be able to analyse. We need them to be able to state a position and defend it. And we need to do this in an environment where their proposition and their defence of it can be analysed; putting the students in the role of making judgements.
To some degree, giving feedback all the time removes that. The person giving the feedback is the one making the judgement, not the student. When it comes to making absolute judgements, it is easier for human beings to compare two things and make a decision about which one is better.
We’re not good at carrying around absolute values in our heads, but we can compare reasonably well. That’s where you have the opportunity to give students some practice at judgmental thinking, coming up with reasons, and defending their judgements.
And maybe in this process they modify or revise their judgements. The process of expressing what we think we are thinking often changes our thinking! We’ve got to put students in the role of being the observer, or the sensor of what’s there, the evaluator of it, and then knowing what to do about it. It’s like a detective looking for information to use.
Nearly always it’s also the teacher who tells learners what to do to make their work better. Students are better at evaluating work that is not their own, because it’s not their personal property, and not an extension of themselves. With someone else’s work, they are detached from it and that’s the best type of thing we need to build into our teaching practice, rather than having someone constantly telling students the answers.
Take for example a student musician I know. Let’s call him Alex. He practices trombone every evening. Alex’s parents were friends of mine and they listened to every practice session. They thought they were being helpful by telling Alex when he played the wrong note or was out of tune. I told them to try listening without giving any advice or correcting him. Just for one day.
So they listened. Alex played a wrong note and stopped and said ‘that’s not right’, and he went about working out what the right note was. He started to learn that he was in control. He has to figure out that something’s not right and then what to do about it. And that’s why feedback is often way over-emphasised. It’s a simple idea.
You put the students in situations where they have to make judgements about works of the same kind that they are being asked to produce. And then you say ‘is it any good’? And then ‘How good it is?’ And then ‘Why?’ ‘Why did you judge it like that’?
Finally, you say ‘What would you say to the person who wrote this?’ ‘What advice would you give to make it even better?’ The deepest connection with the task is achieved by the person making judgement about it. When the students have to provide advice, that’s when the really potent learning takes place.
Ultimately I want students to be able to monitor the quality of what they were doing, while they are doing it. That’s the critical time. That’s when it matters. And even the youngest of our learners can achieve this. In Australia there are two TV programmes specially geared for preschoolers. One is called Sesame Street – which lots of people know about.
The other is called Playschool, which is very different, and produced by Australia’s ABC, our national broadcaster. I asked this three year old, “Which do you like best, Playschool or Sesame Street?” He thought for a little and said I don’t know. After about a minute, I said, “Tomorrow, if Mummy said you could watch only one of those, which one would it be?”
He thought, and then said “Playschool”. “OK, so why do you like Playschool better?” “I don’t know. I just do.” So I pressed further. “Is there something you like that happens in Playschool that doesn’t happen in Sesame Street? Or maybe something that happens in Sesame Street that you don’t like?
He thought for a bit longer and then said, “The stories are longer in Playschool.” I said, “But there are plenty of stories in Sesame Street.” “Yes, but they’re all in bits. I like to sit down and listen to the story.” He liked the longer story, and Sesame Street doesn’t have a segment like that.
So here’s a three year old making a holistic judgment and then identifying criteria for judging between two programmes. Everything in the education system has conditioned students to believe that the teacher knows and the teacher is the judge. Being discerning, perceptive, seeing what’s there, not what’s not there, responding to a phenomenon or object and then tuning your response to what’s generally accepted as high quality is critically important.
We should want our students to be able to judge the quality of their own work in the moment of production. Like a surgeon I knew. I asked him ‘How do you make decisions when you have a tricky operation. He said ‘well you don’t really have much time to deliberate and make decisions. Unexpected things happen all the time.
You just respond automatically’. ‘You have to make decisions in the moment. You can’t write a rubric for it.’ But this type of tacit knowledge can only picked up through repeated exposure and in environments where you are making judgements and defending them. We should be part of the students’ acceleration of their tacit knowledge.
We don’t want to ‘feed forward’ to the point that we are holding learners’ hands. We should be helping the learners become intelligent deciders. And, they should develop knowledge across two dimensions. One is what the scale of ‘woeful to brilliant’ looks like – varying qualities. And this means seeing multiple responses to the same task.
The second is to compare two works of similar quality but are similar for different reasons. As teachers we see hundreds of pieces of work and we are constantly calibrating . But the students don’t regularly get this experience, and we need to provide this for them.
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