A Feedback Culture

We’ve all been there.  You’ve just finished your formal observation with the head teacher and your head of department. You’re sweaty, pretty hungry (you probably skipped lunch to print that resource out) and a bit drained. You feel a mixture of relief and worry over whether you moved that final section of the lesson on too late. Did you support Raheem enough?  Was Leon’s thinking challenged in the right way? Could you have probed Ahmed more? You’re also pretty happy; it went well enough, and anyway, it’s over.  You sweep the left over papers off the tables and put that dictionary back on the shelf.  You open the window to let the heavy smell of collective 15-year-olds’ BO and knock-off Linx out into the afternoon air. Job done.

You head into the feedback session thinking through the WWWs and EBIs from your perspective.  The doubts are now more pronounced and are worrying you. You didn’t support Raheem enough; you should have done more.  How else could you have supported him? You should have paired Leon with someone else – this would have given him a different influx of ideas for his writing. The checklist could have had a more stretching challenge for Ahmed.  You sit down, ready for the obligatory “how do you feel the lesson went”.

Instead, you get, “What would have happened if you had not done any of that?  What if you’d just asked them to write, seen what happened, and built the lesson from there?” Well, this is a curveball…

This was the first formal observation feedback I received at School21, my small secondary school in East London.

Following that, it took me another two years more to completely let go of my previous mindset towards observations, born of 3 years of grading, OFSTED criteria and box ticking. Up to then, the most I’d stretched my thinking as a result of an observation was contemplating how to adapt my approach to suit who was observing me (literally ridiculous – I feel a bit sick writing this, but it’s the truth). Observations used to be about self-preservation, safety and striving to ‘succeed’.  They were about me.

Fast forward 3 years and my annual formal ‘impact’ observation here at School21 last year came round as my year 9s were in the middle of typing up some story drafts for a collection of Dystopian short stories we were to be publishing in a week’s time. After a brief project meeting with the class, I would be working 1-1 with a couple of students on some punctuation rules whilst others would be getting their drafts typed up. I knew there would not be ‘rapid’ (or even any) progress for many students in that 50 minutes.  I didn’t change a thing. I needed feedback on the thing that was worrying me the most about where I was at with PBL – that time spent thinking about something other than the learning (check out Daniel Willingham for some interesting and very relevant reasoning behind these worries). This wasn’t about me, this was about teaching.

That question posed to me in the first observation feedback at School 21 of course challenged how I taught writing, but more importantly it transformed the way I thought about feedback on my classroom practice; it questioned beyond the lesson and deep into my craft and it unlocked an openness around my classroom that I hadn’t felt before. It encouraged me to share my most vulnerable moments, my most uncertain experiments, the parts of my practice that need the most scrutiny and the thinking that I need to really be held to account for.

Good feedback is about flipping expectations, throwing a new context onto a current situation. It’s about probing to transformation, not making small changes.  Sure, it’s incredibly useful to get the small stuff, those ‘marginal gains’ that often do make a significant difference day-to-day and to hear practical ideas.  But it also needs to open the door to what we don’t know we don’t know. Good feedback should be planned and thought about; in that way it’s basically the same as teaching: designing questions that will drive deep and transformational thinking, facilitating ‘difficult’ conversation and challenging thesis with antithesis to provoke synthesis.

But good feedback goes beyond what is actually said; for significant impact and a truly deliberately developmental culture, it’s the wider school ethos around observation and feedback that needs crafting.  We need to undo the oppressive grading culture of the wider teaching world and open up honest and challenging conversation around classroom practice. This means not grading (and not ‘grading-behind-closed-doors-but-pretending-not-to-grade’….actually not grading), designing a culture of near constant feedback that goes in all directions on all things (why not feed back on my assembly, my phone call to a parent, my chairing of a meeting, my restorative conversation with a student?) and building an organisation on kindness. Genuine, deep rooted kindness means we can be challenging.

Of course we need to differentiate feedback and personalise it to the stage and needs of the individual, but we need to open a true dialogue in feedback, and that doesn’t stop with “how do you feel the lesson went”.

This is my dance space…

“Look spaghetti arms. This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.” As we embark on our new Maths/English project (to design a gate for Newham council to transform a currently neglected alleyway), collaboration with new partners and redefining project roles has forced me to think again about the reasons why roles are so important in taking on real world, authentic project and what makes a good role for students within a project. This got me thinking about Dirty Dancing‘s Johnny’s wise words to Baby as he taught her to dance; clarity of and respect for ‘dance space’ are vital for successful partnership. “You gotta hold the frame!”

I touched on this briefly in the concrete project, but don’t think I really deeply considered why clearly defined roles are so important within such projects.  I think there are 3 main reasons:

1. Roles empower – Probably the most important for driving purpose, having a defined role, which no-one else will be doing, is hugely empowering.  This empowerment seems to stem from trust and belief in your competence to carry out the role.  In turn, this empowerment leads to self efficacy and increased creativity; with most roles, you will make of it much more than its basic ‘job description’. In this current project for example, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site and it be a huge waste of money and time. This trust is giving students huge empowerment; they’re now talking really creatively about how their gate can lead to regeneration of the wider space for residents. 

2. Roles define, and definition leads to rigour – Having a role set out provides a really clear outcome or success criteria. Within a learning experience, this means we can control the ‘minimum’ or ‘central’ learning, or include some more defined content through definition of role.  At a recent conference, the question posed at me by several people was ‘in an open ended, previously-unsolved-problem based project, how can you ensure that students learn what is intended- how do you maintain some curriculum content?’  And the answer to this I think lies with role. In our concrete project for example, our role as report writers meant we could stick to our learning of formal, informative non-fiction writing.  For anything outside of our role (filming, online campaigns, designing an algebraic model etc) we used other people with their own clearly define roles.  We stuck to our ‘dance spaces’ gaining the time and space for deep, rigorous learning. 

3. Roles increase accountability – This is linked closely to the first of the reasons and probably best described annecdotally…returning to the example from above, in this current project, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site.  But importantly, no-one else is going to be doing this job for them.  If it’s wrong, it is quite simply wrong. There is no buffer, no backstop, no safety net. We won’t just hide this work if it doesn’t work out, and the teacher won’t complete it for them if it’s unfinished.  It only takes one high stakes failure for students who don’t see it to realise the genuine accountability of learning in this way. We set our school up to offer these opportunities, with good after-care, through many different elements of school life; exhibition nights where student work is displayed, student led parent-teacher conferences instead of parents evenings led by a teacher and public speaking events for every student every year. 

So in designing a project for students, I think it’s relevant to work backwards from these three things and ask ‘does this role empower, define and increase accountability? It’s only in getting this slightly wrong on this current project, that I’ve realised how accidentally effective our role was on the previous one! We’ve been a bit ‘spaghetti arms’ in the design of this project role and therefore are now trying to backwards define our exact position within the wider gate making team. 

Going forward, the difficulty once this is achieved, lies in sticking to role and ensuring others you are working with have the same high expectations of students to carry out their role to a high quality. This is something that potentially stems out of reputation and relationships and many will be built over time between a group or school and partners/the wider community.