Are we giving good feedback?

I think the title presents a clear question.  I’ve been reading a lot of student writing and drafting lately and providing feedback.  Feedback is one of the elements on our evaluation rubric.  We expect feedback from our school leaders regarding our teaching performance.  Feedback is one of those terms we throw around so much that I’m not so sure we are all using the same definition.

One of my favorite places to turn for educational readings is Grant Wiggins’ blog, and one of my favorite posts of his regards feedback: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/what-feedback-is-and-isnt/

in this article he begins by asking which of these 4 examples is actual feedback:

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

2. “Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

3. “The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

4. “You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

And then promptly points out that none of the 4 is feedback.  This has always stood out to me because I think we often believe we are providing feedback when in reality we are not.  Feedback should indicate to a student where he stands in relation to a goal.  While praise and advice are both worthwhile things in their own right, neither of them is true feedback.  I worry that we are so hung up on providing feedback that we don’t actually focus on whether or not we are providing good feedback.  I would bet in most schools, leaders would view advice as feedback, so teachers provide lots of advice.

The moments that always stand out to me regarding feedback are from my public speaking classes.  In Public Speaking students are required to deliver a sales pitch.  shortly thereafter, I always ask the class who was actually convinced to purchase a product based on the sales pitch.  That is the clearest feedback these students can get regarding the effectiveness of their speech.  If the intended goal is to sell something and people are buying it or not buying, you have all sorts of useful information to determine how well you did.  This is much stronger feedback than anything I could write or say about the speech after the fact.

Feedback is, perhaps surprisingly, a tricky piece of the educational lexicon.  Perhaps it is worth analyzing our own feedback to determine if we are giving good feedback or not.

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Stress

I haven’t posted in quite some time.  I, like everyone else, have been quite busy lately what with the term ending soon and all my many obligations.  Last week in particular was a rather draining week for me.  The grading is piling up, and I haven’t slept well in the past couple of weeks, and last week I had two committee meetings that I chair.  All this is a way to say, I’ve been feeling stress recently.

On Thursday, I teach night school, and as usual I went up around 5:30 to the teacher’s room to heat up my lunch when I saw one of my coworkers still going strong.  I always see him on Thursdays still working.  He tells me that it is unusual that he goes home before 6 or so.  Now he is young teacher with no kids in his first year.  Seeing him made me think of just how stressful it is to be a good teacher and what schools do to try to mitigate teacher stress.

We all know burnout is a major problem among teachers.  We also know teachers have many demands put on us.  We’ve all known 12+ hour days and sometimes we heroically announce that the only time we see the sun is through our classroom window as if that is something to be proud of.  We also know that this sort of work/life balance is unsustainable.

Schools try to offer various solutions to teacher stress and burn out.  I’ve seen many schools offer various stress management workshops; some schools have yoga, meditation, or exercise clubs for their faculty all (at least partially) sold on the idea that they help reduce stress.  I applaud these efforts, and I hope schools continue offering them, but I fear they are only short term solutions-solutions that look good, but don’t really solve the problem.

The reality is that we, as educators, have to be willing to walk away from work or just say no.  While we have many pressures put on us, many of our obligations and stress are self inflicted and we need to give ourselves permission to let go of these.  So many of us are perfectionists or over achievers by nature that we kill ourselves unnecessarily.  Rarely does that test need to be graded and handed back the next day.  For example we are a google school, so naturally many teachers use google classroom.  We are required to post our assignments in our grade book so students have access to it.  We are not required to use google classroom, but many people do, so they feel obligated to post their assignments there as well thus duplicating their work.  This is a small example, but my point is that sometimes we build more work for ourselves.

We relax by watching netflix, but we feel guilty not grading at the same time.  So what do we do?  We grade while we relax, which is of course not very relaxing (and probably not very efficient grading either).  We know this isn’t healthy.  We know this isn’t sustainable.  And yet we do it to ourselves all the time.

We need to give ourselves permission to de-stress and school leaders need to make it known that that is acceptable and should be encouraged.

Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

What’s in a meme? (part V)

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Welcome to part 5.  For parts 1-4 check out hereherehere, and here.

Conform: Intellectually and socially.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the virtue in most demand in society is conformity.  This sentiment is clear throughout the work of Transcendental writers: non-conformity leads to great things.  And their ideas have been used as inspiration for countless movers and shakers in our country and our world. These are the very movers and shakers (writers, politicians, activists,etc.) that we teach in our schools every day.  Surely we must be teaching students the importance of non-conformity.  Whether implicitly or explicitly in many courses we teach the importance and potential results of not conforming.

But the policies, procedures and actions of schools and individual teachers do not generally accept nonconformity.  After all, society demands conformity.  Society ostracizes and punishes (sometimes violently) nonconformity. We all know this.  Society has unwritten rules (as well as some written ones) as to how people are supposed to behave.   Schools are no different, which makes sense since schools are societal institutions.  Sure individual teachers may praise nonconformity and “thinking outside the box” from time to time.  But eventually even they have their limits and some actions may be too far out the box to be accepted.  In fact, we even teach our autistic population how to act in a “socially expected” way.

As I remind my students often, nonconformity may lead to great things, but it is not without its consequences.  It is a matter of whether or not the individual is willing to accept those consequences to act as a nonconformist.  I often argue that education is about finding a balance, which I’ve mentioned many times previously.  Issues of conformity are no different.  As teachers we need to nurture individuals and their creativity and ability to think outside the box while also teaching them the potential consequences of this.

What’s in a meme (part IV)

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Welcome to my 4th installment discussing this meme.  Check out parts 1-3 herehere, and here.

Non-compliance is punished.

For most of these claims, there is a little bit of truth, but not the whole story.  I will fully admit that #4 is pretty darn accurate.  Non-compliance is punished in just about every classroom and every school out there, but this is because schools are a product of society–a society in which non-compliance is punished.  So many people already complain that kids and teenagers are disrespectful.  Could you imagine how much more these people would complain if schools didn’t, in some way, punish non-compliance?  Without going into the science about brain development and whatnot, students need boundaries and consequences for exceeding those boundaries.  Anybody who has actually worked with students knows this.

Many people are probably saying, but what about civil disobedience?  If a rule is unjust, unfair, or unnecessary, students should practice civil disobedience.  After all, we teach students (directly or indirectly) the virtues of civil disobedience.  In fact my students even read Henry David Thoreau’s piece called “Civil Disobedience.”  Aren’t I being slightly hypocritical for not practicing what I preach? Not exactly.  What often gets forgotten in that argument is that Henry David Thoreau wrote that while in jail.  He practiced civil disobedience by not paying his taxes to fund a war that he thought was unjust.  As a result he was punished and sent to jail.  As we talk about this, I constantly remind my students that civil disobedience comes with consequences.  Your non-compliance will be punished.

When one thinks about non-compliance and civil disobedience, the most prominent example is the work of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.  These people staged sit-ins at whites only counters, etc. and fought for what is just.  Many might argue that by punishing non-compliance in schools we are hindering these sorts of movements in the future.  Again, I’d point out that these civil rights activists were all punished-not just by being sent to jail, but also through physical violence.  I’d also point out that it is easy to say you’d be civilly disobedient, but much harder to actually do it when the time comes.  Martin Luther King Jr. actually trained people in how to sit at the counter and keep calm while being insulted and physically attacked.  I don’t know many people-nonetheless school age students-who could withstand that sort of abuse while remaining calm without the necessary training.

None of this is to say that students have no ability to question authority or school rules.  While I alluded to this in a previous post about this meme, in my experience schools (and individual teaches) have allowed students to voice concerns about policy.  For example, a few years back the dress code for one particular dance was made more stringent than it ever has been.  One member of the student government, with the guidance of the adviser, circulated a petition regarding this change.  This was a means to start a conversation that has been ongoing since though the dress code for this dance is looser now.

My point is that while non-compliance is generally punished in schools, there are means for students to question the rules and authorities.  It is easy to suggest that we are squashing free thinkers, but it is much harder to maintain an appropriate learning environment than non-educators realize.  We must strike a balance that helps and supports all our students.

What’s in a meme? (part III)

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Welcome to part 3 of my “what’s in a meme?” series. For part 1 click here and here for part 2.

Accurate memory an repetition are rewarded.

Ironically, number 3 on this meme seems a bit repetitive of number 2, so there may be some overlap in my discussion.  As I mentioned previously educators have moved beyond simply expecting students to repeat answers back to them, and we are working to hone this at a greater level.  I applaud our progress and commitment in this area.

Now as for the implication that memory is of utmost importance and worthy of reward the conversation differs some.  We talk often in education about the need for students to be able to apply various skills and ideas.  This is great.  For example, I want my students to apply their writing skills in order to produce high quality prose.  But in order to do this, they must first remember (ie use their memory) what those skills are.  The application of skills and knowledge cannot happen without having the memory first.  I’m not arguing for straight rote memorization here, but this statements cuts a rather broad swath here.

Even thinking beyond the need for memory for application, society expects our students to remember content.  Talking heads all over the media lament how culturally illiterate our students are.  An article I read recently decries the fact that only 38% of 17 year old students could accurately name Geoffery Chaucer as the author of The Canterbury Tales.  As someone who teaches this piece this number appalls me, but doesn’t really surprise me.   As a society we get all up in arms that students don’t seem to know basic things and look at it as an indictment on our educational system, while at the same time complaining that our educational system focuses too much on memorizing unimportant facts.  We can’t have it both ways America.  Anyone with any sense knows that memory plays an important part in learning.  Let’s not falsely demonize schools for this.

What’s in a meme (part II)

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Yesterday I began my breakdown of the points laid out in this meme  (for part 1 click here).  Today I’ll tackle point number 2: Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat.

About 7 or 8 years ago, we had a guest speaker come and talk tot he department.  The first thing she asked us to do was write down the three most important things we want our students to be able to do.  Almost universally, we wrote down “to think independently” or something in that vain.  While the session was not very helpful over all, this stands out to me because I think it still holds true across not just my department, but the educational system as a whole.  As teachers, we want students who can think independently and critically (though we don’t always agree on what it means to think critically).

That being said, thinking and intelligence aren’t the same thing.  But I’m interpreting the statement to suggest that those who do best in school (i.e. the most intelligent) are those who can remember and repeat.  Quite frankly, that’s hogwash.  One of the first things any one learns in teacher school is Bloom’s taxonomy and pushing students to higher level reasoning through analysis and synthesis.  Bloom’s has given way to the cognitive rigor matrix lately, but that still stresses higher level skills.  There may have been a time in education when the top students were those who could remember and repeat, but that ship has sailed.  As educators we recognize the importance of asking students to do so much more, and we hold them to that.  Could we move further up the cognitive rigor matrix?  Absolutely.  But I am sure that classes everywhere have moved beyond simply remember and repeat.

As a quick caveat before I go on, remembering and repeating does have its place.  Teachers just need to remember to move beyond it.  Certainly students need to be able to remember and repeat things before moving on though.  I am still grateful that I was forced to memorize my multiplication tables years ago.  Could I take out a calculator every time I need to multiply something?  Sure, but by having memorized my multiplication tables, I am able to do far more in-depth math far more efficiently.  The same can be said for foreign language teachers forcing their students to memorize vocab and verb conjugations.  Memorization is a worthwhile skill and still has its place in schools.

Every time I ask students to write essays (which is often), read and analyze a text (again, often)  or conduct research, I am asking them to do much more than simply remember and repeat.  Yes, they must remember what a symbol is, for example, in order to analyze it, but they’re tasked with much more than just find the symbol and label it.  They must prod deeper into whatever they are given.  Some of the questions I ask my students include: Is Rev. Dimmesdale (from The Scarlet Letter) a good man?  Who is Death of a Salesman really about-Willy or Biff?  Explain the title The Great Gatsby.  None of these questions are simply remember and repeat sort of questions, and they are indicative of the types of questions students are asked throughout the country.  I know this because I routinely find these types of questions and assignments on the internet and through connecting with other teachers on twitter.

I imagine that many people who believe this statement though will point to standardized testing as their evidence.  Standardized testing is an entirely different subject, but bear in mind most people who rail against the remember and repeat fashion of standardized testing haven’t actually participated in any sort of standardized testing and are basing their opinion on outrageous examples spread through the media.  While I have plenty of issues with standardized testing, I am actually relatively impressed with how much the questions (even the multiple choice questions) ask students to do more than just remember and repeat.  For example, when the question asks about the writer’s purpose, the student must do more than just remember and repeat.  He has to be able to pull from the text.  The latest round of standardize tests that are aligned with the Common Core go even further and ask for evidence from the text to support the answer.

Remember and repeat may have been the way of doing things back in the day, but schools have evolved beyond this today.