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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What does “exceeds standard” means

Grades are one area of education that has always intrigued me.  I’ve always felt that grades were about much more than just what a student knows or is able to do.  The latest research in education continues to confirm this.  But even with the push into standards based grading, there is room for a great deal of inaccuracies and subjectivity, and grades are still, at least partially, related to how well the student can “play school.”

I preface this all by saying I am a strong supporter of standards based grading; I believe it is more accurate by far and a better means of communication to the student.  I also strongly believe that grading is not something that can be changed quickly and overnight.  Ideas about grades are simply too deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.  That being said, I come to today’s post from two distinctly different pieces of information.  One is a grading directive here at my school with which I vehemently disagree; the other is an article I read about a school in Maryland reverting back to an A-F scale from what they call “standards based.”  (I question their use of the term standards based here).

In short I am bothered by how we are defining (or not defining) the highest grade.  In the Maryland school district it was called “ES” for “Exceptional.”   (Why ES is beyond me).  In my school a 4 is our top grade and is defined as “exceeding expectations.”  In some way many schools are defining their top grade as such.  But what does exceeding expectations mean?  If meeting our expectations isn’t the top grade, shouldn’t we change what our expectations are?

And there are some standards that are impossible to exceed.  I like Tom Guskey’s analogy about archery.  If the standard is to hit the target from 20 feet, that cannot be exceed.  Moving the archer further away is changing the standard all told.

What makes it even worse is when we can’t even define exceeding expectations on our rubrics.  How am I, as a teacher, supposed to accurately grade a student when the best definition I can give for a grade is, “I’ll know it when I see it”?

“Exceeding expectations” or anything similar is a nonsense term that should be removed from our educational lexicon.

Top Chef and Education

First off, Happy New Year everyone!

Over this winter break, I spent most of one day binge watching Top Chef, the reality cooking competition, and as I watched I couldn’t help but think of schools and teaching.  The episode that really led me down this path was Restaurant Wars.  For those of you who don’t know the show, a variety of chefs are competing for the title of Top Chef and during one episode each season, the chefs split into two teams and have to conceptualize and open a restaurant in 1 day.

This competition lead me to think about assessment and rubrics.  At the end of the episode, the judges choose one winning restaurant.  They don’t do this with a specific rubric (at least none that we as TV viewers see).  Judges comments focus on the taste and presentation of the food, the service at the front of the house, the decor and atmosphere, overall teamwork amongst other things.  Obviously these elements essentially make up a rubric for each restaurant.  The thing that the judges ask each other at the end is: “which restaurant delivered a better experience?”  And that’s the question that led me to think about rubrics and judgements.

In education, we are continually rewriting rubrics to recatergorize and reweight.  We drive ourselves crazy as educators trying to write these perfectly detailed rubrics breaking down each potential element into categories in order to better assess our students to make fair and valid judgements.  But we never ask: “Did this piece of work (essay, speech, project, etc.) deliver the experience it is supposed to?  Did it achieve its desired impact?

I just finished grading a stack of argumentative essays.  I used the rubric to assess the essay’s claim, its development, coherence, etc., but I never really assessed whether or not the essay was actually convincing.  The rubric doesn’t have an area for this.   In Top Chef the judges can sit there and tell the chefs that their food wasn’t good or the service at the restaurant was exemplary, but that doesn’t really tell the chefs if their restaurant overall was any good.

I teach public speaking as well and two of the assigned speeches are a sales pitch and a persuasive speech.  After everyone delivers their sales pitch, I always ask the class if anyone went out to buy a product that their classmate was selling.  If you convinced your classmate to purchase something, then it was surely an effective sales pitch.  If I were the student, I would think of that as much better feedback than the rubric from the teacher.

I’m not entirely sure how to go about doing this, but it seems to me that discussing impact and intended results might be worth the conversation and help make rubrics more meaningful.  I certainly don’t believe we should scrap rubrics altogether–in fact, I am a huge supporter of rubrics, but rubrics shouldn’t be just about justifying a grade; instead we should be focused on how we can improve feedback to our students.  We can make better rubrics.

So is this rigorous?

I have a confession.  Many people in education aren’t going to like this, but here it goes.  I don’t like  “rigor.”  I’m not ready to say the word needs to be kicked out of all educational circles, but I immediately get annoyed when someone mentions rigor.  Why?  Because we can’t seem to figure out what it actually means.

Rigor is the word du jour in education these days.  In blogs, on Twitter, in meetings, all over the place, somebody is discussing rigor.  Are the standards rigorous?  Is common core rigorous?  We need to make sure our rubrics have rigor.  Make sure the rigor is increasing from 9th grade through 12th grade.  The clarion call is clear: MORE RIGOR!!

So what does rigor actually mean?  Educate people are saying it all the time.  Educational leaders love it.  So what is it?  My perception is that most people use it as synonymous with difficulty or being “harder.”  I would argue that that should not be the goal.  Is writing a 15 page paper harder than writing a 5 page paper?  Probably.  Does that mean it is a better task?  Not necessarily.  Is having high school students read Shakespeare a difficult task?  Yes.  Is it rigorous?  Maybe.

I’d say that rigor isn’t about making things harder or longer for students.  It isn’t about giving more homework.  It is about creating engaging and challenging tasks that are appropriate for those particular students.

One particular instance comes to mind in which I was questioned on the rigor of my teaching.  I teach low level seniors.  Many of them read at or below an 8th grade reading level, and many of them have IEP’s.  They also present a number of discipline challenges in my class and out of it.  In our British literature studies we study the Arthurian Legend.  I decided to show them The Sword in the Stone–the Disney cartoon.  Is this rigorous?  Well no, but neither is watching any other movie.  Watching a movie isn’t challenging in any way.  What they did after watching the film was rigorous because it both engaged them and challenged them.  After watching the movie, they had to connect the movie’s idea of the Arthurian Legend to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte D’Arthur.  Trying to connect these three pieces to form a coherent whole and then making an argument as to which piece best exemplifies the Arthurian Legend challenged those students greatly.  It also engaged them.

As a caveat, please notice that I speak only of a task as a rigorous task.  Can we really define standards (Common Core or otherwise) as rigorous?  I’d say not really.  Two teachers can take the same standards and ask students to do completely different tasks with them–one very rigorous and one not at all.  The standard itself isn’t rigorous.  The same thing can be said for a rubric. Is one rubric more rigorous than another?  Not really.  The task that the rubric is intended to help assess must be rigorous.  A learning assessment can be rigorous as can an assessment, assuming we’re defining rigorous as challenging and engaging.

Of course all that I speak of  is only true if we can come to a shared definition of rigor.  Perhaps educators would be well served by trying to hash this out before proceeding.

rubric concerns

Yesterday, we had an early release day due to voting.  As a department, we spent the majority of our 3.5 hours together discussing our plan to formulate common rubrics for all our argumentative, informational, and narrative writing.  The idea (I think?) is that we would be able to use these rubrics for any writing assignment that falls into one of these major categories and people in other departments could also use these rubrics in their class.

This is where I start having a problem.  For a rubric to be a valid form of feedback for students, it has to actually match the assignment.  One can’t simply take any old rubric and slap it on any assignment and expect that the rubric will give the student worthwhile feedback.

Now I add the caveat that I am a huge support of rubrics, but only when they are done correctly.  For a rubric to be worthwhile at all, it must provide some sort of meaningful feedback, right?  Well, for that feedback to be meaningful, a rubric cannot be so generic that it simply can apply to any assessment, right?  Grant Wiggins describes this beautifully in his (somewhat lengthy) blog post: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/intelligent-vs-thoughtless-use-of-rubrics-and-models-part-1/ where he defines rubrics very clearly as: “It summarizes what a range of concrete works looks like as reflections of a complex performance goal” I don’t see how this can be done when a rubric is so generic that it can apply to just about any assessment.

When I raise this concern, many people tell me that I need to just “tweak” the rubric to match the assessment.  OK, but if the point (well, one of them anyway) of us all creating and using this rubric is to ensure fair and consistent grading, doesn’t that negate the purpose. Then again, creating a rubric that is so generic that anyone can interpret it any way they want isn’t isn’t fair or consistent either.

As teachers and schools think about creating rubrics, we must use caution.  I truly believe rubrics are wonderful tools for students to learn, but I also truly believe that is only possible if rubrics are done thoughtfully.  Unfortunately, I worry that many teachers, departments, and schools are using rubrics poorly.