Thursday, October 2, 2014

Feedback Doesn't Have To Be Scary

Growing up in New Jersey during the 1970’s and 80’s was great. One of the benefits of living there is that no matter where you live, you are really very close to the beach or Jersey Shore, as we referred to it. Annually, my parents would rent the same house on the same street in Ship Bottom. My parents would put a down payment on the house every fall and save all year long for the vacation to come. We loved everything about the Jersey Shore: the white beach and blue-green surf, the ice cream parlors and beach shops, and the sturdy boardwalks and amusement piers that dash the coast.  Yes, there was a lot to do on our trips, but beginning in the mid 1970’s my brothers and sister and I began an extreme nagging campaign for Dad to take us to the haunted house on the Brigantine Pier. We began the campaign each spring as the pier’s commercials started airing on local television. My dad resisted the nagging. The Brigantine Pier was indirectly about an hour away from our beach house, but that didn’t matter to us. Admission was $22.50  in 1978 for five of us. With inflation, that would be $82.10 today, but that didn’t matter to us. The line outside the castle would take hours to negotiate for the momentary thrill, but that didn’t matter to us either. What mattered most is that we would be terrified.

Finally, my dad acquiesced, and Brigantine was horrifying, as promised. Even my dad jerked backwards and nearly knocked me down when a blood-soaked, cleaver-wielding kook in a white butcher's apron seemed to come within inches of touching his arm. A haunted house is an assault on our senses, our primary and most involuntary source of feedback. During the dark places, we lose use of senses and have to guess based on what we hear or feel as feedback to believe what is happening. I have a visceral memory of gripping my sister’s hand in a black-dark hallway of the house where squeaking sounds permeated the air and “hairy,” rubbery, invisible “rats” tickled our sunburned legs. I still get a chill. In all haunted houses, sudden and close movements from human or mannequin fiends challenge our sense of space and instigate a fight or flight response: sensory overload. But we live and thrive and learn from the use of our senses and the feedback they provide, so they can't be ignored. I think that’s why haunted houses are so scary.

So if you decided to read this blog, you are probably wondering by now what a haunted house in New Jersey has to do with feedback for student learning. I would submit that feedback of all kinds is such a lifeline for the growing mind that negative or counterproductive feedback for student work has the same horrifying impact on learning as a haunted house has on its visitors. I believe that ineffective feedback slows students down at best and causes them to quit at its worst.

I really hope Grant Wiggins won’t mind the poetic license I’m taking with his piece, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback from 2012, but when I read this piece I couldn’t help but have nightmares about the pretty scary job I did in providing feedback to students when I was teaching English a couple of  decades ago. I’m even more afraid when I see those same practices persisting today in spite of all the reform efforts around teaching and learning that have taken place since the 1990’s. In Grant Wiggins’s piece, he provides seven conditions for feedback for growth. That’s appealing. Sometimes, however, in order to catalyze improvement, we need to know the why behind the reasons to improve. The reasons are not always a glass-half-full, so to speak. I’ve heard that it’s important to confront some of the brutal issues or horrors around a practice. More time spent on feedback and improved feedback practices promote quality learning; simultaneously, abandoning the scary practices of feedback should at least reduce negative results.

I’m assuming that haunted house designers have one goal: create as much senseless fear as possible in participants. They backwards map the house from this target and provide inconsistent and relentless unproductive feedback. I would also submit that no teacher starts the school year with the goal of creating senseless fear – or possibly apathy – in students through untimely and inconsistent feedback. Intentions aside, this image has become a caricature of the educational process.  Proper feedback for student work should be timely, consistent, and oriented to students’ learning goals for the course. 

With scary feedback, students are unclear about the goals for a learning task. The teacher assigns a “project,” writing prompt, reading assignment, or math practice without articulating up front what goals are for students. In this case, the goal for the student is simply to complete the work and see what happens. It’s like getting in line for the haunted house with the goal of just making it through. According to Wiggins, “Learners are often unclear about the specific goal of a task or lesson, so it is crucial to remind them about the goal and the criteria by which they should self-assess.” Haunted houses are often frightening because the passenger is forced to keep walking and negotiating the course, although the way ahead is unclear and the feedback coming from his senses is opaque at best. The best thing to do in this case is to duck and run if possible. Wiggins suggests that feedback should be tangible and noticeable for the learner if it is to be productive. For example, why observe several students give speeches as an assignment with minimal feedback opportunities from the teacher when they can readily video their own speeches repeatedly for self and peer assessment?

Another tactic, telling a student he has written a “weak paper,” is a dreadful thing to do. It is a useless form of feedback with awful consequences. It evokes the same fight or flight response as the screaming ghoul in a haunted house because it is neither actionable nor user-friendly. I’ll bet, however, that anyone reading this blog – unless you have been very lucky – has received feedback like this at least once. Feedback should be criterion referenced base on the articulated learning goal for the work. A student’s score on one criterion should communicate implicitly the “how to” of improving current or future work. Writing a pejorative comment on a child’s paper is malpractice, and it’s scary.

      Another source of negative feedback is “overwhelming feedback.” Like the loud and overlapping shrieks emitting from the crevices of a haunted house, overwhelming feedback is neither actionable nor user-friendly. Denny Wolfe, the professor who taught my teaching methods class when I was an undergraduate stated it this way: “The more you cover, the less the student will uncover.” In other words, the more red marks you put on a child’s writing, the less he will learn from it. A few choice pieces of actionable feedback will result in the student “uncovering” learning from your insights. 

I’ll admit that in writing this blog entry, I’m probably employing some of the same bad practices for feedback that I’m complaining about. My goal is not guilt or accusation, however, it is to demonstrate how pointless and harmful some of our most entrenched grading and “feedback” practices appear to be. Shouldn’t the goal of feedback be to make students smarter? Students must be challenged; there is no doubt about it. They should be challenged and motivated to learn and grow and to develop a growth mindset. Appropriate feedback appeals to the human desire for autonomy in setting goals and selecting tools for improved performance. It also guides mastery and aligns with the learner’s purpose for truly engaging with the work at hand. Consider Daniel Pink’s take on best practices in compensating and reinforcing effort with higher order work as presented in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

It is never too late to start a new instructional practice, especially when you know that one you are using is harmful. Consider the guilt and hesitation that 19th century physicians confronted when they realized that washing their hands would kill germs and reduce patient mortality rates. They first had to admit that by not washing their hands, they had harmed patients in the past. We now take the practice of hand washing for granted. If you have been providing haunted and scary feedback to students, abandon it and start over by replacing your past strategies with what you really know will work. If personal hygiene evolved, why can’t instructional practices?


The haunted house at Brigantine is gone. It closed in 1984 and later burned to nothing. All that is left of the pier are stubby posts protruding from the surf. There is no foundation on which to build it again, and yet millions of visitors carry hair-raising memories of the place. It’s funny, but because of the way our minds work as children, we felt a involuntary impulse to go through it, much like students as captive audiences for schools and classes. Submission to the call to tour the ghost infested mansion had be daunting; it was a haunted house. A student’s submission of work to a teacher doesn’t have to be so. It can be positive. It can and should be an opportunity, a foundation, for learning and growth.  

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