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Three steps to create a culture of feedback

Feedback is a critical component in developing teaching skills. But what if teacher-candidates are resistant to hearing that feedback?

One of our Impact Academy fellows raised that question this summer, and it’s something we’ve been giving a lot of thought.

Let’s start with some context on what the research tells us about the power of feedback. As we noted in The Science of Learning, “effective feedback is often essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills.” Good feedback is specific and clear; it is focused on the task; and it is aimed at improvement. Once someone is given feedback, he should attempt a similar task involving the same skill – while adjusting his approach based on the feedback.

A solid feedback loop also exemplifies several principles of deliberate practice, including working toward specific and well-defined goals, and receiving and responding to high-quality feedback. Giving specific and immediate feedback to individuals can help them make adjustments that may be the difference between meeting an outcome or not.

Creating feedback loops based in cognitive science and the principles of deliberate practice increases the chances that improvement will come quickly. (For more on what it looks like when educator-preparation programs implement high-quality feedback loops, check out this section of our recent Building Blocks publication.)

Yet despite the benefits of feedback, there will be times when it will be met with resistance. So what then?

1. Programs should view feedback as a critical building block of the candidate experience. Giving teacher-candidates feedback is an important opportunity for programs to nurture and grow their candidates into reflective practitioners who constantly seek to improve their teaching practice. Yet, it can be difficult for a candidate to navigate improvement if the feedback is inconsistent, disorganized, or just plain too much.

When I worked with teacher-candidates in Chicago, we learned through experience that giving candidates small bits of feedback that were connected to a very recent lesson was most effective. If a candidate could recall the situation we wanted to address and could focus on one or two adjustments that would improve their lesson delivery or classroom management, they could usually implement the feedback the very next time they were in front of students. The feedback might have been to move around the room in an unpredictable manner, or it might have been to give students more concise directions for getting into small groups. It sometimes felt like baby steps, yet it was the small, specific, and constant adjustments that helped them improve.

And, we needed everyone who was giving the candidate feedback to be giving similar feedback. Consistent goals and consistent feedback from mentors and supervisors was an important factor in why our approach was effective. If programs can create similar feedback loops within their candidates’ experience, with specific suggestions for improvement, coupled with opportunities to try these suggestions out within a short time span, feedback becomes a powerful tool.

2. Programs should not just give feedback — they should also teach candidates how to receive it. When people react poorly to feedback, it’s usually because they have difficulty separating their identity from their performance. In other words, they see feedback as judgment, not of a performance, but of themselves — and so they avoid the feedback entirely or seek to deflect it by blaming external factors over which they have no control.

Match Education in Boston has put together a series of videos that characterize the most frequent ways that teacher-candidates, or anyone for that matter, manifest resistance. At Match, these behaviors are identified early in their teacher-preparation program, and candidates are taught steps that get them ready to accept feedback, such as taking notes and asking clarifying questions about the feedback. Normalizing these behaviors helps candidates stay open to the information. When candidates realize what is at the heart of their resistance, they can begin to adjust their attitude and develop a sense of self-efficacy. Instead of comments like “I don’t think I am very good at this,” they adjust their language and ask, “What can I do to get better?” When candidates begin to experience proof of the value of feedback by seeing their own improvement, resistance lessens and opportunities to grow increase.

3. practice, practice, practice! It’s important for teacher-candidates to practice giving and receiving feedback from the very start of their preparation experience. In Chicago, for example, we had our candidates practice with each other in the context of non-threatening activities, such as delivering directions for how to unwrap and sort colored candies to a small group of their peers. Program coaches modeled examples of feedback that included a positive observation, such as “You used a hand gesture which helped model your directions.” They then offered one constructive statement (“Next time, ask a student to repeat your directions to be sure everyone understood what to do.”) Finally, teacher-candidates practiced giving similar feedback to each other using the same combination of a positive observation and one small actionable step for improvement.

These low-stakes opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback continued for several weeks, which helped normalize the experience.

Candidates varied in how quickly they were able to unhook their sense of self from their performance — but once it clicked, they were able to see how feedback actually moved them towards their goals rather than challenged their self-worth. There were a few for whom it never clicked, and usually those candidates decided that teaching was not for them. I was able to see how these early practice opportunities helped normalize feedback when visiting candidates’ classrooms: I was almost always approached by the candidate for my feedback, even though I was not their mentor or coach. They really wanted to know how they were doing; our candidates had come to crave feedback.

When we create consistent, high-quality feedback loops for teacher-candidates that push their development, they can also learn quickly to recognize when they are resisting and why. This helps them embrace feedback as something given with their best interest at heart and in the spirit of improvement. Developing the candidate mindset of continuous improvement early in their teaching experience sets them up for a career path filled with growth.

We are curious to find out what some other programs do to prep their teacher candidates for feedback. Let us know!

Feedback is one of four elements of effective educator preparation included in our Building Blocks framework. Interested in learning more about the framework and how to apply it to improve teacher-candidate readiness? Apply now for an upcoming Building Blocks workshop!


Terri Gierke

Program Manager


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