On The Level # 5 – Focus on Feedback

“Level 5. You’ve made some appropriate suggestions here. In future you need to explain how the evidence supports your opinions.”

Is the above comment an example of good feedback or bad feedback? This article in the Guardian sheds some interesting light on this issue. It summarises ideas presented in “Thanks for the Feedback”, a book written by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. These are not teachers, but Harvard Law professors, and their aim is not to help people give feedback, but rather to help them receive it. How often, I wonder, do we teachers stop to really consider our feedback from the recipient’s point of view?

Stone and Heen suggest that people usually respond badly to feedback because they receive it in a state of tension: they want praise for the improvements they have made, but they don’t appreciate reminders that they still need to keep improving and are therefore not good enough. To make matters worse, many managers muddle three types of feedback:

• appreciation (praise for accomplishments)
• coaching (tips for improvement)
• evaluation (rating someone’s performance, often in comparison to others)

By muddling these different types of feedback, the manager apparently renders each aspect far less meaningful and effective than it should be. The comment with which I opened this section is pretty much a perfect example of this type of mixed feedback. So, even though that is just the sort of comment we teachers would usually expect to make, it would seem that, according to Stone and Heen at least, it is actually bad feedback: we should try to keep these different types of feedback more distinct from one another.


Recently I met with teachers from four local schools to pool our thinking on life after levels. Amongst other things, we took a look at some ideas put forward by Michael Fordham in this blog. Michael, a Senior Teaching Associate at the Cambridge University Faculty of Education, is coming from a very similar direction to our two Harvard professors. He points out that we provide mixed feedback because we are juggling too many different requirements:

We want, as teachers, to give helpful feedback to pupils that allows them to get better at the thing we are teaching them. We want, as parents, to know how well our children are getting on (particularly in comparison to other children!). We want, as schools, to identify pupils who are falling behind so that some kind of intervention can be made. We want, as senior managers, to use data to make judgements about teacher competence. We want, as inspectors or the government, to hold schools to account. We want, as a society, to be able to make decisions (Should I employ this person? Should I let them in to university?) based on prior assessments. I simplify on all these fronts, but it is well recognised that assessment gets dragged in multiple directions and this demands modes of assessment that are not always compatible with one another.

In light of all this, Michael suggests that people simply adopt a layered assessment regime in which we use different types of assessment to generate different types of feedback.  All the teachers I discussed this with certainly seemed to like his thinking.

At the end of our session together, each of the schools involved made a commitment to come up with a suggested approach to future assessment, quite possibly based on the thinking outlined above. In May we will meet again to compare notes, and hopefully establish a workable solution to life after levels. What will Loreto’s contribution to this process be? Another post will follow shortly.  In the meantime, if you have any bright ideas, do let me know!


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