Teaching & Learning Takeover: Southampton Saturday 19th October 2013
@AfLPie Workshop: Feedback “Loops”
How modified traffic signals and behavioural science might shed some light on making feedback resonate.
(If you attended my workshop today – this will firmly place the starter in terms of reasoning!)
What feels like many years ago now, I taught myself to juggle. Not my best first line to a blog but nevertheless appropriate for the topic. I was never what could be called sporty, and growing up in the West of Scotland, my rites of passage were always to do with football. I was not good at football. I was, however, quite passable at rugby. Or, as we say in the West of Scotland, not good at football.
I can reliably make anything nerdy, and so, would read all the books the library could provide about the laws of the game, skills and history. I increased my knowledge base and got better as a result, more aware of what was going on around me. I started to, as well as play as much as I could, coach too. I started reading about coaching and attended coaching master classes. One of the ideas that stuck with me was the idea of serious co-ordination and practising skills to allow you to be as proficient with each hand as you could be. Hence, juggling.
I worked hard. Whilst studying for the last years of school then on into Uni, I would practise juggling and hit tough points from which there felt like there was no coming back. Continued practise always put paid to this. I sorted them out and moved on and am a reasonable juggler – even with one hand, two balls – but only the right hand – the left never quite got there. It has always been an area of persistent error.
Last year, I taught a class, 9r4. They were “that” class. Many a “character” and difficult to motivate, quiet girls were subsumed by more “dominant” personalities and boys for whom English was not a priority and was therefore a distraction in an otherwise full day of shouting and Lynx Africa. We’ve all been there. You know this class. You teach this class.
I did everything right. I marked their books. I differentiated. I adapted to their needs – many of them made good progress and they became “my” class – reasonably well trained. But the underlying issue that existed was one of basic skills. Every time I marked books, assessed work, I was writing the same things down and they always always refrained from acting on the feedback in the next piece of work, despite having been given the time to do so and the guidance to support them. They exhibited a variety of areas of persistent error.
Now teaching and pedagogy is alive with cyclical models for the delivery of learning and I’m not against them, you know, the old “model, try, apply”, “look, cover, write” etc, hell, I even trained other people to use them. There’s some nice models of this sort around, work your way through them because they’re useful and will get you almost all the way to where you need to be. In many ways,these cycles work at a higher level than what I was looking for. I needed something that allowed time to move on but for persistent errors to be addressed as well as new skills and knowledge become a focus of feedback.
This is where the “loop” metaphor falls down for me. The concept that we are in a continuous Escher painting going up and down the same staircase but finding something different to see in the surroundings bothered me. The curriculum moves on and so does feedback as a result of this, in which case actions taken on aspects of the feedback become almost left behind by the forward motion of the school year, topics and basic coverage. All the while, basic errors persist.
And then I read an article in “Wired” magazine (told you I could make anything nerdy) “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops”. The article begins by describing the impact that modified road signs have. You know, the ones that provide instant feedback on your speed and links them to the concept of feedback loops – read the article – it’s brilliant. It describes the power of the feedback loop, the compelling history and evidence of their impact and how they manifest themselves in every day life. For example, plug-in devices that tell you instantly how much electricity you’re using – allowing you to adapt your behaviours – in Lemov’s terms: “shortening the feedback loop”.
The feedback loop has four distinct stages:
“A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.”
In terms of marking and feedback, can we adapt this?
Stage 1: Evidence Stage
Marking, assessing, gathering evidence and providing feedback?
Stage 2: Information Relay
Providing targets and feedback that is “emotionally resonant” (?)
Stage 3: Consequence Stage
Feedback must provide a few possible paths forward to make progress
Stage 4: Action
Providing opportunities to act on feedback
The key to this is Stage 2. Bandura’s concept of self efficacy is the concept that gives this the depth that moves it beyond a “vanilla” loop. Zoe Elder’s take on self-efficacy makes the definition clear in that it is about the “agency” of the learner.
This is definitely where this blog becomes more questions than answers.
How do we make feedback resonate? How can feedback be framed or structured in a sequence of learning that encourages self efficacy? This is the holy grail. I’m not a direct instruction apologist, I’m a talker as a teacher but I also know that the more work that the students do as a result of feedback, the better the learning should be. In which case, I need to shut up and let them get on with it.
The issue here is in habits. In my new school I’m currently working with a Year 11 who have very fixed ideas about where their job ends and mine begins and then the loop begins again. I’m training them, and they’re responding, but they’re not accepting the fact that they need to be working harder than me.
What has become extremely clear to me though, is that feedback “loops” and it “loops” (noun and verb), creating an almost spiral effect where overlaps occur. What exists in those overlaps are those areas where feedback is repeated, possibly acted on but then becomes defunct as time and topic moves on. What is left in those “spaces”, gaps or overlaps of loops is what I have come to call “APE”s or “Areas of Persistent Error”: the head slapping moment where you say to yourself, “I always get that wrong”. APEs are the reason that, halfway through the first half term, I taught a whole lesson to Year 11 on the difference between there, their and they’re. They’re the reason I could never master one handed juggling with my left hand and they’re also the reason why Thursday (a day when we move to another room anyway) has become “skills” day. A day where we work on what should have become the knucklehead stuff, the Year 5 work that never quite stuck or gets forgotten when the the adrenalin kicks in and work or skills gets “done” instead of “learned”.
There’s a huge amount tied up in this for me and I don’t think I’ll resolve it in one blog post or workshop. At it’s core, there’s an issue of habits in responding to feedback and how teachers use feedback to plan effectively. Addressing the needs of students as exhibited by their work – what teachers have done for thousands of years. Within that, there is the resilience, grit and the Slow learning debate. Teachers will complain bitterly about time pressures and the pace at which the the curriculum moves. The “coverage” argument, “I haven’t got time to do this again – I need to fill them up with more information!” One, however, precipitates the learning. The basic skills allow for the creativity and experimentation that we desire to demonstrate higher levels of understanding.
What is forgotten however, are the “quick wins” that come from addressing the APEs in a one-off lesson and asking to see them evidenced in the next piece of work. It’s a simple enough premise, that can be addressed through a more “deliberate practice” approach to feedback and particularly responding to feedback. The most recent furore regarding the literacy levels in the UK seems all the more significant in a context where we move on regardless of consolidation or mastery – some kids just never quite “get it”. It’s not easy. My Year 11 are just about at the stage where they accept the fact that I will not accept substandard work – they get it back unmarked – I won’t mark it until it’s the best it can be at that moment in time. They’re not taking to this idea – I’m driving it – but we’ll get there because, as I said to them, I’m not going anywhere!
Resonance is the sticking point. I can’t quite get there. I can make feedback “stick” and drive a class through response and building skills. I’m not sure it’s “resonating”.There’s a lot of research going on right now in app development about the power of choices. That people feel empowered by choice. I’m thinking about how that can be applied to feedback currently. But resonance is the issue now. Is my feedback “resonating” with the kids? I’m not sure. All help and ideas gratefully received. Answers on a postcard please.