As part of my summer reading, I assigned myself the book, Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone.
I thought it would be an easy read for me; a lifelong learner and educator, I swim in a sea of feedback. I was surprised, then, by how challenging this book was for me to move through. Every page seemed to have ten nuggets of truth and one essential takeaway. Despite giving and getting it plenty, there was so much I didn’t – and don’t – know about what makes feedback useful.
One of the key points that Heen and Stone make in their book is that in order to be productive, feedback’s purpose needs to be clearly known to both the giver and the receiver. They break feedback down into three main categories: evaluation, coaching, and praise and argue that the three should be kept distinct. How we hear, understand and internalize things that are said to us can depend on how we feel about the person we are in conversation with, the place we are conversing, and how we feel about ourselves at that point in time – so feedback’s purpose is important to know.
In July and August, I thought about feedback during a few different professional development experiences. At the Learning Design Summit put on by Global Online Academy, I listened to a colleague describe her evolution from a teacher who “smothered and covered” the pages of her students’ work to the more sparing and intentional-about-feedback teacher she is today. I could relate. Without exactly knowing why, I had changed my grading practice in similar ways over the years. As a young teacher, I spent nearly an hour on each student’s paper, writing notes in nearly inch of white space in the margins. As an older teacher, I tried to write less and meet to talk more, had students reflect on their own writing, and asked them about the kinds of feedback they wanted and needed in order to progress their work.
At two creative writing workshops, I noticed the skillful way that my instructors gave feedback to their students. Whether they had read Heen and Stone’s work on feedback or not, I don’t know; however, in making the purpose of their feedback crystal clear, they conformed to the best practice outlined in Heen and Stone’s book. The purpose of their feedback was evaluative. Students in their workshops did not need or want coaching on how to write or praise for having written well. What they wanted, and what they got, was targeted and helpful evaluation of their work – whether they had achieved what they needed to on the page, and if they hadn’t, which they usually hadn’t, how to recommit to the rigorous work of inching their writing closer to a publishable outcome.
Like everything else in school and life, giving and receiving feedback is both an art and a science. A sprinkling of intentionality and a jot of clarity really boosts its impact.