Monthly Archives: November 2015

Feedback is for teachers, too

Last week I wrote about effective feedback and the different ways students might get feedback during the learning process.  This feedback for students doesn’t have to be comments on a paper, a rubric or test scores.

The feedback loop goes both ways.  You as the teacher are also always looking for feedback from your students in order to know what the next lesson is or how to tweak things for maximum understanding or to determine the members of your next small group.  You, too, don’t need to mark work in order to get feedback on how your students are doing.  You probably want to collect two types of feedback.

One kind is very informal and might be called intentional noticing.  These are the many observations that you make all day long about how your students are doing with the learning at hand.  This kind of intentional noticing is not as easy to do as you may think.  At the end of each day you will have been involved in a myriad of discussions and observations with students but may still be unclear as to what you have intentionally noticed.  However, when you are planned and purposeful  in your lesson design, you can also be planned and purposeful in your intentional observing.  For example, you may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the information from the mini-lesson in their work.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are using the specific vocabulary of the lesson.  You may be intentionally noticing whether students are taking risks in their problem solving.  You may be intentionally noticing how they are applying previously learned strategies.  You may intentionally noticing the types of errors they are making.

The same kinds of teaching conditions that you use to help students get feedback will also allow you to get feedback:  small group instruction, little whiteboards or Kahoots, conferences, sitting with groups of students as they work.  At the end of each of those activities, you are thinking, what do I know now about my students that I didn’t know before and how am I going to address those needs?

The other kind of intentional feedback that you get, you will want to record.  You can’t possibly record everything you notice.  However, you may wish to record some specific kinds of information during this learning phase that may add to your assessment record in determining a final grade.  These are the intentional observations and conversations that you have with students that give you insight into their understanding of concepts.  If, in these instances, the information you glean demonstrates an independent understanding of the concepts, you can use this in a summative way.  These recorded observations and conversations can be used in both determining next steps and in evaluating students.  The problem with using non-recorded observations and conversations as part of your grade determination is that you cannot prove anything in case a parent is curious about how a grade was determined.

All this talk about feedback is really talking about formative assessment.  I don’t like the word “assessment” here because I think it misleads us into thinking about assignments, quizzes and rubrics.  Instead you want to think about planned and purposeful teaching and the types of activities you do that help students learn and help you to know your students better.  When your students change and grow and when you make decisions based on what you are learning then you are doing assessment for and as learning.

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8 Ways for kids to get effective feedback – it’s not all on you!

A teacher said, “I just keep thinking that feedback is always me talking to the students about their work.”  As teachers, when we hear the word “feedback” that’s what we think of automatically.  And then we despair that we don’t have enough time to give that kind of feedback to every one of our students about every one of their assignments or tasks.  It is a daunting task.  Certainly that is one form of feedback to students and research shows that when students receive regular and timely feedback as they are learning, they do much better.

Grant Wiggins gives this definition of feedback:

Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience’s reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off. (

He goes on to state that feedback is never evaluative nor is it advice.  It is simply information conveyed about the effects of an action as related to a goal. says that the origin of the word comes from 1915-20 where the verb phrase “feed back”  became a noun.  Again, it is this idea that information is fed back to you in response to an action.

When I go to the gym and work on the elliptical machine I get lots of feedback during my work out:

  • I can see if I am keeping my pace up and compare it to other days
  • I can compare my pace to how my body is feeling this day.
  • I can tell how far I am going and how long it is taking.
  • I can feel how my legs are feeling and my breathing and if I am doing ok.
  • If my back hurts then I know my posture is off.

All of that information affects my workout.  I make choices to work harder, back off, change something or give up for the day.

In your classroom there are many ways that students can receive feedback about their learning:

  • You can conference with students offering non-evaluative comments about what you understand and what might be unclear in their work. You can ask thought-provoking questions.
  • When students are working on little whiteboards and holding up their answers, you get feedback on whether they understand, but you also offer immediate feedback when you stop to reteach a concept because you notice a lot of misconceptions. This happens, too, when you are using Kahoots, if you stop and explain when the majority are incorrect.
  • When your students are working in groups or pairs they are getting constant feedback from their peers. For example, Jack and Sue are solving a math problem.  Jack says something and Sue looks at him quizzically.  Jack now knows that either his idea is off or he has explained it unclearly.  Both are good pieces of information.  He tries to explain his point again using a different tactic and one of two things happens.  Either, Sue now understands and Jack knows that his original explanation was unclear, or Sue still doesn’t understand and Jack begins to suspect his thinking may not be clear.  They go on in this fashion until both understand.
  • In French class when the teacher asks students to repeat words or phrases multiple times, paying attention to their pronunciation they are getting feedback. They try it out, the teacher says it again, they try it again trying to mimic the pronunciation closer.
  • In PE class when two partners are volleying the ball and the one partner is not able to return it, both students are receiving feedback. The one volleying the ball may not have good enough control to get the ball to the right spot.  The one receiving the ball may need to move or change position in order to return the ball.  When both partners have a goal of keeping the volleying going as long as possible, both are using feedback from the process to achieve their goal.
  • When students can compare their work against an anchor chart, rubric, checklist or exemplar before submitting, they are receiving feedback. They can see if their work contains all the components required and if not, are able to fix the work.
  • When the teacher says, highlight all the places in your writing where you used descriptive words (or periods, or dialogue, or complex sentences etc.) the student gets immediate feedback by seeing to what extent he or she has done so.
  • When a student is involved in an inquiry project in science and has multiple opportunities to test a hypothesis, he or she is getting feedback. If the task is to build a bridge that will hold a certain weight, and the bridge breaks, that is feedback.  When a student is encouraged to use that feedback to figure out what didn’t work and attempt a different design, the student has used that feedback to learn.

Teachers can, in a planned and purposeful way, design their instruction so that students have many meaningful opportunities to receive feedback as they are working:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to try something out
  • Provide students opportunities to talk with their peers about complex and challenging problems
  • Provide students with support as they are working not only after they are working
  • Ensure that students know what goals they are working towards, and are able to see that their efforts make a difference in achieving those goals

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Sometimes the best teaching is to STOP teaching

Believe it or not, grade one teachers do teach students when to use periods and capitals.  So do grade two teachers, grade three teachers, grade four teachers …and grade 12 teachers.  But we are talking about kids, and it takes a long time for many of them to apply the skill on a regular basis.

I take pottery classes.  This same concept happens in the pottery workshop.  There is a new potter sitting next to me and she is struggling to center and throw a small bowl (it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the movie Ghost).  The other day our instructor was reminding her of all the things she needed to do to throw this pot- and then jokingly said…” and the following 77 things, too”.  We talked about how when you are learning a new skill and there are so many things to integrate at once that it is hard to concentrate on all of them at the same time.  Something that the instructor can do without even thinking is so hard for someone just beginning.

The Ontario curriculum is probably too big (if you aren’t from Ontario maybe yours is, too).  The specific expectations are those skills that will lead students to the overall expectations.  They are not goals in and of themselves.  Students do not need to “master” every specific expectation in order to meet the overall expectation.

My new pottery friend does not need to “master” every individual task in order to make her bowl.  Next week’s bowl won’t be perfect but it will be a little bit better.  And every week after that, her bowls will improve little by little.  Some weeks she will stall out.  Some weeks she will focus too much on one skill to the detriment of another skill.  Eventually she will begin to integrate all of the pieces and move onto mugs.  The instructor will say exactly the same things to her every week.  At some point something he says will make more sense than it does now.

So how do these stories relate to the title of this blog?  As teachers we are like the pottery instructor; we know the stuff and have integrated the pieces.  Also, we have thousands of great ideas on how to get kids to know the stuff.  We get caught in the trap of thinking that if I only do this one more activity, this one lesson more, then everyone will get it.  But maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe we need to stop giving more instruction and just let kids try it out.  Maybe we need to be ok with giving a minilesson and some kids not getting it—this time.  Because if we take a mindset that teaching is messy and circular (and recursive) then we know that we will be coming back to key ideas many times over the course of the year.

We want to plan our teaching time so that students have ample time to practice the skills without getting caught in the trap of trying to do it perfectly right now.  We want to design classes that have less teaching and more doing.  We want to be comfortable with letting kids struggle as they integrate the pieces.  We need to remember that we have all year to reach the overall expectations and that when we provide multiple opportunities for students to practice over time, we are giving them the support to integrate everything we’ve told them.

You may be thinking:  But what about assessment?  What about accountability?  What about learning goals and success criteria?  What about getting through the curriculum?  All those things are still in place but we need to think about them all as helping students learn not things to get done.  Stop thinking of your formative assessment as assessment and more like intentionally noticing where your students are at during the learning journey.  You are still accountable but you are remembering that you have the whole year to reach those overall expectations.  You still have a plan.  You are still purposeful in your decisions.  You still have learning goals and success criteria but they are bigger and encompass more learning than just today’s lesson.  And, you will teach the curriculum this way but in a more authentic way because you will be concentrating on your students’ learning of the big and important ideas and not checking off specific expectations.

A consultant friend of mine says “Teach lightly”. I like that image.  Remember that no matter what my pottery instructor says, it is still going to take a long time for my new friend to master the craft.  She needs scaffolding, support, repetition and practice time.  So, when you are feeling overwhelmed and flustered that your students are not learning, just stop teaching so much and let them practice.

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