Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Bread of Feedback


I realise my last post may have appeared a little mean spirited. It was originally longer but I decided to post it in two parts – hopefully this one will redress the balance.

Recently I came across a pedagogic ‘tool’ known as a “Feedback Sandwich” in which feedback is framed - or more accurately one might say ‘bookended’ - by positive observations about what a student did well. In this way the student gets to hear supportive comments about what is really working as well as what requires further attention. This strikes me as a very sound form of providing feedback: by emphasising the positive but ensuring that critical elements are not overlooked. No doubt part of the reason I like this idea is because, in many ways, it’s exactly what I already strive to do with feedback. I was surprised though, when I decided to look up Feedback Sandwich on Google and the 3rd link out of thousands specifically advised against it:

“Praise (Bread)

‘Feedback’ (Meat)

Praise (Bread)

This approach is not to help us the recipient feel good – it is to soften the message for the giver. We all learn very quickly that when ‘good’ stuff is mentioned we know that “here come the message” – we hear the criticism and are so busy focused on the negative that we do not hear the follow on good stuff. This is not helped as the ‘good stuff’ is usually so fluffy that it is meaningless.”

Now, I would agree wholeheartedly with this, if only its characterisation of a feedback sandwich correlated in the least with my own. The above description is, in fact, what I would think of as a “Praise Sandwich”. Yes I know the filling is feedback so, in a sense I’m wrong, but it has always struck me as strange that sandwiches are described by the filling only and very rarely mention the type of bread used. For me the bread is just as important as the filling. So, here’s my idea of a Feedback Sandwich set between two freshly baked crusty slices:

Positive comment (Encouragement)
What needs attention and how to fix it
Positive comment (Encouragement)

It might seem as though I'm splitting hairs here but if my last post about the drawbacks of praise - specifically its low information value - are to be taken seriously, then praise sandwiches (otherwise known as "sugar coated criticism") would seem a poor substitute for the more information laden, and presumably more wholesome, variety of feedback that comprises feedback sandwiches. You see, praise is in many ways terminal (ie: it comes at the end of something) whereas encouragement is part of a process. Praise is also hierarchical (ie it's always bestowed upon someone: a child, an employee etc), unlike compliments or congratulations, that have no implicit hierarchy and can be offered across divides of authority without transgressing unspoken boundaries of power and influence.

When we start to see learning as an ongoing process, that never ends until we do, we might also notice that praise is a rather backward looking creature with a tendency to rest on its laurels. Encouragement, on the other hand, looks to the future with a glint in it's eye and a determination to strive for improvement.

“Teachers who encourage students create an environment in which students do not have to fear continuous evaluation, where they can make mistakes and learn from them, and where they do not always need to strive to meet someone else's standard of excellence. Most students thrive in encouraging environments where they receive specific feedback and have the opportunity to evaluate their own behavior and work. Encouragement fosters autonomy, positive self-esteem, a willingness to explore, and acceptance of self and others.” -Hitz and Driscoll

3 comments:

Seán said...

"Praise is also hierarchical..."- is this a problem? Or is praise from a superior possibly more valued? We are after all in a position of power over students, whether we are comfortable with that or not. As we have discussed before, those who do not acknowledge this are prone to set aside the responsibility which should come with their power.

If for the sake of argument we accept that "Encouragement fosters autonomy, positive self-esteem, a willingness to explore, and acceptance of self and others"- do these things in turn foster learning? Or are we attempting therapy, whose aims these seem to be?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of encouragement where it's needed, but in factual subjects, some students need a reality check, harsh enough to get through, if not to actively discourage. The last thing they need is further reinforcement of their delusions.

J. Hamlyn said...

“’Praise is also hierarchical...’- is this a problem? Or is praise from a superior possibly more valued?”

Valued, yes, but valuable, not always eh?

“We are after all in a position of power over students, whether we are comfortable with that or not. As we have discussed before, those who do not acknowledge this are prone to set aside the responsibility which should come with their power.”

Very true and in many ways this has been my thinking about the issue of praise too: but it strikes me that sometimes that lack of acceptance of power manifests itself in an desire for popularity and an associated overuse of praise in order to curry favour. It’s a subtle form of passive-aggressiveness:

Given our democratic sensibilities, authority cannot present itself straightforwardly, as authority, coming down from a superior, but must be understood as an impersonal thing that emanates vaguely from all of us. So authority becomes smarmy and passive-aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something co-operative and friendly; as volunteerism. It is always pretending to be in your best interest, in everyone's best interest, as rationality itself." - Matthew Crawford

Praise and admonishments may have their uses but I guess we have to be careful that we are not ‘deluded’ about who stands to gain from them.

Seán said...

http://seansreflectivejournal.blogspot.com/2011/05/application-of-control-theory-to.html

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