I had noticed that one of the students I teach seemed rather demoralised during last week's lesson. This was perhaps in response to me pointing out some things that he needed to work on.
I shall use the shorthand 'feedback' to describe this 'pointing out', although the word has negative connotations for me. More about this later.
I am not sure exactly why this student had the reaction he did. It may have been for a combination of reasons, which I shall explore in this blog post. His mood did seem to improve throughout that lesson as we worked together and he became increasingly successful with the work.
The level of difficulty in the course has certainly increased (we are working on double-angle and addition formulae), and with this comes is an increasing need for me to need to be able to give, and for the students to be able to accept, 'feedback'.
This need arose again today; we spent the first 1 hour 45 minutes of the lesson working on issues arising from the homework. I would say that the level of feedback was more detailed (and hence could be construed as more critical), but it seemed as though we had a much more positive experience. I felt that the student was becoming increasingly able to receive the feedback I was giving.
I would like to make a conjecture in this post about why that might be.
Based on this, I am developing a working outline of the mechanism through which the therapeutic process might 'work', which is currently something like this: if an (impartial) person that you trust really hears and sees you, the 'good' and the 'bad', and accepts this about you, can see your potential, and can communicate this acceptance and potential to you, only then do you have a chance of accepting yourself and seeing that potential too. With this, change becomes possible.
I see a connection between this and much of what happens in the teacher-student relationship.
I have often said that I am not concerned whether I receive positive or negative feedback, but this is not true. I often (not always) find it difficult to receive any type of feedback. I often find myself justifying my actions, instead of accepting what I am being told, or at least accepting it until I am able to think about whether it is valid.
Last week, someone who I had not met before was in a lesson I was teaching, and he offered some informal feedback. He said: "That is the sort of lesson you would want to be observed teaching", to which I patted him on the shoulder and replied: "I don't get observed any more, Steve." You might think that I should have been happy with this positive feedback, but I did not feel that he was in a position to give me feedback, whether it was positive or negative. This is a common feeling for me.
I have worked with colleagues who have felt the same way about feedback, finding it less than useful. I have also worked with others who seem more able to receive feedback. I have certainly found when working with teachers that with trust, effective feedback becomes more possible. I suspect the same may be true of the children we teach.
Of course the nature of the feedback, and the way it is given, matters. But I suspect there are hidden factors that are at least as important to the way feedback is received: the past experiences of the one being fed back to, their beliefs about the intention of the one feeding back (i.e. their trust in that person), their beliefs about themselves... and so on.
What is certainly possible is that the one receiving feedback can put up a block, for whatever reason, rendering any feedback less than useful, and possibly damaging.
With all of this in mind, how and when we (as teachers, or whoever) give feedback requires careful thought: the way it is received is as much dependent on the person we are giving feedback to and our relationship with them, as it is about what we feed back and how we do it.
There is nothing 'wrong' with telling (of which feedback is a part), in the right circumstances. However, there is something problematic in assuming that something has been internalised because it has been told, or in telling someone something they are not ready to hear yet, or in a way that means they become resistant to hearing it.
This brings me back to giving feedback to students, and marking. I would suggest that over time, with the building of trust - through a climate of genuineness, acceptance and empathy - it becomes more possible to give meaningful feedback to students, or anyone else.
It seemed difficult for the student to receive the feedback that I gave last week. We have only been working together for a couple of months, and our relationship is still developing. The feedback I gave last week was certainly a 'step up' from that which I had given up to that point, being more detailed, and thus could be seen as more critical.
However, as he became more successful with the work, he may have come to understand the reasons why I had given such detailed feedback, and could see the usefulness of it. Through working on the issues together, perhaps he felt genuineness, acceptance and empathy. This may go towards explaining why today was a more positive experience.
From all of this I infer that the level of trust that is present in our relationships with students (and people, more generally) matters at least as much as the way we give feedback. And the level, and nature, of trust that is required before feedback can become meaningful - and not damaging - is different for every person. What 'works' for others may not be the same as what 'works' for us, but is dependent on their experience, their beliefs, their psychological state at any moment in time.
I believe that the first step in giving meaningful feedback, then, is to create a climate of genuineness, acceptance and empathy, from which change might be possible.