Practice Files - Making Verbal Feedback Work

Practice Files – Making Verbal Feedback Work

I’ve written several posts about feedback – but I’ve almost never touched on verbal feedback between students, or teachers.  Unless it can be fitted into a tight structure, like a preflight checklist, I’ve avoided it: worthwhile verbal feedback seems elusive.

Yet verbal feedback is ubiquitous.  In the last week, I’ve been exposed twice.  I’ve begun volunteering locally with primary school pupils: in two of three sessions, pupils have been asked to give feedback to one another.  I’ve also been trained myself recently; we were asked to offer one another feedback on our management conversations.  Feedback seems a ‘go to’ activity in training and teaching; in both contexts, I struggled to see the benefits.

Verbal feedback is often unhelpful.  Feedback on lesson observations rarely leads to improvements; the same issues apply to the classroom and to training.  Too much feedback is vague, infrequent or overwhelming; it often comes across as judgemental.  Volunteering, I found myself reminding pupils that they actually had to listen to one another speak; the feedback they gave one another added little, since each pupil had one-to-one adult support throughout.  In training, I received five minutes of feedback from three colleagues: each discussed a range of things I’d done well and speculated on several possible outcomes and improvements.  If feedback sessions are meant to provide information which inspires the recipient to do something better, that they would not otherwise have done, both examples fail.

This post sets out what I’ve learned from Teach Like a Champion about planning feedback in teacher training – but it would apply just as well to verbal feedback in any context.   I’ve set out the guiding ideas under five headings below; under each, I’ve shown how I applied them to one particular session (in italics).  I’m teaching trainees to formulate lesson objectives from the (Swedish) national curriculum (having chosen to train them through practice and planned the session backwards from my objectives).

1) When?

To be worthwhile, I need to position feedback when it will help teachers see something they would otherwise have missed.

Mid-way through formulating their lesson objectives is a good chance to review them: are they pitched well and how can they learn from one another.

2) Who?

Different donors have different advantages: session leaders can only see a few individuals’ work, but can offer ‘batched feedback’ which draws out key points applicable to everyone.  Peer-to-peer feedback may demand more guidance, but it means everyone gets individual attention.

I will ask peers to give feedback to someone  teaching the same subject, so each trainee gets feedback on their objectives.

3) Focus?

Lack of focus is the biggest enemy of useful feedback, epitomised by vague platitudes in the classroom, like ‘He needs to spell better’.  In designing a session, I can identify likely misconceptions on which to focus feedback.  I can then create ‘Feedback Cheat Sheets’, to guide peers towards the aspects on which feedback may be most powerful.  These ‘cheat sheets’, whether on paper or Powerpoint, model useful, specific, solutions-focused feedback to trainees.

In the example below, I have suggested possible introductory sentences and three key areas of feedback.

TFS Sessions 2015 real

4) Model?

A key principle of Teach Like a Champion training is that everything should be modelled.  Feedback is no different.  As well as modelling giving feedback (with the help of the Feedback Cheat Sheet above), I also modelled using it.  One helpful way of doing this was providing a weak example, inviting feedback from trainees, then demonstrate how I would apply it.

In this case, I demonstrated increasing the specificity of the lesson objectives.

TFS Sessions 2015 real

The top line is the Swedish national curriculum objective my lesson objective is based on.

5) Use?

The feedback needs to be put to use to be worthwhile.  Dylan Wiliam describes the value of stopping an activity or a unit early in teaching and making time to give and apply feedback; the same principle applies in teacher training.

In this case, I asked trainees to give one another feedback halfway through their time writing objectives, so they had time rewrite their objectives using this feedback.

In sum…

Done well, verbal feedback seems incredibly powerful.  Doing it well entails careful planning, to ensure those giving feedback are brief and focus on solutions, and those using it receive the feedback at the right time, and put it to use.

Previous posts in this series
1) Everything is Practice – only practice creates real teacher development.
2) A Culture of Practice – practice relies on the right environment.
3) Planning Practice, Practising Vision – how to plan a practice session

The next Teach Like a Champion Practice Perfect workshop is in June; I strongly recommend attending.