For an upcoming workshop for ASCD on feedback I spent a few days re-reading various books and articles, and looking at some online resources. Alas, yet again I encountered basic confusion on the meaning of feedback, and sloppiness in the use of the term.

Loosely speaking, of course, feedback means anything we say back to a person who has said or done something. So, it is not uncommon to hear educators say that “Good job!” and “Try harder next time!” are examples of feedback. Yet, strictly speaking, neither is feedback: the first phrase is praise and the second phrase is advice. Feedback is information about what happened, in light of a goal; there is no praise, blame, or advice, just actionable data from some result.

There is a performance goal; we act on it; there is a result of some kind. That result, strictly speaking is the feedback. What teachers say, therefore, is only a secondary kind of feedback. What teacher-coaches do in giving feedback is point out what happened that may not have been noticed by the performer. Think of clinical supervision: I report as an observer, based on your goal for the day and your general desire to engage, the facts of what I saw in light of the goals, no more. You ask me at the end of the lesson what I saw. I say: “For the first 12 minutes all eyes were on you and body language suggested engagement. But by 20 minutes in, I counted 4 kids doodling, 2 with their heads on the table, and 2 in the back having a side conversation. I think you lost them at the discussion of dramatic irony.” “Hm, I didn’t see that; I knew by the end, though, that I had lost them…”  No value judgment, no advice, just data ‘fed back’ to you in light of your goal; data that you likely missed because you were busy teaching – that’s feedback. (That’s why even pro’s need coaches!).

Key point, though: as suggested, you often don’t need people to get good feedback; you just need to be more observant and/or record your performance for later review. If you had set up a Flip camera on a tripod and faced the camera at the class you would have seen the feedback yourself! Too many people believe that all feedback needs to be one-on-one from a trusted other. Not true: you just need actionable data about what did or didn’t happen in light of your goal.

You tell a joke about slow learners in your class that you think is a riot; none of your teacher-friends laugh. Their lack of laugh is the feedback. Then, you tell a joke about the Principal; everyone laughs hard. Their laughter is feedback. No one praised you, criticized you or gave you advice on joke-telling. All you need as the performer is to pay attention to what worked and what didn’t to make considerable progress (which is often what comedians do).

That’s what computer games give us so well: useful, timely, ongoing results. We get immediate feedback as to whether we knocked over the pillars and mashed the pig with the angry bird or not. No talk of any kind; no praise, no advice – just “it worked” or “it didn’t”.  And we learn from this something valuable for the long term: the more we pay close attention to results, the better we will become; we will also slowly but surely learn to stop confusing good-faith-effort with achievement.

When do you need advice? When you don’t know what the feedback is (as in the supervision example), when you don’t know what it means, or you don’t know how to act on it.  “Jokes about your superiors are always funny while jokes about children seem cruel; tell more jokes about your superiors or elders” is advice a comedian might give to a fledgling teacher-comic. Or, the advice might be more about audience: “don’t tell jokes about kids to groups of teachers or parents of young children; tell it to older parents – they will laugh hard!” (Whether or not you like or take the advice is not the point here; what the veteran comic did was give you advice, based on the feedback).

A second key point, then, is that advice – if it comes – only comes AFTER feedback has been obtained and pondered. In other words, the giving of advice is not always needed, and should only be given if the person asks for it or is in clear need of help. Why does this matter? Because far too many teachers give too much advice and not enough feedback. And they say Good Job! a hundred times a day without helping the student know what the feedback is that gave rise to the praise. By quickly giving advice every time – a teacher weakness – you end up sounding bossy and (ironically) somewhat insensitive to that particular performance.

When do you need praise? You don’t need nearly as much as most teachers believe, especially teachers of young children. Praise is ok; but praise doesn’t get you better. And too much praise without feedback will have two undesirable effects: make the learner think the job is to earn praise (instead of learn to do the task well for its own sake), and confuse the learner about what the task and its purpose are. Worse, as Carol Dweck has pointed out, praising ability instead of the specific features of effort and result over time causes students to plateau and even regress as learners when the going gets difficult.

Practically speaking what you should do is always think of the phrase “Good job!” as not a complete sentence. It should be the introduction to a piece of feedback. “Good job: in this introduction to your paper, you hooked me as a reader far more than in the last one. It was very effective to begin your essay with a provocative question.” Learners often do not know what they did to warrant the praise! That’s why in technical terms a feedback system is a “confirmation/disconfirmation” system: I need results/data/comments that help me better understand when i did something right when the performance is complex. More generally, think of rubrics as the source of your sentence-finisher. Get in the habit of following “good job” or “Gee that didn’t go so well” with the descriptive language from your rubrics.

The greatest example of this message I have ever personally witnessed was at a Little League practice. By good fortune one of our coaches was related by marriage to the hitting instructor for the Trenton Thunder, a former major-leaguer named Steve Braun. His method was simple and powerful. Each kid hit off a batting tee while Steve put a ball from the bucket on the tee. He didn’t engage in pleasantries or even ask all the kids their names. He watched intently as they swung and hit the ball into the net. After each kid had hit a bucket he described the highlights of what he saw in their swing, an area of weakness, and one piece of useful advice. He then set up another bucket so they could try out acting on the feedback and the advice. He would sometimes on the second round call attention to when they were getting it or falling back into their error. Every kid made extraordinary progress and walked away as proud and excited as could be. No praise, no blame, limited advice, lots of feedback.

I know from personal experience what happens when you give more feedback and less advice and praise: you become MORE respected by learners, and you become a better observer of learning. You gain the learner’s respect because you are taking the time and trouble to see things in their performance that they did not; they respect both your attention to their work and your insight. You don’t disingenuously praise (which they recognize quickly as learners and dislike). And you gain greater insight into learning (or its absence) as you pay deliberately closer attention to the effects of your teaching instead of just assuming that if you taught it they got it.

In addition, it is often the case that when the learner really gets the feedback they can can give themselves advice. That of course is key to developing both confidence and competence over the long haul. The goal should be to wean students from always asking “Is this what you wanted?” and “What should I do, then?” over time.

So, try to give less praise and more feedback, less advice and more feedback. Try to explain in detail the source of any praise. And try to set up non-human feedback systems so that students get used to looking at and learning from results instead of Authority figures (and so you are freed up to work with more kids).

PS: A brand new report on the importance of feedback in writing came out today from the Carnegie corporation.

I look forward to your feedback.