As educators, we hold an unwavering belief in the power of feedback. John Hattie, in his groundbreaking work Visible Learning, highlighted feedback’s profound impact, surpassing all other schooling effects in terms of average effect size. Feedback is not limited to students alone; it forms the bedrock of coaching programs and teacher appraisals, and the amount of feedback that teachers receive is positively linked with higher student achievement.
However, recent research challenges the straightforward view of feedback that we have long embraced, suggesting that not all techniques employed are universally effective. I’ve seen this evolving landscape firsthand through interviews with 70 teachers across 17 countries for the Global Education Monitoring Report from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and in my experience as an instructional and technology coach.
Recognizing the Diverse Impact of Feedback
Feedback, in theory, follows a logical progression: An observer provides corrective feedback based on classroom observations. Teachers refine specific aspects of their practice until they achieve the desired level of quality implementation.
However, the reality is more nuanced. When confronted with feedback, individuals exhibit one of three reactions: acceptance, modification to fit their existing beliefs, or outright rejection. A good deal of research shows that we routinely do the latter. Defensiveness may prevail, particularly when the feedback originates from sources deemed lacking in credibility, significantly diminishing our motivation to change. Furthermore, the relationship between feedback and improved performance is often weak, with many recipients deeming it unhelpful.
Feedback’s impact varies greatly among teachers, ranging from being foundational to improvement for some to negligible or even negative for others. How, then, can we capitalize on effective feedback practices while mitigating their drawbacks? How can we better assist those who might resist more traditional forms of the feedback process?
6 Ways to Reimagine Feedback
1. Understand feedback’s strengths and limitations. Feedback is not a silver bullet. Its effectiveness depends on various factors, including the motivation of individuals involved, its timing, and the nature of the feedback itself.
Feedback works best for those whose main motivation is self-improvement or improved learning. It is most useful in correcting mistakes that have known solutions, rather than aiming for teacher excellence. Feedback should adopt a developmental approach and be future-focused (“feed forward”), highlighting areas in which the recipient can improve and offering clear, actionable steps and strategies for doing so.
2. Consider using terms besides “feedback.” Some studies have suggested dropping “feedback” in favor of terms such as “advice,” which often elicits more actionable information, or “debriefing,” which when accompanied by action plans can create a more psychologically safe environment. One study observed that student “advice” to instructors yielded detailed information versus student “feedback,” which was often more vague. Framing feedback as advice or debriefing encourages recipients to focus on improving their future performance rather than dwelling on past shortcomings.
3. Accentuate the positive. Excellence in teaching is often subjective, with numerous effective approaches for any given topic. Research suggests we improve and thrive when others focus on our strengths versus our weaknesses. A key to effective feedback is highlighting existing patterns of excellence and focusing on what teachers do well.
While many coaches are trained to avoid interjecting their personal feelings into coaching conversations, sharing positive reactions can be beneficial as long as they focus on the work, not the person. By objectively asking teachers, "Did you see what you did there?” we validate teachers’ strengths and reinforce excellent performance.
4. Prioritize the “how” of giving feedback. Delivering feedback can be challenging, especially if the person receiving the feedback is a peer or the information could be perceived as critical. In coaching situations like these, the “MUM” effect—minimizing unpleasant messages—may prevail.
Because communication is essential to feedback, we’ve understandably expended enormous efforts in getting communication right; however, research suggests we might do well to revisit how we communicate feedback.
First, some of our more traditional feedback techniques, like the “feedback sandwich” (positive-critique-positive), originally designed to help navigate the difficulty of providing performance-based critiques, have been disparaged by research. Using alternative methods for communicating feedback, such as the critique-positive-positive (CPP) sequence, yields higher performance than the feedback sandwich.
Additionally, many of us who work as coaches have been taught to ask and not tell. Yet we can and should adopt different communication styles as needed—being directive when there is a clear answer, informational when knowledge transfer is the goal, catalytic when a gentle push is required, and inquiry-based when assisting teachers in processing their thoughts.
5. Empower the feedback recipient. Often, in feedback or debriefing sessions the feedback recipient—the teacher—is the more passive participant, absorbing the information shared by a coach or supervisor. But feedback should involve two skilled and active partners.
Receiving feedback, as well as giving it, is a skill. Therefore, helping teachers build skills around receiving practice-based information, feedback, or advice—such as listening with an open mind, thinking critically about the information provided, asking for specific advice, engaging in conversations, and “making a thoughtful choice” about the quality, utility, and relevance of the feedback provided—can improve the entire process.
6. Above all, focus on the “what” of feedback. While much attention is given to the “how” of feedback delivery, the real value lies in the “what” of feedback—the richness of information provided. “High information” feedback should include two essential components: verification (assessing the correctness of the teacher’s approach when there is only one correct method) and elaboration (offering information to fill gaps in understanding and guide the recipient toward a desired approach). Thus, it’s crucial that the person providing this information be credible to teachers—which often means involving fellow teachers’ peer-feedback processes.
We know that feedback is essential for teacher professional development. Yet, more recent research and studies from fields outside of education suggest further examination of current feedback practices to address its many complexities. By blending this information with established effective feedback methods, we can make the feedback process more relevant and useful for more teachers in ways that ultimately enhance student learning.