During my pre-service training, a favorite professor offered a simple creed: Teachers should put the car in drive, not reverse. At the time, he was referring to the forward thrust of educational progress, but his adage could just as easily capture the art of delivering effective feedback.
Teachers spend much of their time circling a feedback loop, sharing and receiving information across multiple channels -- students, parents, supervisors, and central offices. There are report cards, progress notes, parent-teacher conferences and endless meetings. Teachers document goals, set performance standards, grade assessments, and correct misbehavior. They are feedback generators. But for all of the feedback that teachers leave for others, they receive very little of it themselves.
The Power of Self-Evaluation
Granted, there are mechanisms in place to evaluate teacher performance, but many of these value-added measures feel more like punch lists than professional reviews. When it comes to receiving feedback about their own practice, teachers prefer to put the car in drive -- to hear about future behaviors, not past performance. Turns out, so does corporate America.
According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, 467 members of the Fortune 500 now utilize Gallup's StrengthsFinder, a review tool that measures a person's talent in 34 areas (and inspired Tom Rath's runaway bestseller by the same title). The shift from top-down managerial reviews to employee-generated assessments may have something to do with Marshall Goldsmith's highly acclaimed feedforward concept in which employees are asked to suggest ideas for their own improvement in the future.
Advocates of the feedforward approach -- including global software maker VMware Inc. -- point to its natural advantages. Feedback, by its very definition, is focused on the past, which can't be changed. Feedforward looks ahead at future possibilities that still fall under our control. Feedback tends to reinforce personal stereotypes or negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Feedforward looks beyond what is in favor of what can be. With feedback, all of the ideas for improvement come from the employer. With feedforward, those ideas come from the very person being asked to change, increasing the odds that change will occur. And let's face it: Most managers (except for the sadistic ones) dislike giving feedback as much as employees dislike getting it.
Identifying Priorities and Possibilities
What implications might this model have for the education sector? Teachers have long believed in the importance of reflective practice, of multiplying what worked and correcting what didn't. Reflective educators don't need the strong arm of a supervisor to guide their practice. Some may even recoil at the idea of being told what to do. The path to progress comes into clearer view with a set of outside eyes, from the people who help us see through the clutter and identify priorities and possibilities for change. For teachers, this insight comes in the form of job-embedded professional learning -- practice-driven models of learning that are integrated into the workday. Grounded in day-to-day teaching methods and driven by best practices, job-embedded PD offers a compelling framework to share feedforward. While there’s no "right" solution, teachers who want to feedforward should consider any of the following models:
Deployed by districts or contracted by individual schools, instructional coaches live alongside the faculty and provide on-the-job support to teams of teachers. The coach-teacher relationship is lateral, not hierarchal, akin to dance partners who respond in kind to the movements of the other person. Instructional coaches see themselves as guides, not fixers. Change belongs in the hands of the teacher.
Peer Observations and Teacher Rounds
In the absence of a dedicated on-site professional developer, schools build capacity through distributive PD that taps its own faculty as mentors. Whether it's a simple arrangement between colleagues to observe each other in action, or a more formal approach like teacher rounds (an iterative, inquiry-based cycle of observations between larger teacher teams), schools are turning teachers into lieutenants of their own learning.
Professional Learning Communities
Noted for their emphasis on versatility, collaboration and practice-driven outcomes, PLCs feature dynamic teams of teachers engaged in self-contained, self-directed study. Operating along or across subject-specific departments, PLCs bring together teachers with shared interests and goals for frequent discussion about and analysis of teaching practices. Some PLCs use video to capture and dissect a slice of instructional life, while others take apart field literature to learn how to adopt research-based methods in the classroom.
Owning Your Change
These models of professional growth allow teachers to see a side of their practice -- and themselves -- that may never have come into focus before. And when these mirror-holding exercises are followed by honest and authentic conversations about how to recast and readjust behaviors, then feedforward can run its powerful course.
This practice prompts teachers to identify their own strengths and suggest their own areas of improvement. There’s a tectonic shift from prescription ("Your lesson is flawed; do this instead") to description ("What did you see during your lesson?"). Change instantly becomes the personal property of the practitioner, not the mandate of a manager. Feedforward means that teachers are not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled, but change agents waiting to be launched. Now that's something that can draw rave reviews.
Are educators in your school practicing feedforward? Please tell us about your own experiences.