Superintendent’s Notebook: Welcoming feedback

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In today’s world, there is no lack of data. For those wearing Apple watches or fitness trackers, throughout the day feedback is available in an instant: how much you are moving, exercising, and how frequently you are standing rather than sitting.

Annual physicals include information about cholesterol, HDL, triglycerides, followed by comments from your doctor on how to improve your overall health. In sports, we all intuitively value the feedback that a high-quality coach brings to a team or an individual. Private lessons in tennis or golf can result in more effective swings or footwork.

Similarly, in education, feedback can be powerful in assisting students and teachers in improving. John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has written about the “big ideas” in education, identifying what has the greatest effect on student learning. Feedback, he finds, is among the most powerful strategies to impact student learning. Of course, even without the research, we know that effective coaching or feedback makes a difference on whether individuals and teams win Olympic gold or whether they go home at the end of the competition as just a participant.

We know that effective feedback to students and teachers is essential for continuous improvement in Regional School Unit 5. This requires a mindset that welcomes feedback and a desire to improve.

At Freeport High School we just finished a New England Association of Schools and Colleges visit, from which we will receive feedback on how to become stronger in our teaching and learning. Feedback from outside organizations such as NEASC and other consultants can provide a perspective and unbiased lens that cannot be seen as easily internally.

Not all feedback is as effective as others. When I went to school and completed assignments and quizzes, they were returned with a score at the top of the page with a 93 or “A,” and possibly with a comment of “Good job” or “Excellent,” or a 78 or “C” with a “Try harder” or “You can do better.” This type of feedback does not help someone understand what they don’t know or how to improve. This type of feedback has little impact on improving the task or the work.

Effective feedback requires helping someone understand what they don’t know, what they do know, and what are the next steps for improving. Teachers must determine what the student does not understand before giving the student comments on how to improve. This requires as much listening to the student as talking. We must cultivate mindsets that are open to feedback and listening. That’s when feedback becomes the most powerful and results in improved teaching and learning.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In RSU 5 we foster school cultures that welcome reflection and feedback, leading to continuous improvement. We will continue to examine our practices as we believe that every child is entitled to a year’s growth in a year’s time, leading to success for all.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at foleyb@rsu5.org.

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