Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

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The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach