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.

Embrace your discomfort zone: bubbling in the crucible of growth

Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. ~ Sigmund Freud

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

Scholarly literature and the blogosphere are saturated with thoughts around motivation, growth and what it means to learn, lead and be the best we each can be. Some of this is around what qualities, attitudes or behaviours we need in order to weather life’s difficulties while continuously growing our selves.

Skill sets & mindsets for discomfort and growth

Carol Dweck’s much-touted work on mindset argues that our self-conceptions frame our life paths. If we perceive ourselves as having fixed immovable traits, then we are less likely to be resilient and positive in the face of challenge. Those who perceive that their talents and abilities can be developed are more able to see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.

Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching model would suggest that we need to help individuals to reflect upon their own goals and experiences, figuring out their own ways to get better while assuming that each individual has the capacity to do exactly that.

In their recent book Uplifting Leadership Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle and Alma Harris talk about a yin-yang balance between positive energised leadership and tenacious hard work. They talk about disciplined innovation and feet-on-the-ground (rather than pie-in-the-sky) creativity. “An uplifting mindset and skill set keeps your head up high while your feet stay firmly planted on the ground.” Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris articulate the need for leaders to have visions and dreams alongside the determination to struggle through hardship and adversity. They remind us that “without dreams, profound human and social change would scarcely be possible” but that we need inspiration that incites action, daring and doing. Leaders, then, are grounded visionaries whose diligent exertion drives imagination and change.

Environments of support and challenge: being held while being pushed

In her work on adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson talks about organisations as ‘holding environments’, spaces in which adult learners feel ‘held’ and which provide both high support and high challenge. When I spoke with Ellie this year, she emphasised the need for schools to facilitate the development of self-authoring individuals, able to take charge of their own journeys of transformation.

Charlotte Danielson, too, talks about the need for support and challenge for teacher growth. Teachers need an environment of trust, she says, in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry. As I explained previously in my reflections on hearing Charlotte speak at the Australian Council for Educational Leadership 2014 conference, the need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been pivotal in my school’s work to provide a setting for the transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Enter the discomfort zone, the birthplace of rainbow growth

So while we need to feel supported enough to take risks, we need to be daring enough to be vulnerable, uncomfortable and daring. Margie Warrell calls this the ‘Courage Zone’, the place beyond comfort (but before terror and paralysis) in which risk taking and growth happens.

In my own experiences I have found this discomfort zone to be a tipping point for my own growth. Often it is in the squirmiest spaces of discomfort that my breakdowns become my breakthroughs. As I illustrated (literally) in the drawing above, my discomfort zone is a place of dark messiness, but from which rainbow-like growth can emerge. The comfort zone might be all white fluffy clouds, affirmations and unicorn-blessed pixie dust, but it also tends to be a space of inertia.

My classroom is a place in which my experience and comfort level are best served by being challenged to try new things like a recent term without marks or grades. And while my online PLN and at-school professional friends provide me with support, it is getting out of the supportive echo chamber and into dissenting debate which pushes my thinking and incites my learning.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of my growth this year have been in my PhD work which often involves wrestling with my thesis. Support and criticism from my supervisors help me to work tenaciously through difficult research and writing problems to find solutions and make progress. As an experienced educator but novice researcher, it is interesting negotiating a space in which my learning curve is dizzyingly exponential. The best thing about grappling with and through discomfort is the unrivalled feeling of satisfaction at solving, innovating or realising learning.

Who, where or what makes you feel ‘held’ and comfortable? How at ease are you in your discomfort zone? Is it a crucible of growth for you? What do you find when you stay there and thrash around for a while?

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching …. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape. ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Building superheroes: power, freedom & responsibility

You say you don’t want the responsibility? Guess what? People like us…we don’t get a choice. ~ Peter Parker

power, freedom & responsibility

Spider-Man: power, freedom & responsibility

One of the current favourite lounge room anthems in my house is ‘Superheroes’ by The Script. It’s about struggling through adversity into strength: turning “the pain into power … That’s how a superhero learns to fly”: .

How do we encourage our own children and students to fly and to build resilience, grit and a sense of individual responsibility for their own flight?

I recently stumbled across a Twitter chat which was around the topic of ‘learning differently’. It seemed to be focused on students who were considered high risk, high needs or ‘different’ learners. Having worked with students with cerebral palsy, students considered ‘at-risk’, and in mainstream and not-so mainstream classrooms, my reaction was: but we all learn differently from each other. So isn’t trying to address ‘learning differently’ just addressing the needs and contexts of all of our students, whatever those are? Can’t we help all individuals to grow and fly in ways appropriate to each of them?

My own approach to differentiation and independence-building is often one which allows student choice and self-direction, which in turn lets me work with students in more individualised ways. Maria Montessori said that a teacher’s greatest mark of success is when “the children are now working as if I do not exist.” If students are to fly, they need to be able to get there on their own. How can we help build their superpowers?

my three superheroes

my three superheroes

Voltaire’s line ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’ was made famous by Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. It is a line I borrow from when reminding students of their responsibilities in the classroom and in their own learning, adapted for my purposes (and also reflecting the sentiment of something my parents used to say to me):

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

In other words, the more freedom of choice a student has, the more they are expected to act responsibly. As students prove their self-managing, self-motivating, independent capacity for action and thought, so they will have more freedom, and the responsibility that comes with that.

Students tend to connect with and remember that line, maybe because their first reaction is one of correcting me, telling me I have the line wrong; they know it from Spider-Man and they defend the original. Yet they are also reminded that they need to earn their freedom by proving their capacity for self-directedness.

I discovered, after using this line for years, that Eleanor Roosevelt did actually say that “with freedom comes responsibility.” She asserted that freedom requires that we grow up and carry our own weight. Being free-choosing, free-thinking, free-acting citizens of the classroom or the world comes with the responsibility of being thoughtful, ethical, independent individuals, traits often modelled by superheroes.

How do you remind your children or students of the responsibilities which come with freedom? How do you enact your own duty as an educator or a parent? A duty expressed by Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris in Uplifting Leadership as a “lasting legacy” of raising others up, so that, when we step aside “the good work should still go on”?

How do you help your superheroes find their power and learn to fly?

Do you know what is the greatest gift anyone can receive in his lifetime? The greatest gift we can receive is to have the chance,  just once in our lives, to make a difference. ~ Dr Strange talking to Peter Parker