Hidden feedback

Feedback is a Good Thing. We are told this, and in lots of ways I’m certain it’s true. The research shows it, and the EEF Toolkit says it’s the one of the most cost-effective forms of ‘intervention’. It ought to be at the crux of what we’re trying to do. The comparison to the tennis coach is made often: that need to try something and have instant formative advice about what to do to improve.

Except… we do that all the time already, don’t we?

The problem is – as is so often the way – in the interpretation. It seems that for Ofsted, and probably SLTs across the country trying to satiate Ofsted, that feedback appears in a red pen1, and preferably with a response, or even better ‘a dialogue’. Imagine all those terrible schools where they’ve previously had no dialogue. Quiet.

What if things were reversed? Imagine the research showed that feedback were a Bad Thing. That Ofsted were tasked with the responsibility of rooting out feedback wherever it be found.2 How quickly might your classrooom be damned for excessive feedback? For even if all our red pens1 were taken away, aren’t our classrooms filled with feedback? Could you really get rid of all of these:

  • “Look at question 4 again.”
  • “Everybody stop… let’s look at this again.”
  • “Have you checked for full stops?”
  • “Check your own answers to questions 1 to 4 before you move on”
  • “Are you sure…?”

    It's what we do.

    It’s what we do.

  • “Now, when we tried this yesterday…”
  • “What would happen if…?”
  • “Check your column addition.”
  • “Is there a better word than…”
  • “Does that sentence make sense to you?”
  • “How could you make this better / easier for the reader / more frightening / more precise…?”
  • “Can you expand on that?”
  • “Can you use mathematical / scientific / geographical language to explain that in more detail?”
  • “Who got 34?”
  • “What happens to the decimal point?”
  • “Take another look at this paragraph / sentence.”
  • “Have you met all the success criteria?”
  • “You tell me.”
  • “Ahem.”
  • Checking your answer with a partner
  • Tapping on the book next to the missing capital letter
  • A raised eyebrow
  • A smile
  • Placing a dictionary / thesaurus on the desk

I’m sure there are a thousand more verbal and non-verbal cues we use every day. In fact, it’s a miracle that with ratios of 1:30 or more that so much individual feedback can be incorporated. I’d like to see a tennis coach compete with that.
No-one, to my knowledge, yet sells a “Non-verbal feedback given” stamper, but if we were to use these two stampers in real-time, with real frequency, the stamper companies would be selling them by the million. And that’s before we even begin to think about that most important of feedback cycles that goes on in the teacher’s mind (They’re not getting this; I need to explain that bit again; What other representation could I use?; Right, those groups are ready, these need something else…)

It’s just a matter of what you’re looking for.


1 Pen colours other than red are available.

2 I apologise for any inadvertent corruption of the subjunctive mood here; I only learned it in French.

All feedback welcome, naturally, non-verbal or otherwise.


8 thoughts on “Hidden feedback

  1. Bruce Waelend 23 February 2014 at 3:57 pm Reply

    Really interesting stuff, Michael. I think the thing that would elevate all of those questions into definite feedback would be teachers listening carefully. Sometimes we can be good at asking questions and not really listening to the answer. It’s the listening and consequent response that will make sure that they’re really having the desired impact. Great post!

    • Michael Tidd 23 February 2014 at 4:35 pm Reply

      How true. I often find that the art of questioning in the classroom is only partly in the skill of questions; the real skill is the ability to interpret the answer in a split second, and to change course accordingly.

  2. Horatio Speaks 23 February 2014 at 7:40 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. thom 23 February 2014 at 8:45 pm Reply

    I would go a step further than Bruce’s point about listening, which I think is very important. I think the key to feedback is the next step – feedforward. If the feedback that we give does not lead to feedforward (in other words, an opportunity for the student to improve) then I believe we need to count it as essentially shallow.

    As for the tennis coach analogy I think it holds in circumstances when feedback is one to one and where the focus is very tight. A tennis coach doesn’t bombard you with tips – if they want to improve your serve they ask you to serve, watch your serve and compare the elements to the check list for a good serve. Then they probably get you to work on one particular element until you have mastered it. How that works in a classroom of 30 is then a challenge. Doug Lemov writes some interesting stuff. Right now I am reading ‘Feedback: The Communication of Praise, Criticism and Advice’ (ed. Sutton, Hornsey & Douglas; Peter Lang, 2012) which is overloading my working memory…

  4. annahalford (@anhalf) 23 February 2014 at 8:59 pm Reply

    Thom…where can I get a copy of that?
    Michael, interesting and thought provoking piece. Non verbal feedback can be far more effective (and damaging) than other forms. Highlights how complex the whole feedback issue is…

    • thom 23 February 2014 at 10:30 pm Reply

      Got mine from Amazon…

  5. rgslearning 4 June 2014 at 7:27 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on RGS Learning and commented:
    Ahead of the next mini-teachmeet on Assessment, Marking & Feedback, here is a refreshing post from Michael Tidd…

  6. theplews 10 June 2015 at 10:40 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas.

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