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Feedback is Fundamental
Written by Dr. Jeff Howard
Under the right conditions, normal human beings can learn to do anything — from speaking human languages, to Advanced Placement Calculus, all the way to more advanced and complicated skills like running effective classrooms, schools and school districts. This is proven every day, by people operating in the most difficult circumstances—poor children, often from broken families and communities, taught by highly effective, but mostly anonymous educators who have learned how to generate those ‘right conditions’.
So what are the right conditions? There are obvious factors like motivation and opportunity to learn, and these must be in place; but today, I’d like to focus on a condition for learning that we think about a lot at Efficacy: people who consistently learn are people who, when faced with learning challenges, are always able to make feedback from their experiences, and use it to guide their strategies for improvement.
Remember that feedback is not the same thing a ‘data’. Data is just raw information about how we are performing, like ‘92’ or ‘C-‘. Feedback is the insight we derive from the analysis of the data, which answers three questions: what part(s) of this do I already know; what part(s) am I still missing; and, most important, what must I work on to improve? Data is something we are given; feedback is something we make, and it is the absolutely essential requirement for learning challenging material. To make feedback is to prime oneself for effective, improvement focused action (“…so this is what I’ve been doing wrong!”); but to fail to do so is equally consequential.
Failure to make feedback leaves us with no insight about ‘what to work on’, and therefore no basis for formulating improvement strategies—so learning stops. When normal children are unable to learn consistently in school, it is not because they are stupid; it is because the circumstances of their learning environments render them unable to make and use feedback in this way, so they fall back on the old, destructive stand-by: “ I got a D. I guess I just can’t do this.”
This problem is not limited to children; it is systemic. Teachers who cannot make feedback from the data of poor student performance are operating without the insight they need to make appropriate adjustments to their instructional strategies. This is why they are unable to generate improvements in performance in their classrooms—why they keep doing the same things that have demonstrably not worked for them (or their students) in the past. Ditto for administrators: those who do not engage in the process of making feedback from the data of underperformance in their buildings deny themselves the insight they need to make necessary changes in policies and personnel to improve school and district performance. In other words, at all levels, failure to use difficulty as feedback is the cause; the effects are loss of confidence and poor results—the all-too-common reality of children who don’t learn much in school, and adults who are ineffective in their efforts to turn around classrooms and schools where, year after year (and too often, generation after generation) children pass through without learning what they need to function in the modern world.
I regard this as a fundamental principle: The answers we need will not come from ‘getting data’; they will come from the insights released by the process of making feedback from the data. Only those who know how to make feedback, how to transform raw data into insight about more effective learning and teaching strategies, can improve. Successful educators (and lifelong learners) have figured this out. Those who are currently unsuccessful do not lack the necessary capacity; they are fully capable of insight and improvement. But to deliver, they must be taught the simple process of transforming data to feedback. This has become a central part of our work at Efficacy.
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