Relationships: The Yin to Feedback’s Yang

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

This week marks the kick-off of my school district’s second annual yearlong mini-conference; a progressive approach to professional development which grants teachers an opportunity to deepen their learning of a topic of their choice. I facilitate the cohort version of this conference.  For better or worse, when teachers choose my course they are with me all year. Therefore, my goal is to ensure an engaging and worthwhile program.

As I prepared the first session of this year’s cohort, I had a flashback to last year when I received my class list.  I immediately noticed my building’s Assistant Principal, Courtney Goodman, had signed up for my course.  She would be a member of our cohort and “observe” me facilitate all thirteen hours of the professional learning I had planned.  Even though Courtney and I had worked together for several years, when I initially saw her name on my roster, I was quite nervous.

Well, fast forward one year, and this time when I saw Courtney’s name on my class list, my initial response was, “YES!”  The reason for the change in my reaction is simple; the feedback Courtney offered me throughout last year’s course proved invaluable. In fact, with each subsequent session,  I looked forward to receiving her emails and having conversations about the sessions. Courtney’s feedback helped me go deeper in my facilitation, and her questions helped me reflect on both my participants’ and my outcomes.  Additionally, having frequent opportunities to converse with Courtney strengthened our relationship.

One Sentence Can Change Our Learning
Recently, I heard a keynote speech by Jo Boaler (founder of Stanford University’s YouCubed and math mindset guru.). Boaler shared results from a recent study of high school students regarding feedback:

“All of the students wrote essays and received critical diagnostic feedback from their teachers, but half the students received an extra sentence on the bottom of the feedback. The students who received the extra sentence achieved higher grades a year later, even though the teachers did not know who received the sentence and there were no other differences between the groups. It may seem incredible that one sentence could change students’ learning trajectories to the extent that they achieve at higher levels a year later, with no other change, but this was the extra sentence,

I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you.”

The results of the study Boaler referenced provide another example of the correlation between relationships and feedback. As I work to apply my learning from John Hattie’s meta-analysis of highly effective instructional practices, what becomes more and more apparent is how effective influences work in conjunction, not isolation, to positively affect student achievement.

Feedback and student-teacher relationships rank amongst the practices with the highest effect sizes at .75 and .72 respectively (above a .4 is considered effective).  (Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers)

Statements like “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” contribute to a safe environment where mistakes are considered opportunities to learn. Students know the teacher is genuinely interested in their learning and therefore quickly build trusting relationships with them. When students (like all humans) trust and respect the person giving them feedback they are more likely to implement the comments.

In addition to a strong relationship, the feedback in it of itself must be considered. All feedback isnot created equal.  Feedback done right is reciprocal; it should enable the student to go deeper, and simultaneously inform the teacher’s next steps. Additionally, feedback only works when a goal is mutually established and understood by the teacher and student (you can read more about goal setting here). Once a goal is set the student must have a solid idea of what success looks like (success criteria) and the steps to achieve success. (learning intentions).

Hattie explains that there are four levels of feedback:

1) Feedback related to the task (for new learning/right or wrong)

2) Feedback related to the process (some degree of proficiency)

3) Feedback which promotes self-regulation (high degree of proficiency)

4) Feedback which elicits reflection

Additionally, quality feedback should answer one of three essential questions: Where am I going? How am I getting there? Where do I go next?

The level at which feedback is given will vary based on student need. As students delve deeper into their learning, the feedback should align accordingly to challenge and engage students appropriately.

Last year, my assistant principal gave me task feedback (participants were engaged…) however, she primarily gave me feedback at higher levels (I wonder how you can reiterate… to ensure a shared understanding…).  This was the feedback pushed me.  I never felt defensive or dismissive about the comments. I felt thankful.  I valued what Courtney shared as I knew she cared about the learning of our participants and about my growth as an instructional coach.

Our students have similar needs. They also thrive when offered personalized feedback.  For many teachers, providing this level of detail to students seems unattainable; doing so seemingly takes copious amounts of time.  This is one reason the majority of teachers tend to give task-based feedback only (scores, grades, progress toward a standard, etc.).  While task-based feedback is certainly necessary for students to set goals and get started, other levels of feedback are needed for students to go further in their learning.

Perhaps you have heard or even said something along the lines of, “I would like to provide this level of feedback, but, I don’t have enough time to do so…..”  Well, you are not alone.  “There just isn’t enough time” is a common sentiment amongst educators.  In fact, a recent survey of 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 76% of teachers cited time as the thing they wanted most.

But, I am not sure time is what’s needed. Instead, we need to use our time differently. I often wonder, when we cut out giving feedback to “save time”, for what are we using that time? The answer, I believe, is to allow for more content coverage. But, this is like running in a hamster wheel.  Students have a constant picture of where they are, but no path and no opportunity to go any further.

So, rather than concentrating on all the content that “needs” to be covered, shift the focus to assessing students’ current reality. Work with students to ensure they know where they need to go, strengthen your relationship with them along the way as you offer feedback at stopping points.

When students receive feedback suitable for their needs, they feel valued and are more likely to apply the given feedback.  Ultimately, building relationships while providing targeted, actionable feedback will significantly increase the probability of student growth.

While changing the way we provide feedback may seem like a difficult undertaking, remember, “The greater the challenge, the higher probability that one seeks and needs feedback” (Hattie 21). Collaborate with a trusted instructional coach, colleague, or administrator.  Or, reach out to me. I am happy to provide more information, examples, direction, and feedback.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Do your EdTech Tools Really Innovate Student Learning?


In 2009, after a brief hiatus to stay home with my young children I returned to the classroom. I taught a 6th grade gifted integrated English language arts and social studies program. Right out the gate, I asked students to write a narrative essay describing the theme of their life. I used this piece as both a baseline assessment of their writing skills and an opportunity to learn more about my students as people. While the assignment helped me accomplish my goals, my learning was much greater; by giving this assignment I also discovered Google Docs.

No one taught me about Google Docs. I didn’t hear about it in a training. I didn’t read about it on Twitter.  My students and I “found” Google Docs by conducting a Google search for “share papers without printing or emailing.” My students and I had a problem. We were equally frustrated with the tedious process of printing or emailing essays back and forth as attachments. So, we found a solution.

No one in my building had even heard of Google Docs. Moreover, some of my colleagues (at the time) questioned the safety and integrity of using a web-based medium for student assignments. Nonetheless, my students and I pressed forward with using Google Docs. Initially, (and by initially I mean for an entire school year) we used Google Docs entirely wrong. I had all students log into my account and create documents with their names, rather than create accounts and share with me. But, this was a start. 

Google Docs (now G Suite for Education) continues to revolutionize innovative possibilities for both teaching and learning. I could write a blog post on this alone. However, with the quantity of EdTech products of on the market (2174 available products to be exact) I find too often that anything “technology” is oftentimes considered to be an “innovative” learning tool, and frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Basically, I see that there are three types of EdTech tools:

1) Tools that allow for student and teacher innovation (examples: movie making tools, blogging tools, infographic makers, Google Apps for Education)

2) Tools that can make the tasks that surround student learning more efficient (adaptive assessments, student performance platforms, Google, YouTube)

3) Tools that make teaching more efficient (automatic grading programs)

There is absolutely a time and place for all types of tools.  But, I caution all educators to ask themselves:

“Are your EdTech tools innovating student learning or are they trying to replace the teacher?”

Specifically, is there a tool that you are using to make your job easier but adds little or no value for students?

I think back to my impetus for using Google Docs. My students and I had a mutual need; we wanted to be able to collaborate on the same document, we wanted to be better able to manage drafts of papers, we wanted to avoid printing issues. We found a tech solution that met that our need in Google Docs. Google Docs enabled more effective and efficient collaboration methods and feedback capabilities. However, it still allowed me (the teacher) to gain insight about my students and discover their passions. Having this information was critical for me. I needed this knowledge to help students pursue their passions (view examples here).

Teachers and students will always have needs and will always look for solutions. For example, I recently saw a tweet from an educator who asked for recommendations for the “best app or program to grade essays and short answer questions.”  Many people responded with suggestions, but it seemed that even more offered words of caution about using a tech tool for a skill that really requires the human brain:  sentence length can cause erroneous scores,grammar errors that are actually correct are highlighted as being wrong, no ability to understand student voice or inflection. Regardless of the disclaimers, apps that have been created to grade student writing may make teaching more efficient but they certainly do not promote innovation or help foster a growth mindset in our students. In fact, due to the lack of appropriate feedback and removal of the human relationship piece that is vital to learning, I believe tools like this may be detrimental to promoting creativity, which is a key component of innovation.

I do realize the problem automated grading systems solve: having to physically grade.  In the traditional sense of the word, grading takes a lot of time… for the teacher. Writing can also take a lot of time…for the student.  Time is an extremely valuable commodity, but so is learning. If a tech tool only makes teaching more efficient it really isn’t an innovation tool at all- it’s simply a way to remove the teacher from the assessment process.  Of course, there are times when this can be helpful (i.e. multiple choice items, true/false questions, etc.).  But when students are being asked to share their thinking through writing, a computer algorithm just can’t do what a teacher can do with regard to critical feedback or feedback beyond spelling and grammar check.

Think about it. This may not be a popular notion, but it’s true. Some tools may solve a problem only for teachers which is totally fine. But, some of these tools do so at the expense of student learning.

Therefore, I caution educators to give great consideration to the Edtech tools that are used with the intention of helping increase student learning. Instead of looking to tools to solve all issues, reach out to your PLN for potential solutions which might not involve technology, but will require a true innovator’s mindset- solving a problem in a way that, at first, you didn’t realize was possible.

I’ll get the ball rolling, besides using automated grading systems, what other methods have you found helpful to efficiently give students adequate feedback? Please share.

Actually, I Wasn’t Listening to Anything You Said


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why–sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek

I didn’t do my homework last night.

I think our house is haunted; has anyone ever died here?

I cannot find my keys.”

These were three comments made by my children just this morning (ok, one was from my husband).  And, these were three bids for attention from my family that I did not acknowledge appropriately. I reprimanded my son, diminished my daughter’s annual autumn fear of ghosts, and I ignored my husband. Until recently, I wouldn’t have given my responses a second thought.  My family spoke, I responded appropriately. Therefore I was listening to them. However, this wouldn’t be accurate or fair to them. I heard the words they said, but I wasn’t listening.

I could make an excuse and say, “family is different. I don’t need to use the same listening skills with them that I try to use with colleagues,” but, the truth is, good listening is a full-time job. We can’t turn it off and on again. I made this realization last spring after attending Jim Knight’s Better Conversations workshop and reading his book by the same title. Knight suggests that we aren’t always objective self-evaluators. He writes:

One way to improve conversations is to identify what we really want to believe about how we interact with others.  We are not slaves to our beliefs. We get to choose them, but to do so, we must surface our current beliefs and then consider what alternative beliefs might better describe who we are and who we want to be.”

My belief was that I was a good listener. I actively listened to what others were saying, let them drive the conversation, and responded accordingly. In an effort to confirm my beliefs, I filmed myself facilitating a roundtable discussion with other instructional coaches, and I was shocked when I watched the footage. I saw myself falling prey to some of the biggest listening predators: interrupting, asking questions from my point-of-view, and offering solutions disguised as questions. (For transparency’s sake and to model vulnerability, you can view a clip here).

Why did I do this?

Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that highly effective listeners:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey explains, however, that the majority of people do just the opposite. They seek first to be understood, to get their point across. Most people prepare answers without actually listening to their conversation partner because they listen autobiographically. When people listen in this way, they typically respond in one of four ways: by judging (speaker is right or wrong), by probing (asking questions from their point-of-view), by offering solutions, or by analyzing based on their personal experiences.

I realized I had spent years listening autobiographically. I had also spent years thinking that this was an effective way of listening. I also realized, that sadly, I had also probably spent years listening autobiographically to my students. To me, this was the biggest shame.

Educators have the unique opportunity to shape the next generation of adult listeners by modeling effective listening with their current students. Teachers and administrators (including me) often claim we encourage students to advocate for themselves. But, the question is:

When students advocate for themselves are we actually listening?

I would venture to say that surely some educators are listening, but, on the whole, we have room for improvement. Simply put, listening with the intent to understand can be even harder to do with children than with adults because of inherent differences in life experience and status. Therefore, adults may unproductively listen to children in one of the following ways:

  • With superiority: The teacher is in charge. The teacher needs to be understood before the students can express their thoughts.
  • By being defensive: Students comments and questions (why do we have to learn this?)may feel like an attack. Therefore, we stop listening to what students are saying to prepare our rebuttal.
  • By presuming: We assume we know what or why a student is saying something without asking clarifying questions to truly understand why. (I didn’t do my homework/student forgot).
  • By not being present: The timing of questions/comments from students may not be ideal only increasing our urge to prepare answers without fully listening.

Due to such listening blocks, many students’ attempts to advocate for themselves fall on deaf ears. Even though educators may not intend to listen inattentively, the results are the same. Students will eventually stop trying to engage us in conversation, and we are perpetuating the use of ineffective listening.

What can we do to become better listeners?

We can make a concerted effort to be better listeners to anyone with whom we engage in conversation: adult or child. We will likely find that our students learn more, we will learn more, and our students will more productive conversations with each other. If we can suspend judgment, let go of status, and really listen, we undoubtedly will be better able to meet the needs of all students. The biggest success, however, will likely be that our students will grow up to be more effective adult listeners.


Try this in your classroom or school this week. As you respond to students:

  • Keep an open mind and assume positive intent.
  • Be present, (as hard as it may be) and don’t multi-task when talking to students. If a student approaches you at an inopportune time, offer another time to talk and follow-through on that meeting.
  • Ask unbiased questions (Can you tell me more? What makes you think that? Why did that happen?) rather than leading questions (Did you hear what I said? Did you forget again?)
  • Respond to student responses with additional questions rather than statements (What would happen if you did that? What does that look like to you?)
  • Try not to take student comments about expectations or assignments personally, (when will we ever need to know this?) and refuse to become defensive. Instead, ask questions  to try to understand the impetus for why students make such comments. Look at the comments as suggestive feedback. Maybe something can be done.
  • Don’t be quick to offer a solution. Instead, collaborate with students to problem-solve.
  • Seek to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What else can you suggest? I encourage you to share your questions, successes, and struggles; I’m listening.


Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.