Criticism vs. Feedback

No one wants to hear they did something wrong.  It feels like failure. The first time (and perhaps every time) we have a negative comment on an observation, we want to protest.  Our first reaction is to defend, even if we only do this mentally.  At that point we’ve shut down.  We can’t take in anything beyond the statement that hurt, and sometimes what is offered as feedback is taken as criticism. The reverse can also be true, but it happens less frequently.

In a blog post, Dan Rockwell offers advice on How to Respond to Unfair Critics Without Bloodshed. I appreciate his observation that “criticism is a leadership opportunity.”  Remembering this will help you do a better job at managing your responses. Here are some of his recommendations:

  • Reflect don’t retaliate – Pause and think. The “critic” may be right, in which case there is something important to learn. Focus on the message, not the delivery.Taking a moment to pause will help. What caused the critic to come to that conclusion? How could you have prevented this? Is there something the other person missed or was unaware of?
  • Compliment don’t criticize – By acknowledging the critic, you take the sting out of their words and change the relationship dynamic. You acknowledge the value of what they offered as well as the person offering it. As a result, you may create an ally.
  • Perceive, don’t pontificate – A critic’s words say more about them than they say about you. Instead of responding, you can use this as an opportunity to learn about the critic from the criticism. You may hear what the person is passionate about and that will give you clues to working with them in the future.
  • Fuel up, don’t fall down – Embrace the learning opportunity and move forward. Why give someone the power to make you retreat? You know you’re a leader. Just because a program or a project wasn’t perfect is no reason not to continue.

When you offer a comment on a project, think of how you are being perceived as the sender.  You may believe you are providing feedback, but that might not be what the receiver hears. The results can affect your success as a leader.

Consider what happens when you give feedback to students. Pressed for time, you may not remember to choose your words carefully.  You might say, “Refer back to the directions I gave the class.” You meant for the student to take more time before plunging into the task, but the student heard was criticism that they didn’t read closely enough. Their reaction, whether voiced or unvoiced, maybe anger and resentment or they feel crushed. Whichever it is, you have stalled their learning. Instead, offer a response aimed at support such as, “I love your eagerness. Do you think reviewing the directions again will help you be more successful?”

Angry students want to get back at you for causing them hurt. Crushed students decide they are incapable of learning and retreat.  And while one incident will not create lasting harm, repeated ones will. You may not know what else is going on for a student, but you do have an opportunity to create a supportive dynamic when they work with you.

You need to be equally watchful when speaking with teachers. Although you would never criticize a project they want to implement, if you attempt to suggest too many changes/additions to improve it, they are likely to hear implied criticism.  They won’t be back. The same is true if you become impatient with their struggles with new tech. Stay focused on what they are trying to achieve and where they want your help. Support their needs rather than changing them.

A good leader also asks for feedback. Be careful, however, to be certain you’re not really looking for compliments.  Asking a teacher, “How do you think this lesson went?” sounds like a request for feedback, but if all you want to hear are positive comments, it’s a setup for both of you. Instead, trust yourself and be brave enough to ask, “What do you think I could have done better?” You will get a more honest response.  One that you can use rather than one that makes you feel good.

Feedback is important. We need it to learn and grow. To be a strong leader, be aware enough to give feedback, not criticism, and look for ways to take criticism as feedback.

ON LIBRARIES – The Fine Art of Feedback

We all know the importance of both giving and receiving feedback.  However, when it’s negative, it doesn’t sound like feedback.  It sounds like criticism. What is the difference? Generally it depends on the giver of feedback and its true intention – and is usually coupled with our own insecurities.

And what about when you’re giving feedback. You are accustomed to giving feedback to your students, but do you do it in the best way possible?  As a leader, you also need to have the courage to give feedback to teachers.  How can you do so successfully?

John R. Stoker is referencing the business world in his post, Managers, Here’s Your Guide to Effective Feedback yet everything he says works well for us in our schools. There are fifteen tips he recommends:

  1. Assess the context – This includes answering three questions:
  • Does this issue need to be discussed?
  • Am I the one to do it?
  • Is this the time?

If you are giving feedback, consider how much of a difference it will make to be clear on the answers to these three questions.  Does it need to come from you or is there someone in a better position to give it? Feedback is best given when there aren’t others around to hear. In receiving feedback, ask yourself if the issue being discussed that important. Is the person giving it knowledgeable enough?  Are you in a place where you can take it in? If not, ask if it can be discussed at a later time.

  1. Prepare the conversation – Think before you speak. Think of the best setting for the discussion and the context you will bring. As a receiver, don’t respond too quickly. Give yourself time to take it in and decide whether the feedback was valid. Then your response will also be valid.
  2. Identify your intent- If you have prepared the conversation, you should know your purpose. Make sure you stick to it. It is too easy to start bringing in other items if it feels uncomfortable. Stay focused.  As a receiver, hone into the message and assess whether the person giving feedback is doing so with a positive intent.
  3. Craft an “Attention Check.” – Be upfront about the topic of the feedback. It tends to put the other person at ease if they know in advance what you are getting at. As the recipient, listen carefully and ask a specific question to be sure you know what the focus of the feedback is. Don’t assume you know what their focus is.
  4. Identify and gather the data – Make sure you have all the relevant information. You don’t want to be giving feedback and discover there were mitigating factors you didn’t know. As a receiver, find out the specifics the feedback is based on. Again, you don’t want to make assumptions.
  5. Craft a respectful interpretation – Words have power. Giving feedback has the potential to cause hurt. Choose your words carefully. As a recipient focus on the message not on the delivery.  Some people with the best intentions have trouble critiquing someone else and so don’t always handle the message well.
  6. Ask questions – To discover any mitigating circumstances you might have missed when gathering data, ask appropriate questions. As the recipient, make sure you are accurately hearing what is being said. Clarity can make a huge difference on either side of this.
  7. Agree upon a mutual plan – This is not always necessary, but if you are in a position to look for a change, such as when you’re working with a student, have a strategy for addressing the issue and any next steps. As a recipient, make sure you understand what you are being asked to change, and, if necessary, by when.
  8. Allow time to process – While you may want to end the conversation as soon as you have had your say, remember being told you have fallen short is never pleasant to hear. Continue speaking so the other person has a chance to deal with what you said. As a recipient, wait to respond.  You need time to take in what you were told. Try not to act on your first responses.
  9. Keep it simple – You never want to deal with multiple issues in one feedback. It will sound as though you are dumping on the person or keeping a list. They will have little time to process, and all you will get is a defensive response.  As a recipient, if you are being given feedback on several items, ask which is the priority.
  10. Allow sufficient time –Know how much time is available for this discussion. You don’t want to rush. Don’t start this when you know you have almost no time before a bell rings. As a recipient, you might ask for the discussion to be postponed to a time when you can properly pay attention.
  11. Consider proximity– Although you want to allow enough time for the conversation, don’t wait too long. Feedback is best when it is given soon after the situation arose. As a recipient, you may want to ask the one giving feedback to refresh your memory if it’s been a while.
  12. Control yourself – As noted, feedback can be painful. If you are the giver of feedback don’t let the other person’s reaction set you off.  And as the recipient, stay calm.  That’s why you need time to process.
  13. Acknowledge great performance – Always look for ways to give positive feedback. If you only critique performances, the other person will have their hackles up as soon as you open your mouth. Don’t mix good and bad feedback if you can help it, otherwise the other person will expect bad news after any good. As a recipient, if the one bringing the feedback has acknowledged you in the past, recognize they have your best interest at heart.
  14. One on one – Unless you are acknowledging someone, give your feedback when others aren’t around. You don’t want to be overheard. It’s not appropriate As the recipient, if things start in an open area, ask to take the conversation to a more private place.

Leadership is sometimes uncomfortable, but by knowing how to handle difficult conversations, you will increase people’s appreciation of your ability to help them be more successful. Giving and receiving feedback well helps us to build the relationships that make our programs stronger.

 

ON LIBRARIES – Effective Feedback

Feedback, in essence, is evaluation.  When given at the end of a project or unit, it’s summative.  When it occurs while the learning is taking place, it’s formative. While both are important, formative evaluation is the most effective, giving the receiver of the information a chance to correct any mistakes. Both, of course, have their place.

It’s best to provide feedback as rapidly as possible. The longer it’s delayed the more distant the learner is from the event, making it difficult to integrate the information in a meaningful way. However, time is only one factor.  The feedback also needs to be meaningful.  Whether you are correcting a written paper or making comments as students are working, what you say should be focused and specific.

“Good job” is not specific feedback. It’s nice to hear but what does it mean?  Far better to add, “Your conclusion clearly sums up the issues and the points you raised.” This is something that can be used in the future.  The learner can see what is considered to be a good conclusion. 

For most people, it’s more challenging to make a negative comment, but these can be even more valuable, especially when the project is still underway.  Saying the sources selected are not authoritative and suggesting the student review the criteria for finding such sources points makes the feedback a learning experience and provides a direction for success.

Don’t overlook receiving your own feedback.  It’s important that you have an accurate picture of how your lesson or a complete project went.  As you see what your students have done and given them constructive feedback, identify what concepts they are getting and which ones are causing them difficulties.

Reflect on this information.  Why were you successful with the concepts they understood and integrated? What kept them from getting other concepts?  How can you reintroduce the difficult ones so they are learned?  And how can you teach it differently in the future so you need not review it from another perspective?

Exit tickets are another way of getting feedback from students.  Come up with thoughtful questions to ask and give the class time to reflect on their responses before ending the lesson. Don’t make it too complicated but give them the chance to decide what they want to let you know.

For example, you can have one box of exit tickets that say, “The most important thing I learned today was….”  A second box of cards might ask, “I’m confused about….,” while a third set has the statement, “I’d like to know more about….”  When students get to choose which card they wish to complete you will get more relevant responses.

Don’t get defensive or upset about getting many “I’m confused about…” cards.  This is your opportunity to refine your teaching.  In addition look carefully at the ones answering “The most important thing I learned today was….”  Are the statements only surface learning?  Did they receive an Enduring Understanding?  Did they deal with the Essential Question? If not, how can you better focus your lessons?

You also need to get feedback from the teachers with whom you work either collaboratively or cooperatively. Don’t just ask, “Did the lesson I gave go all right?”  You most likely will get back a reassuring affirmative answer.  Like, “Good job,” this doesn’t tell you anything.

Although it’s more difficult, and sometimes painful, ask the hard questions to learn how to improve your instruction.  You can start out by asking what they think worked for them and the students and then follow up with, “What didn’t?  Was there something I should have done differently?”

I once did a unit with a general science teacher on composting.  She was passionate about the subject and knew what she wanted students to discover.  I thought I did a great job with the first lesson, but when she got back the initial reports from students they hadn’t located relevant sources.  As is so typical, they grabbed the first two hits.  Even though they had used a database, their searches were not sufficiently refined to target the key ideas.

I retaught the lesson and students did better.  The teacher also realized how she could frame the assignment better.  The following year when we taught it again, the students did much better.  Because they did, the teacher saw ways of continuing to improve the lesson.

Incorporating regular feedback in your dealings with students and teachers will help you do a much better job and improve your students’ learning.

Do you give and get feedback regularly?  How?  Do you use exit tickets?  What are your best questions?