For reasons connected and not connected to Eli, I have been reading about feedback frequently. My latest is a book by Peter Johnston called Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Johnston’s book is about how the value of language in the classroom–about being thoughtful, careful, and attentive to how the language choices of teachers and students can open minds.
As one might expect, this book is substantially about feedback, and feedback is one of the most powerful drivers of change in the classroom. That is, good feedback has big “oomph” in facilitating learning.
Johnston’s book is largely situated in elementary classrooms, but in some respects, this fact makes the book more useful for college teachers. In a chapter on feedback, Johnston reviews studies that argue for the importance of process feedback versus person feedback. That is, the impact of both positive and negative feedback (“good girl” or “I’m disappointed in you”) was more or less the same and much less effective than process feedback (“how did you do that” or “what do you need to do next”). There is very little value and perhaps even some harm in feedback that focuses on the qualities of the person. But feedback focused on goals and processes can change everything for the good.
Such findings are consistent with a large body of research on feedback that I won’t summarize here because I want to focus on a longer passage from Johnston. He writes that many examples in his chapter on feedback focus on peer interactions
to emphasize the fact that much of the feedback children experience comes from their peers. We have to remember that we are not just giving students feedback [as teachers]; we are also teaching them to provide it. In a way, we are teaching them to teach. If students can provide productive feedback, then collectively they will tend to get more feedback. And it will be more immediate feedback, because, rather than waiting for the teacher, their peers can provide it. More feedback improves learning, and immediate feedback is more effective than delayed feedback. Increasing the responsiveness of the classroom by actively teaching students how to respond to each other’s efforts magnifies the effects of our teaching. (p. 36)
Effective feedback is perhaps the most important mode of formative assessment, or what Johnston calls “finding the edge of students’ learning and helping them to take up the possibilities for growth” (p. 49). Not only can students provide meaningful formative assessment, but students are sometimes better able to do so. Regardless, feedback happens, and teachers are responsible for creating classroom communities in which the discourse is thoughtful and focused on helping others learn. For Johnston, the trick is not simply helping students become lifelong learners. It is about helping them become lifelong teachers.