Feedback That Works
A new approach to feedback for educators that prioritizes growth and authentic connection
Teamwork and collaboration are bywords in education today, as they are in contemporary workplaces in all fields. More than ever, our daily tasks, our goals, and our overall performance are shaped and evaluated in collaborative settings, through peer and supervisory feedback. And it’s easy to agree that feedback can be a powerful tool for growth.
Then why is it so hard to give feedback, and often even harder to hear it? Why do we feel that feedback misses the mark — that it’s generic or irrelevant, or, worse, that it’s undermining, or threatening?
Part of the reason, say authors Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano, is that we aren’t giving it in a way that others can actually hear — and others are not hearing it in a way that makes sense to them as a strategy for supporting growth and improvement.
What if feedback acknowledged those barriers? In their new book, Tell Me So I Can Hear You, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano offer a blueprint for a new kind of feedback dynamic, one that helps principals, teachers, and other leaders connect to educators in specific and individually supportive ways, and that helps teachers feel heard, challenged, and inspired from feedback they receive.
The book outlines an approach that Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano call feedback for growth, premised on the notion that adults have different ways of making sense of their work and relationships, as well as the feedback they receive — different “ways of knowing.” To matter, feedback has to acknowledge that people on both the giving and the receiving ends will have different lenses through which they make sense of the world, and different capacities to hear and grow.
Four Ways of Knowing …
Based on developmental theory pioneered by Robert Kegan, the authors contend that there are four main ways that adult learners make meaning in the world.
- Instrumental knowers are rule-oriented. They work well in situations where there are established norms and concrete guidelines. They orient to a worldview that says there is a “right way” to do the job at hand.
- Socializing knowers are other-oriented. They are concerned with fulfilling society’s expectations and having the approval of important others. Whatever you think of them, as their supervisor, coach, treasured colleague, or valued employee, is what they think of themselves.
- Self-authoring knowers are self-reflective. They generate and have a well-developed sense of their own values and standards, and they look to their own judgment to determine their actions. What matters to them is demonstrating their own competency and sharing their ideas.
- Self-transforming knowers are interconnected. They need to be exploring paradoxes and contradictions, not only within themselves but within organizations and relationships. They want to grow through feedback and collaboration.
… And Four Ways Feedback Can Work
- For instrumental knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when phrased as concrete suggestions, models, and examples — clear and explicit expectations that can be acted upon. This is how instrumental knowers feel best able to improve their practice.
- For socializing knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it is offered in a way that appreciates and validates an employee’s contributions — that builds on a foundation of support when offering suggestions for improvement. It’s hard to grow without being certain of that foundation.
- For self-authoring knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it builds upon their sense of competence and expertise. Feedback should include opportunities for the self-authoring knower to discuss her own ideas and develop her own goals.
- For self-transforming knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it invites shared reflection on the performance of both partners in the feedback loop. Collaboration is central; exploring new ideas and challenges together is what makes these adults feel they can grow.
Feedback for Growth — In Practice
In the feedback for growth model, each way of knowing carries strengths, and each carries opportunities to grow.
What does all this look like in real-world feedback? To take just one example: “Instrumental knowers don’t always understand what ‘thinking outside the box’ really means in practice. So as a piece of feedback, it’s challenging for them,” says Drago-Severson. “But for self-authoring knowers, that’s a welcome invitation. They are reflective, and they have the internal capacity that would let them hear that and feel motivated. What’s challenging for them is to critique themselves and their own theories about how things should work. They can take in perspectives and ideologies that align closely with their own. But for them it’s hard to be open to ideologies that don’t align that way.”
Of course, the person delivering the feedback also has his or her own way of knowing. Imagine what giving feedback is like for people who make meaning as socializing knowers. “In the socializing way of knowing, reality is co-constructed,” says Drago-Severson. “They hold other people responsible for how they feel, and they feel responsible for how other people feel. So to be in a mentoring relationship or to be in a principal’s role — if you’re oriented toward having other people’s approval, it is very difficult to give critical feedback. And it can be hard to get feedback when you are a socializing knower, unless you feel you’re cared about.”
A core assumption of developmentally oriented feedback, she says, is that every group will contain every kind of meaning-maker. As leaders and learners, we grow when we attend closely to those needs and perspectives — in ourselves and our colleagues.
- Listen to an EdCast with Eleanor Drago-Severson as she describes this new approach to educator feedback.
- Learn more about Tell Me So I Can Hear You (Harvard Education Press).
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