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What Does Actionable Feedback Look Like?
Imagine a world without feedback.
No, seriously — try to picture an entire workday when no one receives any information about how things are going. Chefs wouldn’t be able to taste their dishes as they cooked. Pilots wouldn’t receive course corrections from air traffic controllers. You wouldn’t want to get a haircut that day.
Feedback is important in many spheres of life, including — and perhaps especially — in education. But not all feedback is created equal. What does it look like to provide meaningful, actionable feedback that supports educator growth?
Four qualities of effective feedback
It would be nearly impossible to make an exhaustive list of qualities feedback should have, but this is a start. Effective, actionable feedback should:
Be rooted in evidence
“Great job on that lesson.”
A teacher may enjoy hearing that from her principal after an observation, but does it really give her anything useful to be a better educator? What was meant by, “Great job”?
Evidence allows teachers to see the basis for feedback. When teachers are able to examine the data provided and draw the same conclusions as their observers, conversations about improving practice will be more fruitful.
In Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, Grant Wiggins gives this example:
Many so-called feedback situations lead to arguments because the givers are not sufficiently descriptive…For example, a supervisor may make the unfortunate but common mistake of stating that ‘many students were bored in class.’ That’s a judgment, not observation. It would have been far more useful and less debatable had the supervisor said something like, ‘I counted ongoing inattentive behaviors in 12 of the 25 students once the lecture was underway. The behaviors included texting under desks, passing notes, and making eye contact with other students. However, after the small-group exercise began, I saw such behavior in only one student.’
Foster the self-reflective side of the teacher
Simply put, feedback should spark meaningful questions in the mind of the teacher. This might look something like the Socratic method, using questions to guide teachers in seeing issues for themselves and encouraging them to think more deeply.
Post-observation, consider with the teacher what the lesson looked like (using video can be great for this, by the way!) and how students responded. Then ask what went well, what did not go as planned and what strategies could best impact future instructional practice.
Be forward-thinking, not just backward-looking
Summative feedback without formative feedback will tear down the culture of trust you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. In the absence of ongoing feedback, giving a teacher a score — especially if it’s less than stellar — will inevitably carry with it a bag of emotions, none of them positive.
The goal should be to create a continuous loop consisting of summative and formative feedback — never just a one-time event tied to evaluations. As teachers encounter situations, they can make adjustments as they go along, putting into practice what they’ve learned from an observation. Better yet, the next time a similar situation arises, they may even invite another observation, leading to more feedback. This not only means continual refinement, it’s also a way to document growth, demonstrating how feedback impacts practice.
Have a humble and respectful tone
In Actionable Feedback for Teachers: The Missing Element in School Improvement, highly-regarded educator and speaker Dr. Kevin Feldman notes that meaningful, actionable feedback will be given with humility (we all have room to grow), curiosity (we’re figuring out how to learn together), kindness and respect. He ties the idea of evidence-based feedback to guiding self-reflection, and recommends a structure that links the teacher’s actions with student response:
“It appeared effective when you ______________, I noticed the students were _________________. … Avoid the word ‘should,’ — or as I like to say, ‘No “should-ing” on thy colleagues!’”
The irony within the observation process is that teachers frequently engage in professional learning about giving descriptive feedback to their students, yet all too often they don’t receive it themselves. Investing in teachers through ongoing, continuous feedback may require rethinking how evaluations and observations are conducted. That’s no small task — but it’s one worth undertaking.