Feedback: It's Not what You Think
An Extra Practice
I do what I can to create an environment where students can learn as much as possible both independently and from each other collaboratively. This has two large impacts. First, as a teacher I am mostly removed from continually correcting students. Second, as a teacher I have time to coach and guide the students when they need help and guidance, in a manner they are asking for. Teaching is much more joyful when you aren’t continually in a position of correcting and judging what is right. The classroom atmosphere is positively impacted as well.
To promote independent learning I do what I can to create learning situations (and projects) where natural feedback is integral to the learning process. Natural feedback comes about in circumstances where the student work itself produces the feedback with no dependence on the teacher. For example, while learning about designing boats, if students are printing their designs on a 3D printer, the students themselves will see how their boats float and how they react to adverse conditions, for example waves and wind. If the assignment asks students to test their boats by setting up a fan to blow across the test pool, they will see if their boat can travel across the pool without hitting the side wall or foundering. Or in math and physics students can do what we call sanity checks. Are their calculations plausible? Learning the skill of creating and learning from feedback that you control yourself is a transferable, life-worthy skill, that goes beyond the particular content of an activity or course.
To promote collaborative learning, I help students learn how to support each other by giving feedback that is easy to digest. Instead of promoting correction, I ask students to follow the Pixar additive feedback method (see the resources at the end for further information). In short, I have the following demo or presentation rules:
As a feedback giver: 1) stop and think, then 2) start with what you like and 3) say what you would like to see more of. There is no corrective feedback or discussions of what you dislike. Students (and the teacher) just offer what they would like to see more of. It’s ok, of course, if that feedback excludes some of what’s there!
As a demo presenter: 1) listen and 2) do not comment or or mount a defense to what you are hearing, but clarification questions are allowed and encouraged. After the demo, (3) stop and think; then (4) decide what suggestions to act upon and what not to act upon.
Students (and many teachers) are not very practiced at Pixar’s additive feedback, so practice is practice is essential. In fact, initially I guide all demos to ensure they learn the practices to feel safe while demoing, giving and getting additive feedback. After demos I do a quick reflection with the group to help them think through what ideas to use and what to disregard. Over time, the students get good at this and I no longer guide the demos.
When ‘natural’ feedback isn’t easy or when working with technical topics where there are multiple ways to solve a problem and when judgement is important. Then instead of emphasizing ‘additive’ feedback, I turn to Dr. Michaela Greiler (Doctor McKayla) code review guidelines in her video Respectful, Constructive Code-Review Feedback. She developed these guidelines while working at Microsoft’s Research and Development Department while studying the effects of code reviews and feedback on team performance.
I avoid the phrase “constructive feedback,” since that phrase is too often code for stating what you personally think is correct. When the teacher does that, from the position of power granted to teachers by way of assigning grades, for example, constructive feedback becomes another way to tell students what is right (according to the teacher) and what students should do. Encouraging additive feedback puts the focus on what the student is learning, not what the teacher is thinking.
To ensure that collaborative feedback is practiced I require every project to include at least one adjustment that students must credit to another student’s feedback when they hand-in or present their project.
Technology companies focus on communication and feedback to create an environment of enthusiastic, engaged learners. Fundamentally, they are moving away from an ‘authoritative’, ‘telling’ and ‘corrective’ approach and instead toward an ‘amplifying’, ‘curious’ and ‘collaborative’ approach.
Amplifying feedback over silencing feedback.
- Pixar’s “Plussing” - Feedback Tool - In this short video he describes how to use Pixar’s Plussing in the the classroom to improve learning and collaboration. David Lee is the Tech & Innovation Specialist at Singapore American School. He is also the author of Design Thinking in the Classroom.
- Pixar’s Secret to giving Feedback - a short, clear article describing the differences between silencing and amplifying (‘plussing’ or ‘additive’) feedback.
- How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity, by Ed Catmull. A Harvard Business Review article that describes the misconception about creativity. The focus of the article is summarize with this quote: “The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity.” Ed Catmull is the author of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, ISBN-13: 978-0593070109, by Ed Catmull (co-founder of Pixar) and Amy Wallace. This is the book that sparked a lot of interest in ‘additive’ or ‘plussing’ feedback.
- Five ways Pixar makes Better Decisions - a Harvard Business Review article that describes how organizations with good judgment have a number of typical attributes. One is that they involve a number of different people in making important decisions. Their senior executives keep in mind that they don’t have a monopoly on knowledge and judgment and therefore involve multiple people in decision processes. Thomas H. Davenport is the President’s Distinguished Professor in Management and Information Technology at Babson College, a research fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and a senior adviser at Deloitte Analytics. He is the author of over a dozen management books, most recently Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines and The AI Advantage.
Sharing perspective instead of authoritatively telling.
- The secret to giving great feedback: The Way We Work, a TED series, by cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renniger. She shares a scientifically proven method for giving effective feedback. Visit https://go.ted.com/thewaywework for more! She also has a book: Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, ISBN-13 : 978-0399169823, by Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger PhD.
- How to Give Respectful and Constructive Code Review Feedback - a short video by Dr. Michaela Greiler (Doctor McKayla) explaining 10 ways to respectfully collaborate and improve.
Technical Feedback (without being the sage on the stage)
- Dr. Michaela Greiler has a full length talk How To Phrase Respectful Code Review Feedback. She is also working on a Code Review Book.
- What to Look for in a Code Review, by Trisha Gee of Jet Brains. She also has a talk Code Review Best Practices.
Agile Communication and Management Approaches (classroom management)
- Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager: How to Be the Leader Your Development Team Needs, ISBN: 9781680507249, by James Stanier. This book is a reflection about how to go beyond agile and what has worked well at Spotify.
Teachers on Communication and Inspiration
- Teaching Methods for Inspiring the Students of the Future - A TEDxLafayette talk by Joe Ruhl on working with students: Choice, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity and Caring.
- What makes a good teacher great? - A TEDxSantoDomingo talk by Azul Terronez on connecting and listing to students and developing rapor.