Our book study is nearly over; we met on Friday to work through chapter six, “Feedback that Fortifies,” the chapter toward which we’d been building since we started. The chapter title suggests Tovani’s perspective, and the Farristown faculty indicated that they share it (though I think they’re expecting to identify still more with the final chapter, “Grading is Killing Me”).
The biggest surprise Tovani includes in the chapter is her careful focus on conferencing, something we might be inclined to see as distinct from feedback. Her linking the two, though, helps us think of feedback as an umbrella term, with conferencing as one specific form feedback can take. As we talked on Friday, we figured out that feedback has four forms: verbal (conferencing), written, peer, and self-assessment. It’s important that students understand the presence, and purpose, of each of these. The first two, coming directly from the teacher, can be introduced from the start of the year, and should have a regular (timely and regularly occurring) place in every classroom. Students need descriptive responses to their work, they need answers to their questions, and they need to be questioned individually in order to achieve the level of critical thinking teachers know they’re capable of.
Teachers must regularly write and talk to students about their work in student friendly terms that incorporate the language of the skills and standards for which students should be striving. That language then becomes part of the students’ language; they learn to think about their work the way their teachers do because that’s the only way it’s talked about. Gone are the abbreviations, the seemingly random “x” marks and circles, the coded language. All are replaced by purposeful statements, pointed observations, questions to which a teacher actually expects an answer, clues to what the thinking and writing in a particular discipline must really look like. No comment, no conversation is directed at a particular piece alone: process over product, thinking over outcome. Students gain transferable knowledge. They take this knowledge to revisions of a particular piece, to the next project, to their other classes now and in the future. And they adopt this perspective as their own when they leave school and enter careers.
Students also bring this knowledge to each other’s work, but only once they’ve internalized it. Peer feedback of any quality cannot be expected in August or September, but the groundwork can be laid then. Once students learn from their teacher how to talk about their thinking and their work they’ll be able to start talking to each other about each other’s work in the same way. The scaffolding for these conversations must be deliberately constructed. The pressure for students to respond only positively, without any real engagement, is famously strong, to the point of probably being stereotypical. But any time students write for an audience other than their teacher, even when that audience is still within the classroom, the work’s importance increases. When work becomes more important students invest more of themselves in it. When they do that, they form the basis for real collaboration and, finally, authentic, lasting, self-assessment.
Self-assessment, after all, is the skill our world needs students to adopt. As I put it to the Farristown teachers on Friday, if students can’t think critically and can’t do so independently, I don’t want them to vote, and I’d rather them not drive on the same roads I’m travelling. In terms of school work, students can be taught how to think, and they can be empowered to think critically. And when all of their teachers, from kindergarten through graduation, join together to consistently and purposefully guide their growth they can be led toward independence. They can be, in other words, “fortified” to do the work their life, not just our schools, will demand of them.
This time I’ve spent with the Farristown faculty has been great. My own instruction is shaped by the conversations we have every few weeks, and I’m bringing these thoughts and others like them together in a piece on feedback that might have something new for educators interested in improving the way they communicate with students. The teachers are finding ways for students to benefit from a concerted effort to target feedback to individual needs. And my wife knows she has helped her teachers develop professionally because she listened to what her students told her and did something about it. That’s how feedback works.