Feedback drives us as humans. There is nothing any of us want more than affirmation of what people think of us, what people think about our ideas, what people think of how we behave, and what we do. There are those who claim this is not the case, and that they are instead driven by their own intrinsic sense of motivation and high expectations but I would question this. I defy anyone to not ultimately recognize that the power of the written word is in its ability to connect us to each other, to help us understand our own emotions and those of others, and in its rawest form to provide comfort that we are not alone. This need for validation is also central to feedback.
But like so many other concepts within teaching, feedback has at its heart an almost paradoxical quality. We all know the impact that feedback has on learning when done well, but we are also all equally aware of its crippling effect when done badly. This dangerous highwire we tread comes from the fact that feedback is intensely personal. Regardless of whether the feedback is about a piece of work, a performance in class or an answer to a question, it is almost impossible to separate feedback about the task or learning objective from something more personal – from something which at its heart says something about you as a person.
How many times have you been given feedback about a lesson and when you get to the inevitable improvements, not had an instinctive reaction which ultimately equates to something along the lines of personal criticism? That flight or fight mechanism kicks in before you can stop in. Of course as professionals and adults we learn to get better at managing this response and not letting it hijack the feedback which will ultimately help us improve. But how do we encourage this in students who are also negotiating a changing sense of self, their position within the classroom hierarchy and an undeveloped toolkit of emotional responses? It seems to me that we all have much work to do in relation to this.
Assessment has always been high on everyone’s agenda, and the debate about when to give feedback, when not to give feedback, what type of feedback to use, and any other number of similar questions will always exist. But before we even start considering the detail of this, I would suggest that we need to understand and nurture in our children something more fundamental in the first instance. And it relates to a student’s sense of self worth and purpose. Without the emotional resilience and ability to negotiate the high stakes of the flight or fight response, there is almost little worth in providing feedback as it will always be interpreted though frosted glass.