Making sense of the teacher feedback loop

7th December 2018 at 00:00
Observation and evaluation of colleagues can be a tricky process, and a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to pay off in performance improvement. Mark Enser taps the research on how to make it work

The ability to give feedback is central to the role of the teacher. We set tasks for pupils to complete and check those tasks against the standard we expect to see; we then give them feedback on how they did and how they could improve further. With all this practice in giving feedback under their belts, you might think it would follow that teachers – whether in middle or senior leadership positions – would be very good at providing it to the colleagues that that they manage, too.

It is not, however, quite as simple as this. There are a number of differences between giving feedback to a pupil we teach and a teacher we manage.

When giving a pupil feedback, it is usually on a task we have set to check their progress in a specific aspect of what we have been teaching. It is usually something we ourselves are already very knowledgeable about. We are then able to follow up on this feedback in the next lesson. The pupil receiving the feedback is aware that they have areas of weakness to address – they know they’re at school.

But when we are giving feedback to a teacher, it may be on something a lot less specific, about a subject we ourselves haven’t taught and know little about; there might be a much longer period between giving feedback and checking on its impact, and it could also be given to someone unwilling to change or unaware of the need to.

We should also keep in mind that the way we give feedback to a new teacher should be very different to the way we give feedback to an expert.

With these constraints in mind, how can we provide effective feedback as a manager?

Feedback is important in all aspects of work and much has been written about providing effective feedback from outside education. In its 2016 report, Could do better: assessing what works in performance management, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – the professional body for human resources – makes the point that it is not feedback itself, but the response to it, that’s important in terms of its effectiveness; this will come as no surprise to teachers versed in the ideas of assessment for learning.

Fair and useful

The CIPD report cites a meta-analysis carried out by Smithers et al (2005), which suggests that for feedback to be effective, people have to respond to it positively. They have to see it as both fair and useful. If they feel the feedback is unfair or unhelpful, they won’t make progress from it. The research suggests that leaders check in with those that they manage after they have received some form of feedback, to check how it has been perceived and to deal with any fall-out.

Another method to ensure that feedback is seen as fair, and therefore acted upon, is to focus on building on strengths before tackling weaknesses. Research by Budworth et al (2015) found that when staff are encouraged to identify things they do well and which to improve further, their overall performance improves more than those who follow the standard performance-management process.

Interestingly, they also suggest that there is limited benefit to be had from self-evaluation, and instead stress the need for external evaluation. One issue with self-evaluation is the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people overestimate their competence in a task, especially in relation to the performance of others (Dunning and Kruger, 1999). Self-evaluation is often a feature of school performance-management systems, but might be inherently flawed for this reason, especially if the self-evaluation doesn’t match the external evaluation and therefore leads to a feeling of unfairness, as discussed above.

Another potential difficulty in school performance-management systems is that the same process is used for teachers regardless of their level of expertise. Research by Berliner (2004) suggests that differences exist in the ways that novice and expert teachers think and in how they need to be managed.

Berliner cites the work of Glaser (1996), who identified how expertise is developed over time. He suggests that novices in their first stage need high levels of external support whereby they are set things to practise and given specific feedback on how to improve those things.

They then move into a transitional phase with more guided practice where they learn how to self-monitor and self-regulate (perhaps overcoming some of the issues of the Dunning-Kruger effect). Berliner suggests that this form of mentoring reduces the drop-out rate of teachers in their first three years of teaching by 50 per cent.

At this stage, a useful form of feedback might come from lesson study. This process involves asking a group of teachers to plan a lesson. One then delivers it to a class while the rest of the group observes, and then return to evaluate and improve it before teaching it again. This kind of deliberate practice allows teachers to grow in confidence and develop the self-regulatory skills needed to become an expert.

Incremental coaching

The final stage is that of the expert who becomes self-regulatory. At this stage they arrange for their own feedback and set themselves challenges for their own development. Here, it is important that feedback moves from a mentoring model to one of incremental coaching whereby the teacher is encouraged to think through the problems they are facing and use an extensive case history, developed over years of teaching, to suggest solutions.

The CIPD report makes the point that this coaching needs to break development up into small, achievable goals that can be monitored and fed back on (see Harkin et al, 2016). Goals set after feedback that feel too far off are less motivating than those that can be achieved in more incremental stages. As such, feedback needs to be an ongoing process for teachers.

Giving feedback to teachers is not a simple task. While there may be similarities with the goals of the feedback we give to pupils, the process is structurally very different. It should also look very different depending on the experience of the teacher receiving the feedback.

A one-size-fits-all performance-management system is likely to hold back both your recently qualified teachers and the experts in your school.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex


Further reading

* Berliner, D (2004) “Expert teachers: their characteristics, developments and accomplishments”, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 3/24: 200-12

* Budworth, M, Latham, G and Mandroop, L (2015) “Looking forward to performance improvement: a field test of the feedforward interview for performance management”, Human Resource Management, 1/54: 45-54

* Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2016) “Could do better: assessing what works in performance management”, bit.ly/CouldDoBetter

* Dunning, D and Kruger, J (1999) “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”, Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 6/77: 1121-134

* Glaser, R (1996) “Changing the agency for learning: acquiring expert performance”, pp303-11 in KA Ericsson, ed, The Road to Excellence: the acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports and games (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)

* Harkin, B, Webb, TL, Chang, BP et al (2016) “Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence”, Psychological Bulletin, 2/142: 198-229

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