By Tom Many, EdD
“As a leader, when communicating, coaching, developing others, giving feedback or making decisions, we need to be crystal clear on our judgments and our observations—and which are which.” – Kevin Eikenberry (2019)19)
Few agree on exactly what constitutes effective feedback. The literature is filled with different feedback models; all supported to a greater or lesser degree by research and evidence from the field. While the experts cannot reach consensus on what is the single best feedback model, everyone does seem to agree when done well, feedback is essential for improvement.
The prevailing wisdom is if you want teachers and teams to perform at high levels, you have to give them feedback on a regular basis. It is also widely accepted if teachers and teams don’t know what’s expected of them, it’s unlikely they’ll be very effective. Absent agreement on the best approach, school leaders are left to wonder about things like, “How much and how often should we provide feedback?” or “What kind is best and what do we hope to accomplish by sharing this feedback?”
“Most feedback has an evaluative component [judgment] and a coaching component [observation]. We tend to be more attuned to the first, hearing it as an attack on how we’ve been doing things. Work to hear feedback as potentially valuable advice from a fresh perspective rather than as an indictment of how you’ve been doing things in the past.” – Heen and Stone (2014)
There are two different ways feedback can be delivered in schools; as a judgment or as an observation. These two forms of feedback are different, serve different purposes, and have a legitimate place in schools but it is becoming increasingly clear if the goal of leaders is to improve teaching and learning, most are spending far too much time on the former (judgment) and not nearly enough on the latter (observation).
Judgmental and observational feedback have distinctively different profiles. Feedback anchored in judgment is typically summative and often associated with the teacher evaluation process. Judgmental feedback tends to be formal and episodic in nature. This type of feedback is often used to determine a person’s status with regard to such things as compensation, continued employment or tenure. On the other hand, feedback grounded in observation is usually formative and more often associated with school improvement. Observational feedback tends to be less formal, more frequent and ongoing in nature. The most common reason for sharing observational feedback is to improve a teacher’s professional practice.
Eikenberry (2019) explains that, “the differences between judgment and observation can get cloudy, but it need not be.” He continues, “When we speak or think from a place of observation, there is no assignment of right or wrong, or degree of goodness. Observations are like reflecting a mirror on a situation—simply reporting what we see. The key difference is that, “observations contain ‘just the facts’ while the act of evaluating engages our mind in interpreting what we are observing and produces a judgment.” Huang (2013)
In their article The Feedback Fallacy, Buckingham and Goodall (2019) cite research that shows the brain responds to judgmental feedback by shutting down. They report the same research shows the brain responds when feedback is observational and builds on an individual’s strengths. Thus, if the goal is improving our teachers’ professional practice, principals, coaches and teacher leaders must place a priority on observational feedback.
“Observation is objective; evaluation is subjective.”- Huang (2013)
To maximize the effect of feedback, principals, coaches, and teacher leaders need to consider the purpose of the feedback they’re planning to deliver; is it for evaluation or improvement? If the goal is to evaluate then a judgmental perspective may be appropriate. If, however, the goal is to improve, an observational perspective is necessary. Answering this question may seem simple but understanding the purpose of the feedback being delivered is critically important.
In most schools, administrators have been trained to collect and deliver judgmental feedback as part of the teacher evaluation process. This type of feedback is usually focused on identifying what is wrong, missing or ineffective and the premise is school leaders can help teachers see more clearly what needs to be corrected in order to be effective. However, Buckingham and Goodall (2019) argue that sharing feedback focused on what needs to be fixed promotes “a culture of mediocracy” and fosters “adequate performance” at best.
In other schools, coaches and teacher leaders have been trained to collect and share their observations as part of an effort to improve teaching and learning. The focus of observational feedback is not on what’s wrong, but on what’s next. Buckingham and Goodall (2019) suggest that to foster growth and improvement, feedback should describe what was observed when a “moment of excellence caught your attention.” They believe people learn best, “when someone else pays attention to what’s working” and asks teachers to intentionally “cultivate it” into their professional practice.
“Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”- Buckingham and Goodall (2019)
The current reality is in most schools, judgmental feedback is more common than observational feedback and while both forms of feedback have a purpose, too much time and energy has been devoted to delivering judgmental feedback and not enough spent on sharing observational feedback. This imbalance between the two kinds of feedback makes perfect sense given the fact that evaluation is mandated by statute in nearly every state and districts have invested heavily in the development of systems designed to “judge” a teacher’s effectiveness. The truth is principals are held far more accountable for evaluation than improvement despite the overwhelming evidence that teachers are rarely evaluated into higher levels of performance.
So, how can principals, coaches, and teacher leaders be intentional about the type of feedback they deliver to their teachers and collaborative teams? When the focus is on what you don’t see, you will tend to generate the kind of judgmental feedback typically found in teacher evaluations. On the other hand, paying attention to what you do see usually leads to the kind of observational feedback associated with improving a teacher or team’s professional practice.
Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.
Buckingham, M. & Goodall, A. (2019, March/April). The Feedback Fallacy. Harvard Business Review.
Eikenberry, K. Are You Observing or Judging? Retrieved November 11, 2019 from blog.kevineikenberry.com/leadership-supervisory.
Huang, S. Power Tool: Observation vs. Evaluation. Retrieved on November 11 from coachcampus.com/coach-portfolios/power-tools.
TEPSA News, January/February 2020, Vol 77, No 1
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