A Skill to be Practiced

On a day-to-day basis, I throw lots of strange tasks at my students. Things like jigsaw discussions, 30 second idea pitches, intimate debates, short-time video productions, and on the spot skits have become second nature. Once we reach this point in the year, I'm always amazed at the products that can be produced in a very short window of time. Interestingly enough, however, I've found that there is one task with which students always struggle mightily. Providing one another with meaningful feedback.

Over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity to visit several schools. At these schools I've watched in awe as students have engaged in mature discussions about the quality of one another's work. There is no fighting, no shouting, very few hurt feelings, and genuine gratitude for the help. In these schools students have come to understand that constructive criticism is not a personal attack. Rather it is a caring gesture that allows one student to help the other step up their game. Unfortunately, this classroom environment and these skills don't just appear. Skills like these must be learned and must be constantly fought for in the classroom.

This year I've made some strides in my classroom that I feel fairly good about (Formative assessment has become second nature, we've done some cool projects, and my AP Bio students can pick apart any experiment), however, giving and receiving feedback is not one of them. This past week when I asked my students to develop a model of nerve signaling, show it to another group, then give and receive feedback all I heard in the room was crickets. Not really knowing where to begin, students sat and stared blankly at one another. Through this experience I realized that this, like lab report writing or math, is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. Even the best students will not be able to just jump in because it is not part of their daily interactions and thus they have not built a level of comfort with the process. My hope is that in coming years I will be proactive about allocating time and effort to this valuable skill. For, as I noted in a previous post, students become focused on the things that their teacher focuses upon. If I want them to be able to give good feedback, then I have to make space for the development of that skill.

Lily Pham took a moment to reflect on this idea of feedback. Here's what she had to say.

Lily Writes:

On March 21, 2013 in Mr.Kite's AP Biology class we learned about action potentials in the nervous systems and what Novocaine does to your body and how it affects the body. The class had to break up into pairs to come up with a model to show the connection between Novocaine and action potential. After the pairs had to group up with another pair and present their information and give feedback. At first it was difficult to give feedback because we really didn't know what we were doing and it was small, so there wasn't much to give feedback on. But the purpose of this activity was to see how to give good feedback. Rather than just saying it was good or you liked the information those things really don’t help the presenter. Also don’t spare their feelings, its for the best.

If you have successfully fostered your student's ability to give and receive meaningful feedback, I'd love to hear what you've done. Please post below.