Taking My Foot Off the Gas


Feedback is to learning what air is to breathing. Imagine trying to learn something new in the absence of any feedback. Children who are born deaf tend to not produce many audible sounds because they do not receive auditory feedback. A tennis player gets feedback each time they make or fail to make contact with the ball. I receive feedback when the coffee I make is too weak or when the stories I write prompt readership. 

Feedback is recognized as a powerful tool to influence change –a fact well known by educators, psychologists, sociologists and business experts alike. John Hattie, an influential education researcher wrote of feedback:

“If feedback is directed at the right level, it can assist students to comprehend, engage, or develop effective strategies to process the information intended to be learnt…Thus, when feedback is combined with effective instruction in classrooms, it can be very powerful in enhancing learning.”(Hattie, 2009).

Regardless of the context, feedback works this way: Provide people with information about their actions in real time, then give them the opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Feedback happens in a loop -- action, information, reaction—which encourages us to develop and maintain good habits and develop new patterns of behavior.

The other day while I was driving down the road, I found myself slowing down as I was thinking about feedback. Why?  Radar technology. There was a large digital ‘Your Speed’ sign which flashed “43 MPH” while I was in a 35 MPH zone. I responded readily to this ‘feedback’, but I had to wonder if this seemingly redundant reminder (after all, my car has a speedometer) was as effective with others as it was with me. After some Google sleuthing, I discovered that these signs have proven to be consistently effective at getting drivers to slow down—reducing speeds, on average, by about 10 percent, lasting for several miles down the road. Further, safety experts and traffic engineers consider them to be more effective for changing driving habits than a cop with a radar gun. Even more amazing to me is that despite their lack of consequences (a moving violation), these signs have accomplished the improbable: People (like me) are actually letting up on the gas!

How is it that putting our own data in front of us prompts us to act differently? It’s because human beings tend to respond to feedback. Feedback loops are simply how we learn—whether we call it coaching, guided practice or trial and error. And as such, it is all the more important for educators to better leverage effective feedback loops in their practice.

The quality of feedback is often characterized in the education literature by its inputs (information) -- purpose, timing, and delivery. Accordingly, effective feedback may be defined as timely, goal-directed guidance delivered by a trusted, knowledgeable source intended to explicitly inform performance (action) rather than to evaluate people. What’s missing from this definition?  It does not describe the complete loop—it overlooks the reaction component. Feedback is only truly effective when person(s) to whom you are providing feedback know what to do next and how to do it better. Feedback is ineffective when it fails to impact the likelihood of future success and when it results in the avoidance of future feedback. For example, if I offered feedback about your attire and I embarrass you, I have violated several major effectiveness tenets. First, my assessment of your wardrobe choices was not designed to help you achieve an articulated goal. Indeed, what I actually provided was unsolicited advice, if not judgment, disguised as feedback. And if you hadn’t already run for the hills, you probably won’t ever be asking me for feedback about your style--or anything else for that matter.

Formative Instruction Practices is a critical component of a formative learning system. FIP takes what we know about effective feedback loops to help teachers and leaders better use and recruit feedback that moves learning forward in their schools. Since it is such an important factor in teaching and learning—as well as for addressing social concerns such as “heavy foot on the gas” syndrome--I plan to write more about effective feedback in future blogs. In the meantime, I want to point you to a few related resources.

Analyzing Evidence and Providing Effective Feedback: Learn about effective feedback—feedback that moves learning forward and fosters students’ independent thinking by guiding them in the right direction. Enroll here. 

Coaching and Leading FIP: Learn how you can establish a clear vision, provide effective feedback, and create structures to foster success and transform your school into a FIP School. Enroll here.

FIP in Action The FIP in Action modules demonstrate how formative instructional practices can play out in a classroom scenario using Ohio’s New Learning Standards. Choose the grade, subject, or practice you’re interested in below to enroll in a module.