Feedback. Has there ever been a concept so important to learning but so widely misunderstood?
The very sentence “Can I offer you some feedback?” triggers different responses from different people. What kind of emotions come to the surface for you when you hear that? Gratitude, anticipation, fear, vulnerability, trepidation, paralysis or excitement? How does it vary with the setting and the person offering it to you?
And in the midst of this, we all seem to agree that feedback is really important in lifelong learning. A different perspective to get outside of our own heads, to nudge well worn patterns towards new ways of thinking, and to support deeper lifelong learning as we co construct meaning from experience and build forward towards our goals.
So how do we do that? We’re going to be upfront. As lifelong and life wide learners, we are not about to say we have all the answers. Instead, can we ask you to come with us as we focus instead on a few questions, and then see where we end up?
What does constructive feedback actually mean?
Before you construct something, the engineers will tell us, you had better check the foundations. Our learners are a swirling mass of prior experience, with shards both adverse and adaptive woven into a mosaic of riotous beauty, nuance and vulnerability.
Parts of this mosaic do not reflect the light. The experiences of childhood cast a long shadow. Hyperfast neurocircuitry from our earliest years that lights up in response to social support, but go dark and silent in the face of perceived judgement, redirecting energies instead to all the questions and doubts of innate self worth.
The cognitive real estate dedicated to dealing with threats and the negativity bias, is far more expansive than the properties of reward and self-actualisation. Though our intentions in providing feedback as Learning Guides are always from a place of compassion, we must remember that we all see the things not as they are, but as we are. The message sent is rarely the message received.
With that in mind, what does constructive feedback actually mean? The dense thickets of neurocircuitry in one area of one brain are thin slivers in another; each as unique as the other but nothing else alike.
And into that unknown, though we go armed with praise, the word “but” rings more loudly than anything else we might say.
When we enter this grey area with couched praise and statements leading to “what could be better”, we can actually hinder learning. That is largely because the process of “giving” feedback is more about us, and less about the learner receiving it, despite our honourable intentions.
We need the but….right? Surely the whole point is to make sure the learner knows where they can improve, and whether that comes from us eliciting this from them, or their fellow learners doing so, the focus is on what could be better, isn’t it?
Focus on the environment, not just the words
Too much of the discussion on “constructive” feedback focuses on the language, rather than the culture or the environment.
Factual things that can be objectively evaluated are pretty safe areas to focus on what is missing. Your IKEA bed collapsed because *holds up missing screw*. There is something missing upon which it is easy to agree without judgement.
Subjective aspects, however, are where the environment factors much more. How you approached a task, how you responded to someone in a group project; all of this is subjective. Human beings are notoriously ineffective at “rating” the performance of others, in any case, and that’s before we even get to how that evaluation is received, perceived and used.
At Learnlife we are fully aware that “evaluation” is a moment in which there is great vulnerability for the receiver of feedback. Yes, we do look at the phrasing of non-judgemental, actionable feedback, but it really is about the wider culture and environment of feeling psychologically safe.
Lifelong learning comes from a place of safety and support
Feedback is a culture. It takes time to feel safety in a learning environment, and each learner will do so on their terms. To support this, we talk about empathy, we talk about the beauty of growth and learning, and we talk about the opportunity that mistakes and errors present. Iteration, not setback; growth, not judgement.
We talk about how to give feedback. Did the learner ask for it? Are they open to it? What aspects of their work would they like feedback on? If a learner is highly focused on the editing process of their short film, what good will unsolicited feedback about the quality of the script really do?
We focus on what works. Drawing learners’ attention to something they did really well whenever it makes a dent in the awareness of others - the dissection of the positive coming from learning guides and learners alike. This supports self efficacy and that is all important.
Feedback is not always about “you should try X differently”, but rather “look at how well you do Y… how does that work?”. Oh, and when we say “we”, we mean the learning community as a whole. Our feedback interaction, like everything else, is led by the learners themselves.
And that leads us, as all good exploration does, to vistas anew. Right at the start, we opened up by saying that we do not have the answers. We do everything we can to build a culture of empathy and to support learners in understanding that everything at Learnlife is designed to give them the space to find the best versions of themselves. Within that space, however, there is also much for us all to learn.
So, as always, the door is open. We would welcome your insights on creating a culture for effective feedback which supports learner-directed lifelong learning. We’re listening.