Do Teachers Need BETTER feedback?

Last weekend I took part in an online professional development event organized by EFL Talks, called 10 in 10 for YOU. The idea was to have questions asked by teachers answered in 10 minutes (each), using 10 slides (videos of all the 40 talks will be made available in the website if you want to check them out.)

I was thrilled that the organizers invited me to answer one of the questions. And my question was just that: “Do teachers need better feedback?”

It’s difficult to answer such question, because when I hear this question the first thing that comes to mind is “Better than what?” There’s good and bad feedback.  And I believe that when it comes to feedback, half a loaf of bread is NOT better than none. Bad feedback has the opposite effect to the desired one: it is detrimental. Instead of working as a basis for improvement and development of the one who receives it, bad feedback can make the teacher doubt his/her own teaching skills and hurt self-confidence.

So I decided to describe the elements I believe make good feedback, specifically for the one given after a lesson observation.

The first (and possibly most important) thing for feedback to be formative and effective is the teacher’s self-confidence.  Teachers who don’t have confidence in their own skills and competence will mostly likely take whatever is said in a personal and hurtful way. They will perceive the feedback as criticism. And when that happens, the wonderful possibilities of development it could have go down the drain. It is essential that school management works on building teacher’s self-confidence, that there is an atmosphere of trust and security among teachers.

The second characteristic of good feedback is focus. The observation (and thus the feedback) should be focused on one or two aspects of teaching. Ideally, the focus should be defined by the teacher being observed before the observation takes place (during the pre-observation conference). It only makes sense, if it is supposed to be a basis for professional development, doesn’t it? I believe that trying to focus on too many things, on everything that goes on during a lesson is an unrealistic goal. It is impossible for the observer to really notice all of them; and even if the observer manages to do it, can a teacher really improve 4 or 5 different things in a lesson? It is easier and more realistic to focus on fewer aspects and be successful in improving them. Baby steps, I say. Slowly (?) but surely.

Next, I approached the form used during the observation/feedback process: no box-ticking!!! Box-ticking forms are limited, and don’t take into consideration the context and many nuances of a lesson, a group of students.

Finally, but not in any way less important is reflection – by the observer during the lesson and especially between the end of the observation and the moment when they will give the feedback. Look at your notes, the comments made, points you raised and reflect why the teacher may have done things that way, chosen those tasks, that way of grouping students. And the teacher being observed needs to reflect about the lesson, what they think went well and what went wrong (during module 2 of the Delta at IH London the tutors always made us write down “stream of consciousness” style, for 30 minutes before receiving feedback – it really helps if you have the time). They have to reflect on the feedback given and give arguments, explain decisions, if they disagree with anything. Reflection is key for real change.

More than anything, it’s important to remember feedback comes in many shapes and sizes, and something that works for me may not work for another teacher. It’s essential to try to find the way that best suits teachers and management.

The only thing I know for sure is that feedback is the shortest path to improvement – whether you’re a teacher or a student.

cecilialemos

Cecilia Lemos has been working with ELT since 1993 and is an Academic Coach for Educate Bilingual Program. She has worked a teacher trainer, writer, coordinator and teacher, presenting at local, national and international language teaching events. She’s a member of IATEFL’s Teacher Development SIG committee. Her main interests are feedback, correction and lesson observation.

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