The AAA of feedback: towards constructive change

One of my favourite areas to research and study is feedback and the impact that the contribution of others have in teacher development. In this text I will focus on three different features feedback may take depending on tone, intention or professional relationship of those involved: affection, assertiveness and aggression.

In general terms, Bill Gates helped us spread the idea that teachers need ‘real feedback’ to support them in growing and doing their jobs better, as opposed to having a vague comment on their work that will not contribute constructively, possibly causing confusion and frustration. When discussing collaboration in teacher development, Stillwell (2009) considers ways of providing feedback that is ‘affirming, non-threatening, and, at the same time, effective’ (p. 358). Both Gates and Stillwell seem to direct us to a more empathetic construction of feedback, saying what needs to be said without resorting to either tangential or agressive comments.

Being more specific, Wiggins (2012) describes feedback as information about how a professional is doing towards a set goal. It should be tangible and transparent so that teachers can understand the message and act upon their practice, reflect about what is said and learn from their trajectory. It is, Wiggins emphasises, different from praise, advice and evaluation. That makes me question our practice in teacher education: how much support do we actually give teachers in progressing towards their goals? How much do we consider the teacher’s path and moves to build the feedback we are going to give teachers in order to contribute to their professional development?

Interestingly, Sutton, Hornsey and Douglas (2012) state that feedback includes criticism, praise and advice and is the way we construct the communication with others that will make it more or less effective. Smith and Lewis (2015) also believe that advice is part of feedback and it should be given in a manner that makes it ‘palatable and catalytic’ (141). Although they seem to diverge from Wiggins’ definition of feedback, they all converge in saying that feedback is a tool to help others develop and progress towards established goals in a way that the message of what needs attention provokes a desire to act and change to improve professional practice.

Bringing all the ideas together, the speaker and authors seem to be on the same page, even if lexically divergent, in the sense that feedback must be assertive (confidently and consistently expressing the observable traits and actions), with a degree of affection (considering that the teacher who will be receiving the feedback also deserves the empathy and respect for their moment and the honest belief that they can reach higher). Such combination of assertiveness and affection may lead to reflection and reaction towards positive change. Every human being is subject to resistance to change, or a fixed mindset at times (Dweck, 2007). However, if those of us working with teacher education do not truly believe this scenario can be changed, we may run the risk of not inspiring the progress we want teachers to make. Along those lines of professional behaviour and sometimes ingrained belief, when working with people (who will in turn give feedback to other people, our students), we need to distinguish being assertive from being aggressive. ‘The latter usually involves some degree of emotion and a positive desire to impose one’s will on the other party or to dominate. The ‘assertive’ person, on the other hand, should keep calm and keep the emotions under control; make factual, objective statements (this also applies to statements about one’s feelings); and respect the interests and feelings of the other party and seek fair solutions in which neither party uses undue pressure to subjugate or dominate the other.’ (Everard, Morris and Wilson, 2004: 128)

The pain that changes seem to inflict on us is already caused by the awareness/ discovery that we need to make an effort to behave or act differently and need to drop or acquire habits, beliefs and attitudes. The manner in which the message and feedback about the growth needs is communicated should boast respect for the person we want to invest our time in and help develop. That seems to be beneficial for all those involved in the educational context and may positively impact the broader social context the teachers are held responsible for affecting when addressing and inspiring (or not) their learners. How about we all take accountability and carefully consider our own words and manners towards constructive and catalytic conversations for effective feedback?

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Everard, K. B., Morris, G. and Wilson, I. (2004). Effective School Management. 4th ed. London: Sage Publications.

Smith, M. K. and Lewis, M. (2009). ‘Towards facilitative mentoring and catalytic interventions’. ELT Journal 69/2: 140–150.

Stillwell, C. (2009). ‘The collaborative development of teacher training skills’. ELT Journal 63/4: 353–62.

Sutton, R. M., Hornsey, M. J. and Douglas, K. M. (eds) (2012). Feedback: The communication of praise, criticism and advice. New York: Peter Lang.

Wiggins, G. ‘Seven keys to effective feedback’. Educational Leadership, September 2012, Volume 70, Number 1
Feedback for Learning. Alexandria: ASCD. Pages 10-16


Marcela Cintra

Marcela Cintra is the Head of Products in the Academic Department at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has been working with English language teaching for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, BRAZ-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, she has an MA in TESOL. She is the current first-vice president for BRAZ-TESOL.

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