Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life in the Immediate Feedback Loop

I was not more than two minutes into the lesson before I realized it just wasn't going to work. It had seemed like a good idea in the planning stage, but now, live and in the classroom, I could see that I was losing my students, that they were zoned out, confused, disengaged, and that I was not connecting them to the material. I would try it again later in the day, but I could already tell the lesson was fatally flawed and it would flop again (it did). I would go back to the drawing board and give it another try.

My only consolation was that every classroom teacher has a similar story.

People in the education thought leader business and thinky tanks and edubureaucracy and ed tech marketeers and manufacturers of edu-programming-- the whole crew of them worry about a programs effectiveness. How will we know if these lessons are any good? How will we know if these materials really work? What kind of extra assessments can we create to find out how well this initiative connected with students? They talk about this kind of thing as if it's deeply mysterious. This is one more reason that all of those folks should spend time in a classroom.

Classroom teachers live inside an instantaneous feedback loop every working day of their lives.

Teachers make a million little education choices every day, and they get feedback on each of those choices right away. Is the lesson boring? Is it confusing? Is the explanation of the material hard to follow? Is the teacher's delivery flat and uninspiring? Is her approach to questioning and interaction bringing the students closer to her? Students will answer all of those questions right away, sometimes indirectly and sometimes clearly and directly ("Hey, Mr. Greene-- I hate this.")

I've always argued that bad teachers are fewer than Reformsters allege, and likely to leave before you get around to throwing them out, because if you do a lousy job in the classroom, the students will punish you for it every day. Every. Day. You may be in denial about your role in the ongoing failure; you may blame it on those damned kids. But you'll still find the job punishing every day, and you'll soon reach the conclusion that you're ready to get out.

Any teacher who is reasonably alert can tell when a lesson is clicking. The students are hopping, excited, engaged. They make that face-- the "I am learning a cool thing" face is unlike any other face humans make. They're energized. You're energized. You feel like you're the cable and a million volts of electricity are flowing right through you.

Likewise, you know when it's not clicking. Even if your relationship with the students is so good that they will humor you out of sheer affection, you can recognize that face, too-- the "You're a great person, but right now this is the pits" face. Or that moment when you are trying to get a discussion started and everything you toss out thuds to the floor like lumps of elephant poop.

You don't need to wait for the end of the semester or the end of the year. And if you bombed, you will likely go home tonight and reconfigure, rewrite, replan, because you really don't want to go through more of that disaster. Heck, the really good teachers can react to their feedback immediately and retool the lesson on the spot.

Teaching a lesson badly comes with its own punishment attached, and that punishment will be doled out immediately-- not in the spring after VAM-soaked test scores come back or during some post-observation scary meeting. Immediately. The classroom is an immediate feedback loop

This is what happened to many if not most of the Common Core aligned teaching materials-- teachers tried them, got their rapid response feedback, and started rewriting the materials. Not just out of a desire to pursue effective pedagogy, but because it sucks to fail in a classroom, because you have to suffer the consequences immediately.

Ed policy folks seriously underestimate the power of the feedback loop, both to motivate teacher behavior and to evaluate how well something in the classroom is working, and so we end up with policies and approaches that are the equivalent of sitting in a windowless room and trying to decide if it's raining outside using every method except asking someone who is standing outside. Want to know if your materials or your program are any good? Give them to a teacher and ask her after about two weeks. Want to find out what is and is not working for a teacher, what she might need help with? Ask her (in an atmosphere that does not make her weaknesses cause for punishment or humiliation).

Are there teachers who are unaffected by the loop? Sure. They blame the students or make themselves numb to the bad feedback, but here's a thing to remember-- they're not going to do any better with feedback from other sources.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of teachers don't need your data because they are collecting mountains of data every day. They don't need your special assessment to measure what's working (or not) in their classroom because they get regular feedback on that subject every day-- from the small humans who are in the classroom watching it all happen.

Of course, this immediate feedback loop can't really be monetized, and the data isn't collected in a form useful for privatizers. But none of that changes the fact that there is a powerful tool being used in schools every single day, and everyone except classroom teachers is ignoring it.


  1. This is so true. I remember one lesson vividly that was just so awful it has been seared into my brain as a "never again". Feeling like a failure is just the pits and too many days like that can really make you question your profession.

  2. Yup but the feedback loop works better on both sides, teacher and student, when classes are smaller. Teachers can better discern which students are getting it and which are not, and act on that information more effectively, and students feel more engaged because they can have their voices heard as individuals.

  3. This reminds me of one of my least favorite admin-esque question, "How do you assess?" My answer, which is inevitably met with bemusement, is that I assess constantly and everything I do is an assessment. For the exact reasons you listed above.

    Thanks for keeping the blog going into your retirement. I've been reading for you a number of years now and really appreciate your work. You mentioned in a recent post that a writer's job is to put into words what others want to say. You hi the nail on the head often.