The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.




Filed under America, Carol Dweck, Criticism, Desire, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Feedback, Grading, High School Teaching, Identity, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Words, Work

2 responses to “The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

  1. I found this very interesting. I’ve increasingly felt that negative feedback is a fallback position relied upon too heavily in this generation of teachers. Which is not to say that self-esteem building in the absence of any assessment is an answer either. However I do not feel that the teacher can be removed from the equation. Assessing a student based on criteria that have not been laid out in a detailed manner can be frustrating for all involved. We cannot assume that our students come to us already knowing everything they need to know, in order to pass the course. Having taught the same material over and over for years, there is the potential for an educator to lack understanding when it comes to the difficulty presented by learning it for the first time. It comes back to the teacher alleghory: does a teacher who has taught the same subject every year for twenty years have twenty years of experience, or one? If an educator has been marking the same papers on the same three subjects over and over for the past twenty years, it might become easy to take out the red pen. But before taking it out we need to ask: “Did I teach what I am expecting this student to know…did I teach it in this class, this year?” If the answer is no, we cannot assume understanding. In my opinion, frustration with critique comes when a student is corrected on something they were not previously told was wrong. If a student writes an essay on Blade Runner by watching the movie, then the essay is “glaringly wrong”. But if a student makes the effort to read the book and understand the concepts, however his essay is fraught with mistakes in grammar, syntax, or more often, in structure, I have to ask myself whether I taught him how to write an essay properly in the first place. Many teachers would grade student a. the same as student b. I would argue that putting the work in matters, in some cases more than technical correctness.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks for your comment. Feedback is complicated. You may be right that most students would benefit from more positive feedback, but, when I’ve tried that, there are always a few students who are quite unsatisfied. And I understand. I’m taking a drawing class now and, maybe because I’m hyper-aware of what I don’t know, I’d love hearing what he (and all the other art teachers I’ve had, which is another complication) somehow haven’t managed to teach me yet, things he didn’t know I needed until he actually studied my work. If my figurative zipper is down, I want to know.

      We teachers aren’t perfect and are subject to prejudices and unconscious needs and routines and obsessions that potentially spoil the feedback process, but it’s a human process. As you suggest, it requires constant adaptation and rethinking about what the student needs, which, as you also suggest, is often experience and sincere effort by all concerned. Still, it’s challenging for me to say what students need in a reliable universal way, as they need different things and, if I’m not careful, I decide their needs according to my own.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response! –D

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