The Impact of Culture on Feedback

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user thaths
CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user thaths

There are few things as important as establishing and nurturing a culture of feedback in our schools. I don’t know about you, but I would say it’s also the most challenging thing I attempt as a classroom teacher. This is not necessarily because embedded feedback is difficult in and of itself. Rather, the struggle often lies in the barriers we either have constructed or are inevitable in this thing we call schooling. Still, were it easy, it likely wouldn’t be so important to accomplish. Today I want to touch upon one problematic aspect of feedback for which there may be no solution, but perhaps constant vigilance.

Feedback is culturally specific. This is partly because the ways in which we use verbal and non-verbal language varies, in some cases drastically. In our multicultural, mixed socioeconomic classrooms, providing feedback in a differentiated, equitable manner becomes something akin to a mutant superpower. The language and dispositions we approach the assessment process with, and employ to give feedback, unsurprisingly descends from our own culture and schema. Let me give you a personal example.

As part of a mixed ethnic/cultural/socioeconomic marriage, my wife and I learned very early on in our marriage about the sometimes hilarious dichotomies in meaning that exist in our respective families.

In her house, it took me a long time to pick up on the subtle, implicit ways people communicated. Requests were often framed as questions, and feedback was usually given indirectly.

In my house, my wife wondered why every conversation sounded like a case of domestic violence. She found communication under our roof to be alarmingly blunt and even callous.

“Ohmigod, are you guys fighting?”

“Huh? No. We were just talking about where the cheapest rice to buy is.”

Lisa Delpit wrote about this kind of phenomena in her seminal work, The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. In describing the experience of many African-American students in schools staffed with predominantly white teachers, she noted how the former often had difficulty comprehending instructions and feedback provided by the latter because it was laden with culturally specific, indirect language, often framed in the form of the question. Chia Suan Chong, a fantastic educator and blogger on english language teaching, describes a similar scenario seen in German and American business dealings, something she describes in a great post as a misinterpreted illocutionary force:

When examining the language used in meetings between the Germans and the Americans, she found that whenever the Americans proposed something, the Germans would say, ‘Yes, but the problem is…’

After hearing the Germans list out the problems with their proposals, the American perceived the illocutionary force to be, ‘We don’t like your proposal. Give us another option.’

So the Americans went on to suggest different things. But each time, they were met with the same ‘Yes, but the problem is…’ by the Germans.

Exasperated, the Americans gave up and felt that the meeting was a failure.

Meanwhile, the Germans were confounded by the Americans’ fickle behaviour. They couldn’t understand why the Americans would move on to a different proposition just when they were about the sink their teeth into a good one. To the Germans, the illocutionary force behind ‘Yes, but the problem is…’ was one that meant ‘This sounds good. Let’s explore it thoroughly and examine it from all sides.’

All of these factors really hit home for me this year when I had a fantastic conversation with a parent of a student. He told me that he thought his child was having difficulty in my class because he didn’t know exactly what he should be doing to improve his achievement. As a point of comparison, he continued to say that his child flourished in environments like his competitive swimming class, where feedback was very direct and didactic. After responding to him with what likely sounded like a bunch of eduspeak, I realized that he was right. The type of feedback I was giving and attempting to create the conditions for was not (always) suited to this student’s learning. It was likely too indirect and wrapped up in passive language. He had no idea what he needed to do to improve.

Whether it’s oral, written, modelled, or woven inextricably into the learning and conversations that happen in the room, feedback continues to be an imperfect endeavour. This might be because we cannot look at this aspect of learning and assessment in a vacuum. If our schools are hegemonic, then surely even our best practices can bespeak it.

Have you experienced the impact of culture and language on feedback in your learning environment?


  1. Amazing stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately – mostly because I have a crew of ASD learners this year, and I’m working on what works best for them as feedback. I was incredibly impressed today (and need to give a colleague props for it), because I handed back some written work to a 7/8 French class, with some feedback, and 2 boys came to see me to ask, even more specifically than I had given them, what the areas were that they needed to improve. They really wanted me to walk through each question with them, and there was a lot of “oh, yeah, I forgot about that”, “Oh, I see that now”. It felt very valuable, and I let them know how impressed I was. I know that’s because their classroom teacher has made that an okay thing to do in their learning environment.

    Will keep thinking about this. I teach in a heavily monocultural environment, but the socio-economics are widely varied, and I’m beginning to see my ASD learners as part of a parallel culture as well.

    1. Funny you mention ASD. My brother is on the spectrum and he, more than anyone else, taught me assess and alter the way I instruct and give feedback based on the individual’s needs.

      1. I have to also say that I laughed at your description of families, and communication. I used to be scared to death of time with my in-laws, because, really, they don’t talk a lot (as opposed to my family where nobody ever really shuts up for very long). I have now learned to revel in the silence, and not take it as an offence. My husband still struggles with the noise level at my mom’s. And, as a person with a strong German background, I LOVED the German/American conversation. So, so true.

        And as for the Growing Success document – oh, my. A colleague is currently engaged in a battle with her admin, because she is using the document to help her report on students on an IEP, and keeps being given contradictory instructions; a friend regularly complains about the amount of at-home projects her Grade 8 daughter is using, and when i point her to quotes from the document that suggest she can argue that, and she takes them to school, she is told by a teacher-friend that they’re not really paying any attention to it; my husband uses it regularly to advocate on issues for our kids, and is faced with teachers who don’t have any idea what he’s talking about. Sigh.

  2. There is much food for thought in this very thoughtful post! I had flashbacks to the early years of my own marriage (Italian + Canadian combo has proved to be very interesting indeed).
    I have been co-teaching/co-planning with teachers and when we examine student work, we experiment with what feedback to give. It is hard work, and it is also a skill that has to be developed. Our tendency is to say, “Great job” or “expand on this” which often doesn’t give students a concrete next step. My question is often: What is missing from this that would move it to the next level? This is the springboard for thinking about what feedback we should give.
    Yesterday, i was working with a teacher in an ESL class and we experimented with feedback and talked about what it should look like. We often decided on, “Tell me more–use details from the text to provide further support for your answer.” We also asked questions that require and answer and that answer, in addition to giving limited but direct and specific feedback. She is planning to take some time on Monday to have them review their work, respond to the comments and resubmit. I am now wondering, given the cultural makeup of the class if this is going to be effective. I guess the only thing we can really do is ask them if the feedback was helpful, and if not, what would have been helpful.
    I am also thinking that classroom teachers seldomly feel they have the time to have students use the feedback to improve their work and that making the time is probably one of the most significant shifts of the Growing Success Document in Ontario.

    1. While we’re on the topic, I feel that two of the main struggles with implementing Growing Success is: a) no one is reading it; or b) people are reading selectively hoping that segments of the document, taken out of context, will serve their own biases on assessment.

      Generally, I wish more folks would read Growing Success as a whole and realize the importance of creating context specific environments for feedback, as opposed to looking for prescriptions that will inevitably fail in some environments.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. …and c) think they don’t need to read it because they are already doing a good job with assessment.
        Any ideas about how to tackle that one? Perhaps your next post? You have a solid teacher following and teachers value your opinion. If each of us emphasize the importance of AfL in our own spheres of influence–maybe we’ll see that shift we know works in the long term?

  3. Royan, always pushing to pause and think. Thanks. I feel your argument is insightful for other areas of teaching as well – classroom management, lesson planning, extra help, growth plans, requests to bring students to team, and so on. We can all put in place what is deemed as “best practices” by others but at the end of the day we as teachers need to act as experts by using our knowledge of our students coupled with our understanding of educational research, to guide what we believe beneficial for a student, class, or even a specific school year. Like others, I believe the days of the “teacher binder” being used for 10 years but never revised, are over. Perhaps the “canned” or prefabricated learning environment is too? So much to consider. Who says this job is easy…? Thanks again.

  4. It is also valid for work environment. For over an year now I work in multicultural environment with the bosses always being foreigners and of different nationality. You can tell the difference in the way they give you feedback. I would always go for the American way – say it with a smile no matter what it is.

  5. this area of culture on communication is endlessly fascinating, i haven’t got any comments about culture and feedback but with the news about the passing of linguist John Gumperz read this about cultural effects in educational context – rising intonation; story telling –

    a google search for contextualization cues and contextual presuppositions also result in interesting texts.


  6. As always Royan, this is a very interesting post, and I’m definitely enjoying the comments equally as much as well. It’s funny, but earlier in the year I was speaking to a parent of one of the children in my class. This child used to live in a different country, and they moved here a couple of years ago. In his previous schooling environment, learning was all about the Knowledge and Understanding level of the achievement chart, and both mom and son struggled with my focus on all four levels. I used to offer feedback based on something related to his communication or application of the content, and the mom and son did not understand why he didn’t get a higher mark or better comment because the answer was ”right.” Talking to the mom, I realized that I needed to explain myself better. I realized that I needed to do more for this child. So I actually sat and spoke with both the mom and the son, and we worked out a system so that now he does understand my feedback, and now he is getting what he needs from me. This is what’s important.

    Your post, Royan, as well as the comments, also made me think about what Aaron Puley (@bloggucation) talks about often: that is, the importance of looking at these topics through an ”equity lens,” This is so important. I wonder how we can do this more in the school setting. What do teachers need in order to do this well? So much to think about!


    1. Yes, it’s funny how even our best practices can marginalize some students. This teaching thing is allergic to perfection:)

  7. Great post! I teach in a completely monocultural rural school so cultural differences are not something I see much. I did read a book a few years back though, called “You Just Don’t Understand” by Deborah Tannen. In it she talked about the effect of gender on the way we use and perceive language. I especially related to the section where she talks about a phenomenon she calles “complementary schismogenesis” – a term that describes when talking to the opposite gender we can carefully choose our words to avoid a specific reaction, and surprisingly (to us) the words we choose elicit exactly the response we are trying to avoid. For example: I used to say to my son “Let’s work on organizing your toys”. It made him furious. “If you want me to clean up my room, why don’t you just say so!” In my childhood home of mother and sisters, “Clean up your room” would have been considered bossy and mean. It was a real eye opener to me, simple as it seems now, and I really try when giving feedback to students, to figure out which approach is best.

    1. Yes, the different reactions people have to direct/indirect requests are striking, and it usually depends on what they grew up with.

      Even though you are in a monocultural area, I’m wondering if there are class differences. In my view, these differences are often far more exacerbated down class lines as ethnic or cultural ones.

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. As a college student currently taking EDM 310, a technology course which led me to your blog, but also an education foundations course which is focusing on the multicultural classroom, we have discussed language barriers quite a bit. It has mostly been in regard to a student learning English, communicating with parents, understanding cultural communication styles, etc. What type of feedback to give a student and how that student may receive that feedback is something that has not been covered. However, after reading your post, I see it is not an issue limited only to ESL students. Culture is so complex within our own communities. Great post.

  9. Thank you for your insightful post. Before being a mother of two kids I had worked in educational centers as a director. I was pretty good, I think, at trying to cater my feeback to me help to each child according to their learning styles… however as a parents it is much harder. I remember when I worked at the center parents would say “I can teach everyone elses child but my own” Now I’m begining to see the truth behind their words. Frankly it is hard to give good constructive feeback to your own child because often in the moment there are so many other factors, like stress, your own standards being projected on them etc. In the end I’m trying to see my son for who he is and from there learn how I can give him feedback in his learning process.

    1. So true. I wonder if it’s the extra emotion we attach in the parenting context that disturbs the benefit of feedback. Or perhaps our own kids are just a little more honest about their response to the feedback:)

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