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?