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?

Why grade when they can reflect?

The instructional video project was so fun! I’m very proud of how my video looks. I love how the voice over that I did didn’t have any sounds that I didn’t want. (the room was VERY LOUD). I had to record over and over to get it the way I wanted. I also love the way the music went so it didn’t stand out. I just wanted it to be background music.

If I could change anything from my video, I would change the lighting. In some parts, it’s too bright and it looks orange, and in the other parts, it’s too dark. I would also change the clip where I finished my bracelet because it wasn’t clear and it was hard to understand what I was doing. Maybe next time I’ll add my face. I was just kind of shy but noticed how cool it was to see people’s faces in it.

We’ve just come to towards the end of an inquiry project in which my students created instructional videos for the internet using the painfully simple to some, but beautifully limiting in my view (a subject for another blogpost in the near future), iMovie on our iPad devices. Above you see one of the awesome student videos (I wish I could give you access to our full walled-garden to see the videos, but this was one of the very few who did not show their faces in their video, thus making it much easier to receive permission to share publicly) and an accompanying reflection (what we called The Director’s Commentary).  It was one of the most rewarding learning experiences I’ve ever been involved in as a teacher. When you see a collection of seventy-five students take creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and reflection to this level, it reminds me of how our schools can do great, magical things.

But, I’ve run into a problem that recurs for me like hives.

Have you ever tried doing movie projects with students and found it to be immensely unsatisfying? Have you noticed how common it is for students to lose their initial excitement when they realize how arduous and minutiae-filled the process of movie making is? Have you experienced that anti-climax at ‘the end’ when few movies turn out as initially envisioned, due in large part to all the technical aspects of filmmaking? Ya, I’ve experienced that too.

But that’s not my problem.

My dilemma is that I don’t know how I should grade/evaluate them? Actually, no, that’s not the issue. The real problem I’m having is that I just don’t know why I should.

You see, my students have been keeping project journals on their blogs, writing reflections before, during, and after the process. I had them do this to put the emphasis on the process, rather than the final result. This is one of the ways you can get around the lack of resiliency you often see in our schools, such as the problem with movie-making I described above. When everything’s about the result, then you’re basically setting yourself up for doom. When process is king, then there’s only rich learning, regardless of the perceived value of the ‘product’.

The blog reflections have been wonderful. Moreover, the fact that they are open for one another to read and provide feedback on has taken the reflection into an epic, collaborative sphere. Sometimes I feel like a metaphorical flash mob is breaking out in my learning environment.

Here are just a few more snippets from their reflections:

As you all know, within the past few weeks, I have been working on my instructional video project. After 4 or so weeks, it is finally finished! Although I think I did well, and am proud of myself, there are still SO MANY things I can do to improve my project for next time! First of all, the editing. I do like how it turned out, but I could have done better. The music I put in was too loud. I rushed the credits and titles, so they’re a bit boring. I love what Flower did in her video with the coloured credits. The acting I did could have been so much better. I didn’t know it would be so weird to be in front of the camera. I wouldn’t be as nervous next time. Well,I don’t know if I can make myself NOT nervous, but I can hide it better next time. I spoke like I was shy, so that is also something i should improve for next time. Then again, there’s a lot of stuff I did well! I did like how well organized and prepared I was. I like the way my video actually accomplishes the goal of instructing someone on the basics of guitar. I also did a great job of working with my partner and sometimes I’m not so good at that. It was the best project ever.

This week while filming I learned a lot. When watching other people filming, I would actually be quite jealous of some of them, how they handled themselves and the charisma they seemed to have around the camera. But while filming, I felt proud of myself as I tried to copy the things I’d seen. The experience was a first for me and it was amazingly fun but hard too. I didn’t expect to have so many retakes, mistakes, and slips of the tongue. Mixing up our lines was very common. I also didn’t expect it to take as long as it did. I really wish I could do over some of the “one chance” shots that we just had to settle for, but they were good never the less. Me and my partner ran into a couple of problems, and one was the lighting. We were filming in a space with windows everywhere, and our first few shots were taken after 5 PM so we had to use the lights, but the next day we had to cooperate with the natural light that gave us way more light than the first shots. All in all I love filming, editing with iMovie is an absolutely wonderful experience, and I hope I will get the chance to do this again.

What I learned from watching and participating in the filming
* To always listen to your partners ideas (make compromises)
* You have to divide the script so both partners have a chance to speak
What I didn’t expect
* How many times we had to re-do some of the shots
* How difficult it was to be relaxed, and natural in front of the camera
What I wish I could do over?
* To make numerous scenes that were good so out of all of them, We could choose which one was the best  (More choices than one)

What was great
* getting to hear your partners ideas which made the video overall amazing!
* editing, and seeing the final product of the video (seeing what an amazing job we did)
What was difficult
* all the weird unpredictable stuff that happens, like the popcorn falling on the floorThings I would improve for my next video:
-I’ll make the lighting better
-I’ll film in landscape not portrait!!!
-I’ll choose better colors so that you can tell what pieces goes where more clearly
-Say the instructions at the right time so that I’m saying the part that I’m doing, so it all matches up
-Get rid of background noises
-Not let my hair get in the video
-Not let my hand block the ball
Thing I did well:
-I talked loud and the background music wasn’t covering up my voice
-I showed the instructions well
-I did it slowly

-I overcame my fear of doing a movie

After watching people film their instructional videos, I learned that we all have similarities yet differences too. We each have a different way of making our videos special. For example some of us use humour others just be themselves but in some way we stand out from each other. We also all saw how everyone had different skills and strengths. I didn’t know all that stuff about the kids in grade 7. Some kids are shy but they still made great videos. Although we all make mistakes. I really enjoyed watching others film their videos, and filming my own because it is something I’ve never experienced before and I can not wait to begin something new again.

I learned that school projects don’t just have to be something we do because a teacher told us to, but because its fun. I also did not expect that I could do everything so fluently and that really helped my self esteem.

I could go on, but do you see my quandary? How can a grade do justice to this learning? Won’t it only do harm?

An Idea for Phys-Ed

I love phys-ed.

I love the enthusiasm (most) children exhibit in finally having the shackles of desks, chairs, pencils, and paper abandoned for movement and sweating. I revel in the way the gym makes you feel comfortable to shout to the high heavens and escape the silence we too often demand in our classrooms. Most of all, I admire the way we accept very progressive ideas about assessment, evaluation, and achievement; no other subject has been doing observational assessment and instant feedback as a rule rather than a novelty.

I hate phys-ed. class.

I hate the seemingly immovable paradigm of ‘gym’ class. I crouch over when I think about the subtle ways we marginalize physical education in the big picture. I dislike the omnipresent gender issues that creep up when boys play with girls. Finally, I dislike the way ‘sports’ in gym class alienates many kids and causes them to literally and figuratively drop-out of gym.

As a (small ‘g’) gym teacher, I always try my best to make our physical education program as active, relevant, engaging, and equitable as possible. I’m really the furthest thing you can get to an impassioned expert in this area (and most days I would be embarrassed about the mistakes I make as a teacher in that gym), but I try my best. Here’s an idea I came up with that has been a rousing success.

We call it The Obstacle Course. In partners, students design a course that is:

  • fun
  • tests a variety of fine and gross motor movement skills
  • includes everyone
  • has everyone moving at all times

It has been so wonderful to see everyone step up and take leadership in my classes. No stickers or raffle tickets needed. These kids are trying their best to make a course that impresses the most important evaluators: their peers. In terms of assessment and feedback, it has been phenomenal. Think about it:

  1. I design a game
  2. I talk to all of you about it
  3. You tell me how I think it could be improved
  4. We play the game
  5. As we play, I notice things that work, and things that should be changed
  6. We make changes as we play
  7. You learn from my game and make yours better

The play and outright exercise has been fantastic, but it has been perhaps more special to see the collaboration and constant feedback in the gym.

If you’re stuck for an idea, try this one out. Here is the organizer I gave kids in the planning stages. Let me know how it goes.

The Simple Power of Photos and Video

Remember analogue photos and video? Taking care not to waste film, no one leaving comments on your photo of the day, inflicting pain on friends and family with living room slideshows instead of tormenting the world with them on Youtube?

I’m still amazed by this digital imaging thing. I can’t believe the ease with which we capture moments in our life. I love the fact that ‘photographer’ is now a relatively subjective title, and that ‘movie making’ can be done on a handheld device (not to mention what it means to be a news reporter). People talk about learning styles and multiple intelligences, but I don’t think it takes much rigour to come to the conclusion that virtually all of the kids walking through the halls of our schools can be called visual learners.

A digital camera is not only one of the most underrated #edtech tools around, but is also a perfect illustration of where we want all educational technology to be: normalized, mundane, at our fingertips.

I try and leverage this in the classroom at all times. I have witnessed the power of digital photos and video for reflection and metacognition in learning. Here’s an example of a simple activity I do regularly with my class:

  1. Take photos and video during a unit of learning.
  2. Do a quick edit of the clips and view them together.
  3. While viewing, record a voiceover of discussion reflecting on the learning. What went as planned? What surprised us? What should we do differently next time? What was your favourite part?

Some of the benefits for learning are as follows:

  • It legitimizes the learning and conversations that occur inside the classroom.
  • It reminds students of the importance of collaborative learning, knowledge building, and timely feedback.
  • It values oral language.
  • It lauds the learning process as much as its product.
  • It motivates and engages students to ‘perform’ their learning.
  • It is a great assessment archive.
  • It makes students accountable for class talk and conduct towards one another.
  • It makes the students the stars of the show. Not the teacher.

This process is something I learned while witnessing my own children’s fascination with our family’s iMovie and iPhoto library. Below is a short clip of my son Jackson’s first time riding a two-wheeler. As many parents know, teaching a young child to ride a bike can be laborious and demanding. Depending on the child, keeping their self-efficacy up is perhaps the most important part of the process. We were amazed to see Jack’s fascination with seeing his success. The effect it had on his intrinsic motivation was palpable. If you were to come over to my house tomorrow, you would like see a little boy run up to you and say, “Would you like to see my biking movie?”

Do you know a girl like Misha?

Meet Misha (on the right). She’s my daughter’s (left) BFF and just about the most awesome 8-year-old you’ll ever meet. She’s a great dancer, loves reading, and watches movies repeatedly when she really gets into them. You know that kid whose needs you sometimes forget about in your class because they’re so bright and independent? That’s her.

Misha, like many normal middle-class kids in countries that have Apple Stores, got a 4th generation iPod Touch for Christmas. In case you were looking the other way or taking a nap, I want to suggest that we have just experienced a major change in the tide.

It is now not uncommon for kids in elementary schools to own what, for all intents and purposes, is an iPhone 4. I’m not saying that they’re everywhere. I’m simply saying that it’s not surprising if and when you see it.

I see a 4th generation iPod Touch as quite a different animal to other devices because it is essentially an iPhone 4. In addition to internet connectivity, access to the entire App Store, and music playing which many of us have grown accustomed to, the new Touch takes high quality photos and video, records audio, and can be used as a data-plan-less cell phone when on wifi. Oh, and you can make video calls. Yes, video calls. Anytime you want.

So, next time you need a filler for a staff meeting, perhaps you could facilitate a simple 20 minute activity which asks the following questions.

First, take a quick vote: Do you think it will become more or less normal to see children in possession of these kinds of devices?

Next, an inductive thinking activity based on this question: What does this mean for learning in our schools?

What can we learn from Video Games?

This is a screenshot from my iPhone of my daughter’s favourite game, Pocket Chef. She was begging me to let her play it today while I was trying to read Collins and Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology for our As I fended off her pleas while ironically reading the book’s section on the potential of video games in education, I wondered about a couple of things.

What is it about video games that seemingly make kids more resilient to challenges and adversity than in real life classroom problem solving situations?

What makes them persevere through tasks even though it can be as difficult not to burn the virtual burgers as it is to figure out ‘how much money was left in Sabrina’s wallet after going to the store at the mall’?

Why don’t we necessarily see the same resolve and self-efficacy when solving a math story problem as we do when needing to conquer, say, a virtual WWII setting?

If there are any answers to these questions, I have a feeling they are connected to Dan Meyer’s awesome TED talk on 21st Century Math Educational Reform:

As it stands right now, I am less interested in the potential for video games to deliver curriculum than I am in the secrets to motivation, feedback, and intellectual rigour they seem to conceal.

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