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?

A response to Sam Sotiropoulos, candidate for School Trustee

Below is a comment I left on Sam Sotiropoulos‘ blog. As a trustee running in Ward 20 for the TDSB, he expresses opposition to BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology, sometimes known as BYOD)  as a system initiative. I’m still waiting for him to approve my comment, so I decided to post it here in the meantime. Click here for the original post/podcast.

My name is Royan Lee. I am a teacher in the YRDSB who uses technology in hopes of fostering a more creative, collaborative, critical thinking environment. I have some questions about your post and podcast on BYOD.

First of all, I notice you don’t mention whether you have either seen BYOD in action or have talked to anyone who has. Should you be so adamant about your stance considering this? I have been ‘doing’ BYOD in my classrom for three years. Please read about my experiences on my blog. I would love to talk to you about this some time.

Secondly, are you sure you’re not confusing equality with equity? As I see it, equality with technology exists when students do everything using the same tools at the same time. We’ve been doing that for a long time. Equity, on the other hand, is evident when students have voice, take increasing charge of their own learning, make meaningful mistakes, and are able to reflect on the right tools for their own learning.

Third, is your argument based on the assumption that students are not to be trusted with personal technology? I find it strange that you simultaneously position yourself as a ‘technology trustee’ who seeks to get more tech into their hands. I’m very confused by this paradox. Please remember that BYOD cannot exist without a strong pedagogical and practical plan to ensure its success. BYOD is not about having 3 students tapping away on a MacBook Pro while 2 others sit without access. It is not a laissez faire approach.

Fourth, it would be great if you mentioned the other forms of inequity that are currently embedded into our system, rather than citing BYOD as a main target. Is this topic really one that you should base a significant portion of your platform on? Remember, please, that BYOD is far from being widely adopted. What about homework or parent engagement as an equity issue?

Many of the arguments you put forth certainly are not uncommon to anyone who has ever had a conversation about BYOD. In fact, most of them need to be considered very deeply before launching such an initiative. The discussion, however, is much more nuanced than you’ve posited. I urge you to please avoid fanning the flames of fear around such paradigm shifts (remember, all shifts in thinking that are positive usually start with great opposition inspired by fear and myth). Instead, perhaps you can start by at least speaking to individuals experienced with it in practice.

No one should be arguing that this new way of looking at technology in schools is a panacea. Imagine if school reform was that easy? But should the challenges and barriers to its success stop us from at least trying it out?

Is equity really the issue when we have students bringing these devices to our buildings whether we are ‘permitting’ them in class or not? Or is it that, similar to most hegemonic forms of inequity in society, we would rather pretend it doesn’t exist? Because, I assure you, we do not have the power as a system to ban technology from students’ backpacks, pockets, or homes. Ask the people who’ve already tried (of which there are many).

I wish you the best of luck on your campaign, and give you props for opening up your thinking on a blog. I eagerly await your response.

Equity is about Voice

Equity is about voice.

It’s not about Christmas Trees or Kwanzaa. It’s not about posters with a black girl standing next to a redhead standing next to an ethically ambiguous is-he-Spanish-is-he-Asian-is-he-Middle-Eastern boy. It’s not about which songs play over the public address speakers. Sure, those things can be important too, but more for marketing purposes, or just for manners’ sake. We should never forget that political correctness is more about exercising power than it is about distributing it.

Equity is about powerful voices and marginalized voices, and the entire spectrum in between. Equity is fluid, not fixed. It is political. It’s implicit, rarely overt.

Equity is about voice.

Why you shouldn’t do BYOD

While participating in an interesting discussion on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device: students bringing their own personal technology into school for learning) in tonight’s #edchat, I tweeted this:

Was I trying to ignore socio-economic disparities in society? No.

I would, however, like for someone to show me the graph with a straight line correlating income and technology ownership. I would also like to see us simultaneously examine the overflowing examples of similar ‘inequities’ that we tolerate in our systems simply because those processes have been normalized in the hegemony of schooling.

Here are some of the real reasons you shouldn’t do BYOD:

  1. Social media does not have a place in your school.
  2. You have not set up a tool (such as Google Apps for Ed., Ning, Edmodo, etc.) to compliment multi-platform use.
  3. Your staff does not understand why or how someone might use personal technology for learning, collaboration, creativity, communication, organization, and productivity.
  4. Your curriculum focusses heavily on knowledge transmission.
  5. Your assessment and evaluation theory and practice are from a bygone era.
  6. You are test-driven, in a traditional, standardized sense.
  7. You have rigid and punitive technology policies.
  8. You don’t have ubiquitous wifi.
  9. Your leaders don’t get it.
  10. You do not have enough school devices to supplement students who do not own their own.
  11. You don’t actively promote all stakeholders as being co-learners.
What are your thoughts on this?

The Little Things

The small pink stool you see in the photo is used by one of my students (let’s call him Gregory)  in lieu of a chair. I noticed early in the year that he had difficulty sitting still for any reason. The stool changed everything.

“Hey Gregory, I notice you’re always jiggling around and moving in your chair. Wanna try kneeling on this stool instead?”

“Ya sure, Mr. Lee … OHMIGOD! I LOVE IT!”

I will cause a million knowing heads to nod if I describe this 13-year-old: has a loud voice, is a reluctant reader/writer, is always ‘on the go’, and would possibly shrivel up and die if he couldn’t participate in competitive sports.

But this little pink stool and this rugged, masculine boy have found a match in one another. On the stool, he sits calmly and stays focused.

One of my favourite parts of this job is uncovering the little things that sometimes make a huge difference.

Apple and DRM, the Elephant in the Classroom

Dear Innovative Educators,

Many of you have been talking about using Apple’s amazing mobile/handheld devices like iPods and iPads in your classrooms. I’m pretty impressed that you are so willing to take your programs to such a relevant and dynamic level. There’s only one slight problem.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Digital Rights Management (my friends call me DRM); I’m the proverbial elephant in the room. I’m here to tell you that if you don’t address me, I may be the thing that stops true equitable change from being realized in our traditional classrooms.

Really smart dudes like @Doctorow have written and talked on awesome shows such as @jessebrown‘s Search Engine (listen here) expressing concerns about Apple turning the open-internet into an ‘i-controlled’ world. Other wonderful bloggers such as @rdelorenzo (“Format Wars in Mobile Space”) and @techieang (“Apps – What works? What Doesn’t?”) have alluded to the practical issues we may run into in schools. In terms of logisitics, let me tell you, there are quite a few. Not enough to legitimize those that rail for the status quo in education, but enough to occasionally keep you up at night. The main logistical piece has to do with DRM. You see, when you buy a song, app, audiobook, or iBook to use on an Apple device, there are restrictions placed upon the amount of devices/accounts you can put them on. From wikipedia:

FairPlay-encrypted audio tracks allow the following:

  • The track may be copied to any number of iPod portable music players (including the iPhone).[2] (However, each iPod/iPhone can only have tracks from a maximum of five different iTunes accounts)
  • The track may be played on up to five (originally three) authorized computers simultaneously.[2]
  • A particular playlist within iTunes containing a FairPlay-encrypted track can be copied to a CD only up to seven times (originally ten times) before the playlist must be changed.[3]
  • The track may be copied to a standard Audio CD any number of times.[3]
    • The resulting CD has no DRM and may be ripped, encoded and played back like any other CD. However, CDs created by users do not attain first sale rights and cannot be legally leased, lent, sold or distributed to others by the creator.
    • The CD audio still bears the artifacts of compression, so converting it back into a lossy format such as MP3 may aggravate the sound artifacts of encoding (see transcoding). When re-ripping such a CD one could use a lossless audio codec such as AIFF, Apple Lossless, FLAC or WAV however such files take up significantly more space than the original .mp4 files.

At this time, it appears that the restrictions mentioned above are hard-coded into QuickTime and the iTunes application, and not configurable in the protected files themselves.

Fairplay prevents iTunes customers from using the purchased music directly on any portable digital music player other than the Apple iPod, Motorola ROKR E1, Motorola SLVR, Motorola RAZR V3i, the iPhone and the iPad.

Although the blurb above speaks specifically about music tracks, rest assured similar limitations exist for apps and iBooks. So here’s the scenario I want to posit to you:

First of all, let’s assume that your school is in a demographic in which families cannot afford to purchase apps on demand, let alone a device for their child. It’s easier to lift a discussion off from this vista because, even if your school is in a high SES area, there are likely exceptions.

Now let’s assume that your parent council, school, board, or a combination of the three is committed enough to mobile learning, and has the finances, to front the bill so that its students can learn in a relevant, dynamic environment using industry-elite technology.

Even in this situation, we still have a problem in that we are forced to be creative in how we manage DRM in the building. We are pushed into thinking of ways around it (legally, of course) when there is a better and more equitable way.

Apple needs to lead the way (as they so often do) to create a fair, reasonably inexpensive way for classes and schools to purchase apps, iBooks, music, etc. from the iTunes store so that there is a school account, and when an app gets purchased you can buy a multiple-device license. I’m talking bulk purchasing here. For example, if you wanted to purchase an app like Blogpress for your students, it is currently $2.99USD for one person to own. If you need it for, say, thirty or a hundred or eight hundred kids, are you telling me we’ve got to multiply that number by the amount of kids? Hmmm, my mama always told me that you gotta haggle when you’re buying in bulk.

Or here’s a crazy idea: How ’bout DRM-free apps for schools?

Apple needs to lead the way because they’ve always lead the way. They need to lead the way because they make amazing products for education that usually far outstrip the competition. They need to take charge because,like Spiderman …

Is this too much to ask? Is there a better way? What are your thoughts?


DRA/Elephant in Room/Not Exactly School Ready