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?

Where I’m From

Above is a photo I took a few days ago of my first home, 523 Finch Avenue West. From the outside, it hasn’t changed much. What a cockroach infested, dark, health-and-safety-code-breaking, stench-filled place it was. I loved it. Notice the little black stains that come down around the edges of the windows? As a child, I always thought they were tears.

It was the late seventies, what I call the golden era of Toronto immigration. My parents were like thousands of others that came both literally and figuratively barefoot. Our building of six floors almost resembled a refugee camp of sorts, but when I was a kid I thought it was the greatest place on earth.

I was fascinated by the terrifyingly dark and stinky garbage chutes. The ominous stairs compelled and horrified me. Our elevator always threatened imprisonment. The barrier free windows invited us as toddlers and preschoolers to test gravity.

The cultural make-up of our big brown home was as diverse as you could get, and it featured a significant Korean community. Many of us who live amongst Korean émigrés nowadays think of the upwardly mobile, highly educated; not so then. This might explain why newly arrived Koreans look at me like I’m speaking a pigeon brand of the language when I use it nowadays. Awkward, clumpy, and somewhat crass.

One of my favourite memories is of the Korean veggie truck that used to drop by once a week. You’d know the man had arrived because you’d suddenly hear the echoed call of ajimas (ladies) reverberating through the building. Soon, every Korean mother would be outside, cash in hand, ready to stock up for the week on various turnips, chives, and cabbages.

There were a lot of different immigrants in the building, and plenty of apparent racism. We used every slur in the book to describe each other. And then we would babysit each other’s kids and go to one another’s birthday parties. We would fight for each other, literally. A strange brand of conflict and love. All fiery, lots of passion.

We had our little world and it was special.

School was our internet, really. It was the place to go to expand oneself, to legitimize or devalue one’s cultural capital, to literally learn stuff that was foreign to us. I loved it. My kindergarten teachers were a step above Jesus for me. They taught me to read, sing, smile, share, and not be ashamed when I pissed my pants on the classroom mat (basically everything you need for success the world no?) In my memories, I envision those ladies as 8 foot tall superhuman entities. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t have trusted them with.

Most or many of us have kids like me in our classes. We make a monstrous difference.

How the Internet Helped Me: A Bit of a Biography

The above clip is of one of my favourite comedians Louis C.K. I find his observations on the world utterly hilarious, and his delivery more precise than a toddler on an iPad. In this instance, however, he is completely wrong.

Let me explain why I take demonizations of this most remarkable thing called the Open Internet, and subsequent negativity addressed towards the supposedly spoilt generation it has apparently birthed, so very personally. Here is a taste of the schema I bring to the conversation.

My parents were peasants from Korea who immigrated to Canada in the seventies, a time I regard as a kind of golden era of North American immigration. Whenever they tell me about the Korea they left behind, it sounds a little to me like something out of a Zhang Yimou movie: pastoral and impoverished. They had almost zero formal education.

My parents, like a lot of immigrants at that time, worked a succession of factory jobs, and struggled through small business ownership. All the while, they learned English on the fly, if at all. My mother, to this day, sounds like she just stepped off a boat, as some of us are wont to say. On my first day of kindergarten as a three-year-old (December baby), I didn’t speak a word of English.

The first time I sat on an adult’s lap to have a book read to me was in kindergarten.

I didn’t know what a ‘cottage’ was until my twenties.

I was one of those kids that acted as an interpreter for my brother’s parent-teacher interviews.

Kraft Dinner, to me, was the height of exotic cuisine.

From a very young age, I realized that media and technology were going to be important – no, essential – if I was going to learn to be a contributing and active member of the world. I voraciously consumed TV, radio, music, newspapers, video games, cinema, and anything else I could get my hands on. It was my life’s blood. Although I didn’t learn the term ‘cultural capital’ until my university years, I knew its meaning intuitively.

As a young child in the eighties, this media was, of course, predominantly mainstream: The Cosby Show, Nintendo, Alyssa Milano. Hence, my twisted and hegemonic romanticization of mainstream society, of which I did not recognize myself a part. As adolescence dawned on my, however, I became almost a fiend for ‘underground’ and ‘alternative’ media, content, and art.

One of the closest people in my life, my cousins Diane and Julie, often call my teenage years The Dark Period (I prefer to call it my I Just Realized The World is F***ed Period). In a nutshell, a walked around with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road perpetually at my side, listened to weird 4AD music on my run down Sony walkman which was always and infuriatingly running out of batteries, and skipped school to see Robert Bresson films at the Carlton. I used to save up and literally travel miles just to get the latest edition of NME.

And then came The Internet. Turn the page.