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?

On my uncle becoming a pop star

adapted from the original cc licensed photo shared by flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

adapted from the original cc licensed photo shared by flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

[So. 1 billion hits, eh? Here’s my obligatory, belated, and uncomfortably personal Gangnam Styles ramble. If you’re looking for objective media criticism, you might want to press the back button.]

A family with cultural capital? Didn’t have it. Stability in the home? Nope. Extra curricular activities? Only if shoving quarters in arcade games counts. A lot of freedom and time on my hands? One rare thing I had in spades. That’s why, growing up, media was the world to me.

I learned everything from TV, newspapers, and magazines. I thought Bill Cosby was the coolest dad. The Keaton family hugs blew me away. I read every magazine I could get my hands on from cover to cover. Muchmusic was my life’s blood. I wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

The only thing media couldn’t do for me was help me make sense of being in the skin of diaspora. In fact, it exacerbated my insecurity and disorientation. I wanted to be a white kid with flowing, dirty blond locks, not a brownish boy whose house smelled of garlic. When I went over to my friend Seth’s house and had Kraft Dinner with a squirt of ketchup on the side, I thought it was the height of culture. I always remember that evening because it symbolizes the hegemony I was immersed in.

You can imagine what someone like myself thinks about Psy’s Gangnam Style. I always picture having some warped dream where I end up speaking to my 12-year-old self to tell him:

When you are a middle aged bloke with a family and a minivan (pause to laugh hysterically) there will be a dude that looks like your uncle who dances in a silly fashion and raps in Korean. Yes, you heard right: Korean. He will take the world by storm.

Incredulous would not cover it.

Of course, there was no internet. What’s more, I think most would agree that the Gangnam phenomenon does not occur in the media landscape of my childhood. MTV could not have acted as a successful agent for Psy’s little 1-2 step. And even if they had, I wonder how much of its success would be based mostly on irony and implicit racism. No. It could only occur virally. It’s the lack of contrivance that makes it all the more special to me.

This is by no means an original or hugely revelatory statement, but I really feel as though we are experiencing a watershed moment for the Asian immigrant experience. You could perhaps argue that my feelings about Psy, in fact, serve to support the marginalization of the other. You might even say that the seeking out of global, external fame is exactly what we hope to avoid in self-realisation and empowerment. But, since an academic, cultural deconstruction rarely ends up on the side of mainstream euphoria, I just want to let my FIFA World Cup lizard brain tell you how I really feel.

I’m proud of the little guy, and I’m even more exalted by the fact that I (and especially my children) live in a world where the kids at school think it’s kinda cool to have slanty eyes.

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.