When Less Feedback is More

Feedback overload?

When I was a kid, I got my hands on an old bicycle. I don’t know where I got it, but it was old, it was rusted, it was a girl’s bike, and it was too big for me. So I decided to take it apart. Why? I don’t really know. I guess because I was a boy and had boyish destructive tendencies.

After taking the whole thing apart, surrounded by rusty bolts and grease-caked parts, I thought, I wonder if I could put this back together? And so I did. I struggled for days to get the bike back together, trying and retrying different parts and different tools, achieving small victories that only led to bigger challenges. But finally, I got the bike back together and working.

I was ecstatic. I took the bike to my parents and friends and anyone who would listen and said, “See? See?!” Of course, all they saw was a junky old bike ready for a yard sale somewhere. But I was proud – what I saw was the product of my hard work and the evidence that I could depend on my own intellect and ingenuity. I had gone from knowing nothing about how a bicycle worked to learning how to put one together from a pile of parts. And the best part about it? No one helped me.

How long would I have worked on putting that bicycle back together if someone was standing over my shoulder saying, “That’s incorrect. Here’s how you do it.”? Not long. How much pride would I have had in the final product if I hadn’t struggled on my own to get it right? Not nearly as much.

However, a recent push to improve educational feedback seeks to create just this type of situation in the classroom. It suggests that feedback to students should be more specific and actionable – to move from bland comments like, “This is incorrect” to more precise critiques, such as, “This is what you did wrong here, here’s why, and this is how you fix it.” Which, at first, seems to make sense. We, as teachers, should be the ones who can spot student mistakes and guide them toward mastery of skills. Shouldn’t we?

But consider for a minute what constant specific and actionable feedback does over the long term. It denies students the chance to figure things out for themselves, to really practice trial and error. It denies them the passion, pride, and ownership of striving, grappling, and, finally, persevering – the stuff that creates a true lifelong love of learning that can be practiced independent of a teacher. And there seems to be evidence to support this – a hands-off approach to teaching and parenting has been proven to produce more metacognition, creativity, and grit.

What may be inadvertently created through nonstop, detailed feedback is students that are overly dependent on the teacher, too unthinking in their revisions and corrections. And it is underpinned by the mindset that the teacher is the sole expert in the room, the one who is the ultimate arbiter of what is good or bad, right or wrong.

However, this is not a suggestion that we stop providing feedback altogether. What is being suggested is that we need to ask ourselves more often, “Is this feedback for this particular student a support or a crutch?” And when it is a crutch, we should be saying to students, “Try to figure out what you did wrong here and how to fix it” or “Why don’t you look up a solution for this problem?”

Which brings up another part of the feedback puzzle that the current trend seems to overlook: the internet. There are YouTube instructional videos, endless forums, websites, virtual libraries, and online communities that exist solely to help people figure out how to do all different types of things. So should teachers spend hours making detailed comments on student work when they could be teaching them the resourcefulness to fix their own mistakes and become independent learners?

We live in a changing society that is being increasingly composed of DIYers, hackers, and makers. The mindset that only certified professionals are able to do certain tasks is diminishing quickly. We are rediscovering the joy and pride of learning how to do things ourselves – cheesemaking, crocheting, vertical gardening, fly-tying, etc. – all things that would have been exponentially harder before the internet when we’d be lucky to find a single book on these topics. The way people are learning to do things is changing. Shouldn’t feedback – one of the most powerful teaching tools we have – change as well?

And again, this is not to suggest that teachers throw students in the proverbial deep end of the pool, walk away, and say “Good luck.” Nor should we give students vapid comments that do little to promote growth. But in order to help kids grow, take real ownership of their education, and develop a true love of learning, we need to say to them more often, “I think you can figure this one out yourself.” We need to let them struggle by themselves to put that bike back together. Because sometimes less feedback might actually be more.


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