Head of School Blog: How's My Driving?

On my way back from the airport the other night, I stopped in at a convenience store for a cup of coffee and some gas. As the clerk rang up my purchase, a message appeared on a small screen to the right. “Please rate your shopping experience today at _______,” under which were five emojis ranging from dark red and angry to bright yellow and beaming. It seemed to me a small encounter, but being by nature a giving and responsive person, I swiped the happiest disc and headed back to the car.

 

By now, it’s old news that the digital revolution has enabled businesses and organizations to collect feedback in real time at every turn and subsequently leverage that data to improve operations and enhance the user experience. “Tell us how your stay was at _______!” “Please take a moment to complete this short survey.” “How’s my driving? Call xxx-xxx-xxxx.” In keeping with our seeming preference to be “fashionably late,” education is just recently joining the feedback party, ironic given the demonstrated value that timely and specific feedback from teacher to student has on the learning process.

 

In an essay in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, noted educational leader Grant Wiggins argues in favor of the vital importance of feedback to learning, contending that “decades of education research support the idea that by teaching less and providing more feedback, we can produce greater learning.” He identifies seven keys to effective feedback. First, effective feedback is goal-referenced, that is, it is directly linked to a formally articulated learning goal. Second, it is “tangible and transparent,” rather than cloaked in euphemisms or implied or assumed. Third, it is “actionable,” directing the recipient as to the precise steps he can take to improve (as opposed, I assume, to a grade or a subjective observation of overall quality). Fourth, it is presented in user-friendly small doses in plain and affirming language. Fifth, it is timely, preferably in mid-process so that the learner has ample opportunity to adjust course. Sixth, it is ongoing: for results-oriented students conditioned to seeing a grade as the final word, we need to be creative about being as attentive to formative assessment as much as we are to summative. And finally, it is consistent. “That means teachers have to be on the same page about what high-quality work is. Teachers need to look at student work together, becoming more consistent over time and documenting their criteria in highly descriptive rubrics supported by exemplary models.”

 

Later in the month, faculty and staff will gather for a day of in-service professional development. Among the topics we are looking forward to tackling is assessment. How do we track our students’ progress toward the learning goals we have set for them? What instruments or techniques are we using to provide them with useful feedback? What are the range of assessment options available to us as we turn to the challenging task of evaluating mastery? No small aspiration for an hour on Friday, but then again a matter of no small importance either. Our students are our clients: they need our feedback and we need theirs.

 

Speaking of which, I want to thank you for all of the feedback you have offered us through the recent parent survey. As of Sunday morning, we had collected 145 completed surveys, a 100% increase over last May’s effort! In keeping with the spirit of ongoing, timely, and formative assessment, we changed the timing of the administration, and in keeping with the spirit of direct and specific feedback, we adjusted the specificity of our questions. There are a lot of data to unpack, including over 300 narrative comments, but what a valuable baseline we have. Consider our “net promoter score” (the % of “promoters” minus the percent of “detractors”), which is currently at 68 (17 points higher than last year’s survey.) Good news to be sure—but what steps can we take to raise it even further? On a personal note, on a five-point scale, “school leadership and administration” scores 4.18, a useful data point, but only if my team and I identify action steps that will enable us to be 4.19 (or 4.99!) next year.

 

When I reflect on the “feedback revolution,” I sometimes wonder how pre-1995 businesses had any clue as to how their users were experiencing their product. What assumptions were they making about how good they were? In the end, no one wants classrooms equipped with convenience store emoji screens. After all, we’ve got the real things. But the teacher and the parent in me knows that teenagers are pretty good at wearing masks, and as such, I ought to be cautious when I judge a teenager’s thoughts and particularly what she might be understanding, based on the look on her face. Whether you’re running a school, teaching a class, or writing a paper, it’s always helpful to know, “How’s my driving?”

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