Feedback on feedback

I read with interest the report of the PPTA’s attack on Prof. John Hattie in the Press 25/2/09 – “Teacher Union Head criticises NZ Expert”.  

In her first message to members, new PPTA President Kate Gainsford made disparaging comments about “doing research on research” and “self-professed experts” telling people in the classroom what to do.  

Last month, Auckland University professor Hattie published his book Visible Learning based on a synthesis of more than 50,000 achievement studies from around the world. He used the studies to rank 138 aspects of schooling. Gainsford’s defensive/aggressive stance seems to have been triggered by Hattie’s ranking of the factors which made a significant difference to student learning and achievement in the classroom.

At the top of the list was feedback: “unequivocally, … the single most important factor in student learning was the quality of teacher feedback”. Some way down the ranking list was the PPTA’s perennial favourite, class sizes. No doubt to the PPTA’s chagrin, Hattie’s study rated smaller class sizes a relatively less important determinant of student achievement. Gainsford told teachers the quality of teacher feedback was likely to be worse if class sizes were so large that the teacher had no time to give individual attention to their students. In response Hattie said “It turns out that when you take teachers from classes of 30 and put them in classes of 15, they teach the same way,”

There certainly has been a fashion in the last few years of Ministry of Education funded “best evidence synthesis” projects, most notably that of Prof. Viviane Robinson, University of Auckland, with her current  Best Evidence Synthesis on the impact of school leadership on a range of valued student outcomes.

I have even heard tautologous references to “evidence-based research”. 

But rather than giving the hapless Hattie six of the best, Mistress Gainsford could have been less dismissive of the work which was regarded as teaching’s “Holy Grail” in a review in the Times Educational Supplement, and more welcoming of the opportunity for her members to improve the way they give feedback to students by reflecting on the implications of the research and shifting the discussion to the how to improve effective learning by increasing the repertoire and quality of feedback techniques.

 Better understanding the principles of more effective feedback in the day-to-day learning work of the classroom would be a good move towards a better articulated model of professional practice. The New Zealand education system has long been obsessed with assessment. Reducing the demands of over-rigorous formal assessment on teachers and students alike would help create more space for teachers to improve their teaching practice and learners to learn more effectively.

 In this teachers can enlist other interested parties.  By way of contrast to the attitude of the PPTA the Press  had a good adjacent article  on a school’s innovative use of technology   Fendalton primary pupils are using information technology like Youtube, blogs and photo sharing which feed into the school web site during the day and give parents-and grandparents- the opportunities to give pupils feedback on work in progress.  

The PPTA hierarchy needs to remember that the “A” in the title stands for “association” not “union”. Salary and conditions for teachers are important, but as many teachers will attest, more important still is the achievement of their students. 

It is time for a  more professional leadership by the PPTA.  Their primary colleagues in the NZEI seem to be more open to constructive feedback than their secondary counterparts and more willing to play a professional leadership role. Of course, the real work  happens in primary and secondary schools across the country where practitioners are open to new ideas and to better ways of  teaching and learning , with the help of informed research and the involvement of their learning communities.

To give John Hattie the last word: “I have no problem with enhancing teachers’ working conditions but we should not confuse enhancing working conditions necessarily with outcomes for kids.”

3 Responses to Feedback on feedback

  1. Graeme says:

    Indeed. It even seems to me that Professor Hattie’s finding regarding quality feedback is just what educators might predict. Feedback is what gives the chance for learning rather than mere teaching. Unless I get feedback on my performance and understanding I am not likely to learn, because learning is to do with change that happens in the learner. It could also be said that one of the most effective ways for a teacher to learn his or her art is through quality feedback.

  2. bjdooley says:

    Ultimately, the objections are ironic. Feedback is actually the one thing that makes the teacher irreplaceable. Everything else is recordable, and may ultimately become online commodity.

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