29 October 2010

The unspoken value of student feedback

I once read a cracking quote from a famous actor, but I can't remember who it was, and what exactly he said.  The gist of it was that he felt the worst review he could get was one that commented on how good the acting was.

Why?  The job of the actor is to make the play seem real, to the point where even though the audience know they are in a theatre, the acting should distract the attention from reality, only allowing the audience to return to reality when the curtain falls or the actors look out to audience.

Whether it's on the stage or on TV -- or even in a book -- I'm sure we've all had the experience of feeling our attention drawn out of the room we're in, and into the story.

Now through most of my education, nobody asked me what I found most useful as a pupil or a student, but once or twice they have, and I noticed something remarkable:  I couldn't remember everything we'd done.  OK, so maybe that's not so remarkable, but what I mean is that I could remember some activities clearly, and others barely at all.  Still not remarkable?  OK, let's clear this up.

I started listening to other students' feedback.  They only mentioned a fraction of what we'd done in the class -- 10 or 15 minutes of the hour.  Where had the rest gone?

The reviews focused on things that we didn't like (things that bored us, basically) and things that we enjoyed or thought helped us learn.  But the things that we said we enjoyed were the things that we noticed.  Learning should be a natural experience.  When we are learning at our most effective, we should be so engrossed in it that we don't consciously think about what we're doing.

Surely, then, the most important part of the class is not what the students claim was effective, but what the students do not comment on at all.  The best feedback for an actively may actually be no feedback at all, paradoxically, because feedback is the sign that the student has noticed the teaching, just as the critic has noticed the acting.

The Curriculum for Excellence, the latest initiative in Scottish public education, aims to promote kids' responsibility for their own learning.  Kids are expected to reflect on their own learning, and teachers to act on pupil feedback.

But the danger is that in asking students to reflect on their own learning, we are making them focus consciously on the process, and preventing them from fully engaging in the actual learning itself.
And worse, if teachers build their classes based on student feedback, they will be building classes based on the least effective components of their teaching.

So if I'm right, Scottish education may have just shot itself in the foot... with a bazooka.
For once, I'd really like to be proven wrong.

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