Strengths-Based Feedback

For many, the New Year is a time to focus forward on growth — the learning and habits that will make our lives better both personally and professionally.  Nicole Vagle’s post on strengths-based feedback caught my attention, and I thought it had great advice for building our students’ strengths.  Reflecting on her advice, however, took me back to a teaching failure that I will never forget.  This year’s writing will begin with transparency and a story about the important things we can learn from our students.

Her comment stopped me in my tracks.  I had just passed essays back, and one of my honors student moaned, “Ms. Thompson, don’t you ever put anything good on our papers?”  In my mind, helping them to become better writers meant drawing their attention to the areas that could be improved, and even though I thought I had also put positive comments, it obviously was not true for this student.  My improvement started that day, and from that major failure (and that student’s honest feedback), I became a better educator as I got better at acknowledging students’ strengths in their writing.

Here’s why this is so important.  According to research by Susan Brookhart, when students are more confident, they will achieve at higher levels, they will be more open to feedback that helps them improve, and it fosters a sense of possibility (2013).  Isn’t that what all of us want?

From failure comes growth.  Building on students’ strengths is a core belief, and it took a student’s feedback to make me aware of how I could improve.  Thank you, Starsha.  You helped to make me a better teacher.

For more on strengths-based assessment, go to Strength-based Practices Increase Achievement and Confidence.

Onward . . . Reflection on Assessment

It’s the idea of balance that pulls at me as I write this post.  It’s an attempt to bring together ideas from three very separate texts that I’ve read – two of them today.  My key takeaway is that it has solidified my belief that a balanced approach (to just about anything in our lives) is the best method because it is developed from the strengths of various perspectives.  It’s the gold that comes from refining thought.

In Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level, Diane Sweeney presents three coaching models:  student-centered coaching, teacher-centered coaching, and relationship-driven coaching.  Student-centered coaching held the biggest draw for me because it focused on collaboration and using evidence to ensure that our students master the standards.  Teacher-centered left a negative influence because its focus is evaluative — moving teachers toward implementing a program or instructional practice.  Relationship-driven held some interest because the coach provides support and resources, which is something I hope to be able to do this next year.  However, data is rarely used, and “sharing” comes into play with things — technology, textbooks, and programs which strikes me as impersonal.

In a totally unrelated blog post, Carol Black writes about “Children, Learning, and the ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School.”  In it, she relates a personal experience from fifth grade when she shared with her mother that “I just realized that you should never do anything you love for school, because that will make you hate it!”  What the author realized is that the constant scrutiny over the assessment of work, takes the focus away from learning and toward evaluation.  It’s this constant “scrutiny” or assessment that is hurting our kids.  As psychologist Peter Gray puts it, “Evaluation, when it is not asked for, and when it has consequences as it does in school, is a threat. It narrows the mind… it inhibits new learning, new insights, and creative thought—the very processes that some people think school is supposed to promote.” [Italics are my own].  As we move toward our district’s vision for deeper learning, I worry about a conflicting focus on assessment.  Is the answer in finding a better balance in order to reap the benefits of meeting academic standards while still focusing on critical skills and keeping a love of learning alive?

I believe part of the answer comes from Elena Aguilar in her new book Onward:  Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators.  In the appendix, she provides a Habits and Dispositions of Resilient Educators self-assessment which asks about how strongly you feel about that habit or disposition using a 1-5 point scale.  Then, she follows with a reflection:

  1.  What, if anything, surprise you after doing this self-assessment?
  2. Based on this self-assessment, what implications are there for how you engage with this book?
  3. In which habit do you most want to make growth?

What fabulous questions!  It’s the “What?”, “So What?”, “Now What?” formula that can drive any action plan.  When we’re clear about where we were on the self-assessment, and we have to look at the implications for practice, how can we not grow?  Why don’t we turn over more of the assessing to our students using something as simple as a three-question reflection?