In Feedback and Professional Development

As founder and Chief Creative Officer of a behaviour change agency, I’m no stranger to the challenges of designing systems, processes and programs that make change happen. Through my experience of working with the leadership growth network at AITSL, rolling out behaviour change programs in schools, and delivering a leadership- focused seminar for leading corporations around Australia – a clear theme has emerged around the importance of making change happen through feedback.

In this article I want to share some insights with leaders who are trying to catalyse change in their school – be those changes around teacher quality, professional learning, strategic planning or other areas of importance in their school.

Feedback – the gap between ‘getting it’ and ‘doing it’

There is universal acknowledgement that feedback is important. The ubiquitous John Hattie showed it to be the primary driver of student outcomes, the Harvard School of Education found that quality feedback for teachers can increase effectiveness by as much as 30%, and Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute argues accurately that feedback must be a key component of driving genuine change in teaching practice.

But I would go further than simply saying it is ‘important’.

I would argue that if we are serious about making real change, we have to get equally serious about feedback. In fact, I would suggest that change is made exponentially more difficult (perhaps even prohibitively difficult) in the absence of a culture of robust and meaningful feedback, at all levels.

Nonetheless, genuinely robust systems of 360-degree feedback are surprisingly rare, and there is still a real theory-practice gap. Below, I highlight four reasons why feedback (with particular emphasis on 360-degree feedback for teachers) must underpin the behaviour change strategies of school leaders.

1. Assessing our impact on others is difficult

Any leader who has gone through a 360-degree feedback process can tell you how confronting it is the first time you do it. What almost always surfaces is a disconnect between how people see themselves, and how others see them. I call the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us ‘the perception gap’.

Interestingly, EI’s teacher feedback program indicates that the pattern holds for classroom teachers, too. Across a sample space of hundreds of teachers and thousands of students, teacher self-assessment of their pedagogical and instructional effectiveness is fundamentally different from the assessment of those who watch them teach, and most critically it is generally wildly different from the perception of students in their classes. Sometimes self-assessment is harsher, sometimes more positive, but almost never identical to the perception of others.

The sage transformation guru, Dr. Peter Fuda, artfully argues that this gap comes because we judge ourselves by our intent, not by our impact (even though, ironically, we usually judge others by their impact, not their intent). Feedback is our only real mechanism for overcoming this perception gap, and without it we are slaves to our own inaccurate, biased perception.

Without feedback, therefore, most change agendas can’t even get agreement on a need for change, let alone actually make change happen.

2. We don’t know how good we already are

One of the unintended consequences we’ve found of comprehensive 360-degree feedback in schools is that previously unknown ‘champions’ emerge. That is, we find that through a process of feedback, individuals’ strengths that were previously unknown within the school or amongst peers – indeed, sometimes even unknown to an individual themselves! – get brought to the surface.

We worked with one school where the feedback identified both a substantial aggregate weakness across their teaching cohort in creating positive student relationships, and also highlighted a number of teachers who were universally acknowledged as amazing at this. That is – the process diagnosed the school-wide issue, and identified the internal champions who could help others improve in this area.

So feedback doesn’t just diagnose what needs to change, a robust process can also help identify who can help us fix the problems, and how we might go about it.

3. Leaders need evidence to support their intuition

When it comes to making the case for change, nothing helps a leader like evidence. I remember sitting in a debrief with a principal and their leadership team whose teachers had just participated in EI’s 360-degree feedback program. When we looked at the patterns in strengths and areas for improvement, the Principal commented: “Well, I just won the bet! I knew those would be our strengths and weaknesses”.

As the school HR Director pointed out while still sitting around the table: “… and now we actually have evidence to help people understand why we need to change some things”.

That is, the feedback system took the change agenda away from being something they were doing ‘because the Principal thought it was a good idea’, and turned it into something they were doing ‘because the evidence shows it’s something we need to do’. This helped them lessen the resistance of the detractors within the school, and make the case for implementing change.

4. Collaboration is king

Finally, we know collaboration drives performance improvement, innovation and engagement. We’ve seen this evidence across all industries – the IBM Global CIO Survey, for instance, showed that 80% of innovation in organisation was linked to spontaneous and unstructured collaboration between staff, while only 20% was linked to deliberate R&D… amazing figures!

If we want to remove the ‘private practice’ perception from education (that teachers teach behind closed doors, and don’t collaborate), then the best possible way of doing that is starting to get people comfortable with giving and receiving feedback. Making this feedback formative (rather than summative), and about development, not performance management, is the important first step.

Making change happen

As always, though, the real challenge is actually making it happen. If we want to move beyond talking about feedback and get to actually implementing it to help us drive change, we need simple systems and easy processes that are designed using best-practice principles in behaviour change.

This article has focused on the four big ‘whys’ for implementing teacher-focused feedback systems as a tool of change for schools.

Want to know more?

For more information about Educator Impact, or to learn more about how we combine our 360-degree teacher feedback, self-reflection, evidence based goal setting and evaluation functions into one streamlined tool, please do not hesitate to contact us today.

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