In Feedback and Professional Development

Schools attempting to improve teacher quality or develop their staff without implementing a system for student feedback are ignoring one of the most powerful and effective tools available.

One of the biggest challenges we face in enhancing professional practice in education is behaviour change: Less than 30% of teachers say their professional development actually changes the way they teach, and despite being one of the most well-studied and well-researched fields on Earth, there is still significant gap between what works in theory, and what happens in classrooms.

Undeniably, if we want to drive improvement in our outcomes, behaviour change is our challenge. And we suggest that the evidence shows there is no greater accelerator of driving change than feedback… and in education, student feedback is perhaps the most valuable part of the equation.

Why feedback?

There should be no debate as to the value of feedback in improving outcomes. Since John Hattie’s comprehensive meta-analysis of ‘what works’ in driving student outcomes, “feedback” has been empirically established as the single biggest driver of improvement. Given the persistent recurrence of “feedback” as a vital component of successful learning and development across fields, there is little cause to question whether or not the value of feedback would translate to be as valuable for teachers as it is for their students. And, indeed, evidence shows that to be true.

The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project has found that students ‘know an effective class when they’re in one’, and that student perception surveys are reliable predictors of achievement gains. In fact, the MET project found that student surveys were better predictors of achievement gains than classroom observations by other teachers.[1]

Grattan Institute research has found that well-implemented feedback systems can improve teacher effectiveness by up to 30%.[2]

Yet a range of responses – from active resistance, to passive scepticism, to administrative inertia – persist, where energetic change should take its place.

So why are some schools being so slow to implement student feedback, despite the clear evidence of its effectiveness, and the ability of some schools to power ahead?

There are a number of reasons; in this short article, we’ll touch on the four most common barriers – and have to overcome them. The barriers are – legacy, complexity, fear and ego.

The gravity of success – aka. The fine line between experience and baggage

The first issue we often encounter is that teachers and schools are already doing a really good job. And as management theorist Tom Peters famously said – good is the enemy of great.

Gary Kasparov, nine-times chess grand master, poetically described the biggest challenge he faced in consistently winning tournaments. He said the third tournament was the hardest of the nine to win, because in the first two tournaments, no one took him seriously, but in the third tournament, the competition had wised up, and he had to ‘unlearn’ every strategy that won him the first two.

He described his challenge as “escaping the gravity of his own success”. This is a common first barrier to implementing student feedback – because people feel (often rightly!) that their current approach is not fundamentally disastrous, they lack the impetus to implement a system to improve.

We suggest this is not good enough. If we are going to spend millions of dollars a year (as we do) on professional development, the least we should ask is that it makes a measurable difference.

Complexity is the enemy of action

An understandable barrier to the implementation of student feedback systems is the perception that they are complex, unwieldy, costly and ultimately hard. This perception is often reinforced because schools unknowingly pick the hardest possible approach to implementing these systems.

Approaches like designing their own surveys, having teachers responsible for administration, asking a head of learning to manage the process off a Google document or Excel spreadsheet … these are all approaches that are logistical and administrative nightmares, and leave teachers and leaders frustrated at the system and lack of results.

…think about it – if you had to build and service your own car, hardly anyone would drive!

But the reality is that picking the right tool and engaging the right partners alleviates almost all of these frustrations. The fact of the matter is I’ve seen designed and implemented student feedback systems (that also happen to include peer observation, self-assessment and goal-setting) that are cheaper than the approaches to professional development that they replace.

It’s just about picking the right tools. And given that making things easy is a core rule of driving change, this is essential.

Paralysed with fear

Imagine you walk in the front door of your house, and your partner says to you: “honey, I’ve got some feedback for you”. What’s your first response? We all respond the same way – on a spectrum of trepidation to terror! – and why should we expect our staff to respond differently?

Feedback can be daunting. We are naturally afraid of both the process (what might people say about me?) and the use (what might my leaders do with this feedback?).

It’s functionally useless simply expecting people to not be wary of feedback – especially from our students, who see us at our best and worst. But we have to manage around it and a number of things lessen the fear.  Firstly, making it clear that the process is developmental – that results will be used for growth, not punishment. Secondly, implementing the right balance of transparency, anonymity and privacy to ensure people are not exposed to unduly uncomfortable situations. And thirdly, the normalising effect of time: it’s simple exposure, and the more people do it, the more they get used to it.

To that end, it’s worth noting that no school I have ever engaged with has unimplemented a well-run, well-designed process of student feedback. Once people experience how valuable it is, it sticks.

Where there is ego, there is excess

World-renowned cardiac surgeon Devi Shetti has pioneered an approach to heart surgery that is 1/20th the cost, 3 times the efficiency, and substantially safer and more effective than traditional approaches. He was famously asked why, despite all the evidence of its superiority, cost-conscious Western hospitals were not adopting his cheaper, more effective approach.

His answer was instructive for us all: he said “where there is ego, there is excess”. His approaches were simply to challenging (and damaging) to the egos of senior Western health bureaucrats and administrators.

And this is the same barrier we often face in education.  Not arrogance, but ego. So much of our identity as professionals is tied up in our experience, and our current way of doing things. To receive feedback on ourselves as individuals – our effectiveness, our quality, our weaknesses – cuts to the heart of our ego – our sense of self.

Overcoming basic human inclination – to protect ourselves, our ways of doing things, and our sense of identity – is perhaps the most central challenge to educators in implementing systems of feedback (especially student feedback). It is also the measure of a good leader – the ability to inspire people to push through the discomfort, buy-into the reality that nothing worth doing is ever easy, and grow into the best versions of themselves that they can become.

Dom Thurbon is founder of Karrikins Group, and a director of Educator Impact. He has led design of education and behaviour change programs that reach nearly one million students across over 3,000 schools each year. He sits on the UNESCO-chaired Education Advisory Group of Child & Youth Finance International, and his education clients include the NSW Department of Education, the Association of Heads of Higher Independent Schools, the Australian Council of Education Leaders, and the Australian Institute of Teaching & School Leadership, as well as companies such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Lexus and De Beers.


[1] Measures of Effective Teaching Project, Student Perception Surveys, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2011

[2] Ben Jensen, Better Teacher Appraisal and Feedback, Grattan Institute 2011

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