Thanks for the Feedback

Why do we dwell on criticism buried among an abundance of compliments and affirmations?

Feedback on a person’s performance which is then used as a basis for improvement is a natural element of some professions. Take sports as an example. An athlete has a constant stream of feedback to contend with. Whether this is the coach giving instructions from the sidelines, the roar of the crowd, the morale of team members, the look on the face of the opponent, or the physiological data collected on their cadence, heart rate or recovery time between hard efforts. Further feedback is then delivered post-game by watching game footage and analyzing positions, technique, work rate, commitment to the contest, adherence to the team plan or general game sense. Feedback is a natural part of being a sports person. If we put in a poor performance we want to know why and learn from it.

Not all professions are this open to feedback, however. Educators respond to feedback in different ways and with varying levels of comfort. An adverse reaction to challenging feedback can challenge our sense of who we are and what we stand for. Our identities are tied to a story that we tell ourselves. When feedback is received that challenges this story, our emotional bands are stretched and the elasticity of our emotions factor into the way this feedback affects us both physically and emotionally.

Thankfully, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, outline how receiving (and giving) feedback is a skill that can be developed by cultivating a curious disposition, active listening techniques, and adopting an empathetic system thinking approach to conversation.

When we receive feedback we can question the substance of the feedback itself and thus dismiss it as wrong or unhelpful but often issues arise when we question the motives of the feedback giver. Our previous interactions, their credibility, experience, expertise and our level of trust all influence whether we can disentangle the feedback giver from the feedback itself. Heen and Stone invite their readers to recognize that we each bring a unique frame of reference and usually only see part of the problem (the part that the other person is contributing). Systems thinking corrects for the skew in any single perspective. We can seek to understand by asking questions like, “Tell me more” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Can you give me an example?” or even “Can you help me get perspective on your feedback?”

One of my big takeaways from the book is the fact that we often have multiple issues present in any feedback conversation that confuse, disorient and lead to conflict. When this occurs we need to be explicit and signpost that this is the case with a statement like, “I think that there are two topics here. Let’s discuss each topic fully, but separately, as both are important. Ok. Let’s loop back to the start and start with the first topic.”

I found this book to be a great compliment to the work that I am doing in the Growth Coaching Accreditation Program and highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to further develop their ability to give and receive feedback.

CLRI Annual Report 2017

The Centre for Learning, Research & Innovation (CLRI) is a joint venture between The Geelong College, Deakin University and The Geelong College Foundation.

The Centre aims to provide people with the ability to affect beneficial change within their schools, institutions and organisations. We engage in research projects and create professional development opportunities, by recognising learning as an active, dynamic behaviour that emerges from interactions between the human brain and the social world.

Our 2017 Annual Report is now available.

Learn about what we accomplished in 2017 and our plans for the future.

Knowledge is Important

I teach a Year 8 interdisciplinary subject called F1 in Schools. Over the length of a semester, students have the opportunity to design a Formula 1 racing vehicle using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, engage in mathematical modelling, analyze computational fluid dynamics by using a virtual wind tunnel and then construct their design using both additive and subtractive manufacturing technologies. The program inspires students to learn about engineering, physics, aerodynamics, design, manufacturing, leadership, teamwork, media skills and project management, and then apply them in practical, creative and exciting ways.

I have written about this program before here.

Last Thursday I had the best class of the year and funnily enough, it had very little to do with F1. The students came into class talking about the movie Interstellar. I decided to gently engage the twenty-five boys in some questioning. This led to a discussion about philosophy and science and the difference between classical and modern physics. I introduced them to Newton’s main ideas and how we believed these to be universally true until Einstein came along. We spoke about Einstein’s theory of special relativity. I asked them to research the Twin Paradox. We discussed gravity, the law of addition of velocities, the speed of light, wave/particle duality, the difference between a scalar and a vector, and the nature of time and space. The students discussed the consequences of space travel, colonization of planets and the implications for our current notions of family.

Engagement was off the charts. I am talking about palpable energy as students furiously engaged in conversation and debate with each other, only pausing momentarily to ask me another question before having their minds blown as they discussed possibilities, scenarios and consequences with each other. We probably covered a semesters worth of university-level physics in fifty minutes. These are not your typical boys who are interested in science either. One boy asked if we could continue this conversation for the last few weeks instead of F1 in Schools. Three boys I walked past on my way to the common room were explaining special relativity to other students in the yard in a passionate and animated way. A group of five boys came back to me at the end of the day excitedly explaining to me that because it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to the earth, that in fact, we were living in the past.

I could deviate in this way and engage students in this conversation because I had the pre-requisite knowledge and expertise to do so. But I also did this because I know the value of responding to student interest. A curriculum can never be something that you just pick up off the shelf and rigidly enforce or impose on kids. You need to be fluid and responsive, not set and rigid.

Knowledge is important. I believe in teachers having expertise. I believe in purposeful periods of direct instruction. I also believe in inquiry. Theories of learning should inform our pedagogy and a constructivist perspective most certainly develops a disposition of active inquiry through both a learning and teaching lens. Guiding students in developing a deep understanding through inquiry is an incredibly sophisticated and nuanced approach to teaching and one that can only be achieved by having access to stores of knowledge in specific domains.

Off to talk more Physics with the eager and inquiring young minds of tomorrow.

Pause and Reflect

Around this time each year, I pause and reflect on the goals that I set back in January. I have realized for the first time that I actually follow quite a predictable pattern. With different projects at various stages of development and implementation, plans and initiatives underway for the following year, recruitment and the constant flux of relationship management across the school, the weight of the year can tend to weigh heavily on your mind. You can fall into a trap of letting the small number of negatives outweigh the many positives.

As I review the goals I had set for myself, I realize that I have achieved far more than I even set out to achieve. Given that I usually set quite ambitious goals, this period of reflection is a chance to look back on what I have accomplished in the past twelve months and to give some much-needed self-congratulations.

I look back on the successes (and failures), the wins, the moments of learning and the significant areas of personal and professional progress. As I reflect, I ask myself what I would do differently given the opportunity. I do not dwell on it, however. I pause and savour the moment, and then move on.

Each year I collect some data to help inform my future directions. In 2015, I completed the Genos Emotional Intelligence (EI) 360 survey, the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People 360 survey and a self-assessment using Paul Browning’s rubric for assessing trust and transformational leadership practice. I also used this rubric in 2016 and 2017. I have scheduled a Genos EI 360 survey for February of 2018 and it will be interesting to see how I have progressed.

My goals this year were on three areas – Developing Relationships and Trust, Enhancing Learning Culture and Personal Development and are listed below.

Developing Relationships and Trust

  • Visit classes for thirty minutes every day
  • Attend morning tea daily rotating across the three schools
  • Timetable fortnightly meetings with key people
  • Spend time equally across the three schools
  • Empower the Leaders of Learning and build a cohesive team to lead the different priorities of the three schools
  • Embed the GROWTH model of coaching into my daily interactions with others
  • Ensure accountability by always having actions after each meeting or conversation
  • Ensure graduates are supported throughout the VIT full registration process
  • Seek ways to affirm and thank staff members, publicly and privately, every day

Enhancing Learning Culture

  • Continue to provide permission to innovate
  • Engage staff in a managed process for focused collaborative review and improvement using both our Vision for Learning and Rubicon Atlas
  • Streamline and improve professional learning administrative processes
  • Develop a leadership development program informed by a coaching way of being
  • Drive the Centre for Learning, Research & Innovation’s strategic priorities and vision of success (See CLRI strategic plan)
  • Implementation of a new LMS that supports ongoing assessment and reporting and pastoral and data tracking across the College
  • Support staff in further developing an understanding of a Reggio-inspired approach in the Junior School
  • Develop the year seven model of contemporary team teaching and learning
  • Examine VCE data and engage key staff in determining an improvement strategy
  • Lead an elective review at year nine
  • Enhance experiential learning opportunities
  • Continue to drive Digital Portfolio rollout strategy
  • Meeting structure review in conjunction with Heads of School and Leaders of Learning
  • Develop an improved process for the placement of pre-service teachers across the College.
  • Conduct twenty-four recorded video observations of teaching practice and engage staff in dialogue

Personal Development

  • Sit colloquium for PhD candidature and begin collecting data
  • Collect 50% of data for PhD
  • Gain Growth Coaching International Accreditation
  • Train for a base level of fitness for Nepal Trek in December
  • Spend more quality time with family

Whilst I am happy with the progress made in most of these areas this year, being visible remains the biggest challenge of having a multi-campus role. One strategy for being visible that I recently come across was a Principal who every morning writes and hand delivers birthday cards to every student and staff member. A big commitment but one that quickly becomes non-negotiable through community expectation.

What strategies do you use to remain visible?

Do you have a user manual?

Transparency about how we work and learn, our preferences, values, beliefs, likes and dislikes, ultimately shortens the learning curve for your colleagues by making explicit the things that often take many years to learn through trial and error. A critical and candid self-reflection via the creation of a user manual is one way to practice radical candour and transparent leadership. A user manual is not static; rather it is a living piece of writing that captures a moment in time and articulates that you will always be a work in progress.

Inspired by the work of Adam Bryant and Kim Scott, this self-reflective exercise can serve as a prompt in identifying specific areas for personal growth, or it could be an activity a leadership team performs together as a discussion starter on how to become a more effective team.

Bryant recommends asking yourself questions like,

“Which activities give me energy, and which deplete me? What are my unique abilities, and how do I maximize the time I spend expressing them? What do people misunderstand about me, and why?”

Here is my first attempt.

I used to wag finger painting in Kinder so I guess I have always been a bit rebellious.

I identify with the tenants of progressive education but believe that there is always a place to learn directly from the instruction of others.

Your teaching style matters less to me than your attitude and dispositions toward the profession.

I enjoy exercise. In fact, I need it. Often I will squeeze in a run or a gym session on my lunch break. I make this a priority by scheduling it into my day and find that I am 100% more productive in the afternoons if I do.

I am constantly reflecting and learning. I value doing over perfection. I do not always know what I am doing and sometimes lack confidence, but I accept that, and just let my bias toward action guide me. I am committed to continuous improvement.

I have a diverse range of interests and believe that one of the best things you can bring to the workplace is a multitude of various and varied life experiences.

I believe in giving people freedom to do what they do best and then support in whatever way I can.

Intellectual stimulation energizes me. I enjoy turning challenges into opportunities. I enjoy working with people who are open to ideas and can explore possibilities.

Saying ‘thank you’ goes a long way.

I do not have patience for over-analysis of non-important issues and sometimes being in a discussion about semantics frustrates me. I also dislike grandstanding. If you have an issue come and see me and we can work through it. Do not wait until a public forum to air your concerns or issues for the first time.

I am fiercely loyal but if my confidence is broken it is hard to repair. Be open and honest, communicate with me and treat people around you in a friendly and professional way. When communicating I like to get to the point. I also like others to do the same. Please don’t talk in riddles. Say what you mean. Be yourself. Challenge and disagree with me because I value this. But please be respectful.

Communicating face to face with me is preferred, but sometimes if you require a thoughtful and considered response, an email can also work. I appreciate people telling me what I need to know, not what you think I want to hear.

I’m often working on many different projects so appreciate help making sure all the details are covered, and flagging for me any that need my attention.

Have empathy for others, as you never know the struggles they are going through.

I value difference and believe in diversity. High functioning teams have a range of experiences, expertise, skillsets and mindsets.

I want every member of my team to feel valued and empowered. I want you to feel supported in your quest to be a better version of yourself, because I believe we can all be better. 

This is not exhaustive by any stretch and still needs a bit of work, but it is something I look forward to revising and revisiting regularly.