March 22, 2023
By Mike Hanas, Furthering Leadership, and Renee Prillaman, Renee Prillaman Coaching & Consulting
Tired of acronyms, alliteration, and other attempts at attention-catching organizing principles like “The Three C’s?”
Thanks for the feedback.
We’re not aware of a single best approach to providing—much less making good use of—feedback; in fact, we’re convinced that what works best is to think in terms of a process, principles, and a reminder or two of purpose. (Yes, we also considered “The Three P’s” as our working construct.) In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll use three C’s to frame our approach: Culture, Context, and Content. And we’ll name a handful of actionable steps that we think make a difference.
A school culture that is animated by trust, confidence, and a shared commitment to growth makes the acts of giving and receiving feedback commonplace and ultimately empowering, even if at times uncomfortable. And modeling matters!
An independent school upper school head with whom we worked shifted the relationship the faculty and staff had regarding feedback by seeking feedback herself, on an ongoing basis. Her approach may not have been original, but her commitment to it was—and the result was transformative. At the conclusion of every faculty meeting, everyone was asked to complete a feedback form asking how effectively she guided the meeting process, how well the group adhered to previously defined ways of collaborating, and how effective they had been in completing agenda items. Each week (a big commitment!), the upper school head reported back to the staff the results of the questionnaire, including her plans for how to address concerns raised in the feedback. Her expressions of gratitude for the feedback and her willingness to adapt her own behavior and approach created a trusting foundation for everyone to receive feedback and grow from it—she was shaping culture.
Looking for a first step that supports a culture ready for growth? Emphasize the importance of—and our openness as supervisors to—feedback that flows both ways, e.g., “Rest assured, I’ll ask you what I’m doing that supports you and what gets in your way.”
A thriving school culture provides the foundation for intentionally designed contexts for a range of types of feedback. Setting aside for a moment those occasions of urgency that merit an immediate response, we want to emphasize first the possibilities created by groundwork—specifically, relationship-building ahead of designated feedback points. Obvious, right? And yet easy to forget or to be confident that we’ve already done enough to establish.
Rather than take anything for granted, we can initiate steps like the following to lay such groundwork:
The key to these context suggestions is the principle and spirit of creating (together!) a community of practice, learning in partnership and community that furthers growth for everyone.
Investing the time to develop a transparent and well-defined context guides success. It feels important here to name a tension we’ve experienced in practice and in writing this essay, namely the relationship between feedback and evaluation. Make no mistake—we see them as related. That said, we are convinced that any formal evaluation process will be made easier and more effective when a regular flow of deliberately framed feedback animates learning in a trusting culture.
Content: SBI and Feedforward
As educators, most of us have lived through the dreaded perfunctory checklists that accompany one-shot observations. A number of researchers and teacher educators, perhaps most notably Charlotte Danielson and Linda Darling-Hammond, have helped us to see that effective feedback is focused on growth, includes observations across the school year, and is tied to professional development. In addition, it places the person being evaluated at the center of the process in ways that include their own reflections and self-assessment. Those reflections and self-assessments, when added to the input supervisors have to offer, can provide powerful fodder for growth. If we have established a professional culture grounded in a growth mindset, a cycle of reflection, goal setting, and review can simply be experienced as the norm—better yet, a norm that feeds rather than depletes us.
If the central intention in giving feedback is furthering skill, wisdom, and insight, we think a helpful tool is Feedforward. In this model, a person is asked to present a change they’d like to make and then listen to suggestions of ways to make that change, without immediately responding.
Imagine a scenario in which a group of middle school science teachers are gathered for a feedforward process. One teacher has identified a need to better support students with accommodation plans in his sixth grade science class. Using the feedforward approach, he begins by naming the behavior he’d like to change. “I am having difficulty designing assessments that students with accommodation plans can successfully complete.” He then asks his colleagues for two suggestions to make a positive change. He listens and takes notes on the suggestions without commenting on the suggestions. He simply offers, “Thank you.” His colleagues reply, “You’re welcome.” Then others in the group share behaviors they’d like to change in their own work, following the same process.
A culture and context grounded in growth and future-based thinking is easier said than done, right, especially when the feedback we need to deliver is negative or at least constructively critical? Challenging conversations can provide some of the richest and most important opportunities for growth, but they sometimes call for a structured and directed approach.
One tool, advocated by our friends at Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) among others, is the application of an Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) lens to conversations that could be problematic. This lens calls for us as deliverers of negative feedback to focus on the Situation (a specific situation), the Behavior that has caused concern or more, and the Impact. For example, imagine a situation in which you, as a school leader, have made a decision regarding a controversial issue. A parent asked their child’s teacher about your decision, and the teacher indicated that she would not have taken the same approach that you did. Your feedback with this teacher might take shape like this:
Attention to Culture, Context, and Content can provide a rich foundation for giving and receiving feedback. Making it easy or comfortable may always prove a stretch, as it should be, given what we know about the learning that matters most—for students and adults. If the three C’s are well developed, the possibilities include not only steady improvement and greater success, but also (even) transformation. At our best we never stop learning, and when we learn like crazy, we can adapt as needed in response to anything. Life during the time of COVID has reminded us—sometimes painfully—how important learning and adapting can be, especially in community. Our ability to function effectively as colleagues and members of teams is more important than ever. The creation of deliberately framed spaces for giving and receiving feedback amplifies trust, confidence, and growth—all of which serve to better ready us for whatever comes next and to further our ongoing work with our students and one another.
Please join Mike and Renee for their 2023 SAIS Summer Conference session, Feedback, Feedforward, and Furthering, June 26-28 in Sarasota, FL. Session attendees will engage with a feedback framework that emphasizes context, apply framework principles to their own experiences, and learn new tools to put into practice immediately.