When it comes to teaching, I’m a pretty old school kind of guy. Many teachers, and I count myself among them, tend to teach the way we were taught, especially if we were generally successful in school. For me and I would guess most others of my generation, we accepted what the teacher told us to do, and did things their way. If we didn’t, we either got bad grades, got in trouble, or both, and we could count on negative consequences as a result when we got home. A lot of research and reforms have come to education since then, many of them good. Among the positive change is the recognition that not all students learn the same, and even more importantly, teachers can be guided by their students on the best ways to instruct individual in a class.
The issue isn’t just whether a student is a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner, nor is it just which of the multiple intelligences is a student’s strength or weakness. No, the issue also must include how a student responds, manages and utilizes his or her internal world of emotions, physical health, language, cognition, relationships with others, and self-worth. These all affect achievement in school and are separate from learning style. Many if not most times, the condition of any of these can only be known by soliciting student feedback. Often times, this kind of feedback will only be offered to a teacher with whom the student has developed and trusting relationship, so relationship building must precede the effect use of student feedback to effectively improve teaching and learning.
It is important to understand that the type of feedback I am writing about is focused on making the learning situation for the student better. I am not referring to student reflections on negative behavior. While such reflections may have their place and helping a student realize that he or she could have handled a situation in a more positive way, and learning what they way might be for next time, improving the learning environment for that student probably will remove the reason the student acted negatively in the first place. For example, if a student is struggling to stay focused and is becoming distracted and engaging in off-task behavior, and if usual strategies for redirection have been ineffective through the class, feedback from that student could be a successful tact.
The teacher might slip the student a note that in effect says, “Today I was pleased to notice that you tried to complete your work. I also noticed that even so, you became distracted from your work and ended up not finishing. How can I help you overcome the distractions so you can finish your work?” A note like this is personal because it is about something specific to that one student, it shows that you noticed that child, and that you care about his or her success enough to seek them out and work for a solution that will bring better results. It is positive because it acknowledges a success (effort), and offers support in making improvement. It avoids negative consequences for being distracted and off-task, and replaces them with positive action to replace the off-task behavior with something more productive and ultimately rewarding.
There are also times, perhaps once every six weeks or so, when seeking feedback from an entire class can be effective and helpful. Mendler (2000) suggests that “questions like the following can lead to helpful information.
- What can I do to be a better teacher for you?
- How can I help you be successful?
- Two things I say or do that you think I should continue doing are ________________.
- Two things I say or do that you wish I would do less of are _______________________.
If students answer these questions anonymously, the results can be analyzed as data, with the most frequently given answers driving changes or reinforcing current practice in instruction. If students answer these questions and put their names on their papers, then the results can be used to differentiate instruction for individuals. Students will be willing to put their names to their answers if a relationship of trust has been established between students and teacher.
There is also much good that can come from just observing groups of students at work. For example, there may be a small group of students in a class who typically are less engaged than the others, who tend to want to socialize rather than stay on-task, or who simply refuse to do assigned tasks. By observing these students over several class meetings during which they are asked to do different types of learning activities, it is possible to observe them becoming more engaged in certain types of activities than others. In a music classroom, some students may work diligently at a response to music activity that is primarily writing, where as those same students may be reticent to play or sing music. From this observation, it may be possible to replace one kind of response (demonstrate by performing) with another kind of response (explain in writing) as the means by which those student demonstrate learning. Then, during subsequent lessons, the teacher continues to build on the strength (writing) while gradually building confidence and competence in the weakness (performing) until the latter also becomes a viable kind of response.
Typically, with a group of students who tend to talk too much to each other, the teacher would respond by separating those students. However, if that is the group that prefers verbal responding to performance responding, it may be more effective to put them together and give them the opportunity to use their preference (talking) to verbally respond and then perhaps record their responses in writing. This is not to say that unwanted talking should be encouraged, only that it is often possible to channel it into a more productive purpose.
It really all comes back to building relationships. The longer one teaches, the more difficult it can become to put ourselves in our students place. But we were all elementary, middle and high school students at one time. When we felt unsure of ourselves, how did we get helpful encouragement from others? What did they say to us or do that put us at ease and freed us up to proceed with confidence and to succeed? When we walk into a room of peers, even peers who are familiar to us or friends, what do other people do to make us feel accepted and comfortable? Are students doing those things for each other in our classroom? Do our students feel that our classroom is a socially safe place for them to be and in which to learn and even take risks such as volunteering an answer, or even singing for the class? We can obtain answers to these questions and more by gathering student feedback from students who are convinced they can trust us with their struggles and obstacles. That is the necessity of building trusting relationships, and the payoff that student feedback from trusting students offers.
Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington: Solution Tree.