Why Feedback and Self-Direction Go Hand in Hand

By Art Costa, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

As we confront the tests of life, we begin to realize our potentials, talents, beliefs, values, styles, and tastes. With age, we continue to discover new talents, insights, and ways to apply what we have learned to the challenges of the future.

Through experimentation, feedback, persistent practice, risk taking, failures, and successes, we continue to discover our strengths and weaknesses. We hone our likes and dislikes, our proclivities and aversions, our capacities and limits, our inclinations and avoidances, our passions and apathies.

As we consider our ultimate aim for students, it is for them to discover more and more about themselves as they grow and develop.  As they learn, we want them to form an identity of self-directed persons who know how to manage themselves in a variety of situations –– many of which are ambiguous. Students need to know enough about themselves to be able to make wise decisions as they navigate through the turbulence of a rapidly changing environment.

Such self-discovery is facilitated by both internal and external feedback that is constructive, well-timed, and provides sound information about performances. However, after years of being judged by others with tests, performance checklists and grades, students come to perceive assessments as a process that others, outside themselves, inflict upon them — teachers, parents, test makers; and later supervisors, bosses and administrators.

Thus self-evaluation becomes a distorted, foreign, sometimes frightening and intimidating process from which students tend to recoil.

For some students, feedback represents a threat to what they think they know. Students:

  • fear that new information will get in the way of their work rather than help them to improve their work.
  • confront new learning opportunities with fear rather than mystery and wonder.
  • seem to feel better when they have the certainty of knowing rather than the uncertainty of learning new ideas.
  • grow to defend their biases, beliefs, and storehouses of knowledge rather than inviting the unknown, the creative and the inspirational.
  • may be afraid that if they admit their ignorance or confusion, peers and teachers will think they are failures, and that they are inadequate or stupid.

Being certain and closed gives them comfort while being ambiguous, doubtful, and open gives them fear. However, when we are closed, we are not open to new questions, new ideas, and discovering our own new capacities and innovations.

If a main purpose of education is to produce thoughtful learners who are continuously learning over time, then teachers must help students increase their desire for and skills of receiving and acting on feedback from a variety of internal and external sources.

The coaching part of a teacher’s job description is to provide opportunities where students can:

  • generate data about performances and self-evaluate;
  • learn how to compare their current performance to previous performances;
  • learn how to analyze their performance in terms of personal goals for effective performance; and
  • seek feedback on their work — always growing, always learning, always modifying and improving themselves.

We want to develop students’ confidence and competence to seize problems, situations, tensions, conflicts and circumstances as valuable opportunities to learn.

The richer and more detailed the data, the greater efficacy of our reflection, decisions and self-evaluation based on the data. For too long, adults alone have been practicing that skill on behalf of students. If students graduate from our schools still dependent upon others to tell them when they are adequate, good, or right, then we’ve missed the whole point of what education is about.

We need to gradually shift that responsibility to students where they develop the capacity to monitor and modify themselves.

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