Sunday, September 30, 2012

"I and Thou" Relationships: The Origins of Experience-based feedback

The last blog post explored grading as a form of feedback, and the nature of its insufficiency's.

But that post has led me to think about two questions--one, where did I first get my understanding of what really good feedback was supposed to look like? and two, what do I think experience-based feedback should look like?

In my first years of teaching I remember walking into the wood-paneled English office with its huge bay windows looking out onto the main campus, and, more times than not, there would be Joe, the veteran teacher chatting with a colleague while his pen flew across a piece of paper. Joe was late to secondary school teaching, but he had been a renowned college professor and seemed to embody the idea of the consummate old pro. What was most remarkable to me, however, was that he could carry on a conversation while correcting a student's essay. Not only that, the sheer volume of feedback he supplied was staggering. Perhaps fittingly, he called them "strafing runs," and the red ink certainly flowed freely on every page. To say the least I and the other young teachers were envious, and in subsequent conversations I came to learn that he had been a newspaper editor in his early days, and this was where he had learned how to perform these "runs." It had been out of necessity, the paper needed to get out, and the corrections had to be made.

But it wasn't just Joe who was engaged in this activity; we all had a mentality that we were "correcting" a set of papers. This was the way we described what we were doing. I am not sure I ever heard the words feedback or assessment in those days; you graded papers and gave tests. By definition, we were framing the issue of feedback as being defined by pointing out failures and creating competitive, comparative, hierarchical rankings. And in our own hierarchical world of teachers, Joe was our king of feedback.

The other day we had one of our monthly teacher workshop sessions where people get together and present something they have been working on or just pondering. This past Thursday's session was two English teachers presenting a literature review of the research on feedback that they had done over the summer; it was assiduously researched and  beautifully delivered. Feedback has been a hot topic for researchers in the last decade or so, and there is a great deal written about it; the ASCD even devoted their last magazine issue to the topic. Formative assessment with "dollops of feedback" , as John Hattie puts it, has been shown to be one of the most highly effective measures in increasing student performance.

Composition Chronicle cartoon
There is so much in these feedback studies, and yet they often address only strategic considerations. I am interested in how and why feedback becomes "transformational" for the student AND for the teacher; that would give me a clue as to how to create experience-based feedback.

The person who gave me my first hint in this quest was Austrian born, Israeli philosopher named Martin Buber. In 1923 Buber published a famous essay on human relationships called "Ich and Du." In this piece, Buber posited that here were two main choices we make in defining our existence. The first he called "I-It." When we make this choice we see everything as an object to be used. Literally, we objectify the world. Jean Paul Sartre made a similar point in his famous dictum, "never treat people like things." When we do that we create an inauthentic relationship that is only utilitarian; we are using people. (This, by the way, is why Sartre hated Manhattan which he called the "Great American Desert.")

But in an "I-Thou" choice we enter into a "living relationship." Buber (and Sartre) hoped that we would choose to do that with all people, but he thought they we could engage in this relationship with everything. "I- It" relationships are all about barriers because they are characterized by distance and engage solely in the act of examining and measuring. An "I-Thou" relationship, I realized, was characterized by dialogue and empathy where the objective was to truly understand what someone else was saying and to engage them in an act of sharing.

If I could think of feedback not as "correcting and grading" (a quintessential "I-It" relationship that evokes paralyzing feelings of judgment), but instead as a form of "creative collaboration," then the feedback that I gave would be potentially transformational both for the student and for me because we would be in dialogue. And this is where I came to see the paradox of experience-based feedback--it fosters the feeling of independence in students by putting them in relationship with others. Freedom is no longer defined as independence, but rather as inter-dependence.

Buber also taught me why I had never really thought "constructive criticism" was effective transformational feedback--it inherently creates an "I-It" relationship because it prejudices the responder with primary power rather than the author. Any kind of criticism always has to do with value; effective experience-based feedback has to do with choices made and meaning created. The value of something has to be secondary when the goal is growth and development.

Experience-based feedback has a hidden value as well, however, in that I now see feedback not as something that I am giving to students, but also something that students are giving to me. Every time I sit down to engage with a set of essays, they telling me so much about what they understand and what they don't, what misconceptions they have and ultimately, what mistakes I have made in designing the assignment. And the effect of this is to change my relationship to them as people as well; we are in this together in dialogue and they are not running for cover from a strafing run.

Coda: In one recent study students, parents, administrators and teachers were asked to name the major influences on student achievement. Ever group, except teachers, said relationships between teachers and students. Teachers cited the child's attitude, home background, school working conditions and student deficiencies. How we define the problem will give some answers, but we better be careful how we define the problem.

However, by getting our feedback to be experience-based we might have the effect of making those student-teacher relationships more what Sartre called "good faith" relationships.

Next blog post?  I think I need to think through the characteristics of experience-based feedback.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Feedback: How Do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

Last month an writer friend of mine gave me a 600 page (well, 599 pages) manuscript of her new novel to comment on. And as we talked on the phone she rattled off a whole series of questions that she wanted me to address--describe my feelings about certain characters, what did I think the structure was and did it work, were there problems with the rhythm in certain sections?

What struck me most immediately was how similar these questions and concerns were to the way I would talk with my soccer players at halftime of each game. Because I could not tell what the game felt like from the sideline (as a spectator or coach you never really completely understand the feeling of what is happening on the field), I had to listen to my players talk for awhile before I could really say anything helpful. As a parallel note, I think we as teachers do not understand what it feels like to be a student--particularly an adolescent student. But we often falsely assume that, because we may understand what it feels like intellectually, we understand it psycho-emotionally.

And then I realized that my players needed to be the first people to set the terms of the dialogue about what had just happened in the first half. Furthermore, if I could train them to ask the right questions about the game, then the quality and effectiveness of my feedback and their play on the field would soar astronomically. As time went on the questions they asked were surprisingly similar to my author friend--what did I think about certain choices they had made at different junctures, did the shape and structure of the team formation hold in the desired way, was there a flow to certain sections of the half?

The key, I realized, was that they had to feel like the authors of the game they were playing, and my job was primarily to make them feel like expert authors. Once that happened, then we could take the field for the second half.

The issue here is feedback, and it is one of the most fundamental and perplexing parts of being a teacher and human being. Just as a way of confirming how important feedback is, it was ranked in the top three "most effective things that matter" in learning development by John Hattie's synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in education. That book is, by the way, a fascinating compilation of data.

The nature of feedback is usually on my mind, but this week it is Parent's Night and I have to present my "grading policy." Because, in many places, that is the currency of the realm in terms of feedback. We can explore how this currency came to be adopted in a later post; in this post I want you to think about how YOU arrive at grades. (This is obviously directed more specifically at people who are teachers, but I think it has other applications as well.)

Decades ago I decided that I would ask all the master teachers in the school I was teaching in (two different schools actually and countless friends who are teachers across the country) how they arrived at the grades they did. What follows below is the compendium of what they come up with as answers. The document below is the one I give out to my students to get their feedback on this process and to open the dialogue about grades and what they are good for and what they are decidedly not good for:

I can tell you what I did discover, and this has held true for every workshop in every school I have ever done this with--no teacher has exactly the same grading policy. Furthermore, it is the rare teacher who is completely transparent to students about all of the factors that go into grading. Finally, there is significant disagreement amongst teachers and schools about what "ought" to be considered when grading. Not surprisingly, my own students never agree on how to arrive at grades for the class. Put yourself through this little exercise and see if anything surprises you.

To: My students
Re: Grading                                                                                                      
How do Teachers Arrive at Grades?

     What follows is an experiment you can run that is based on data that I have been collecting about all of the factors that different teachers use to arrive at the grade you receive.  All of these categories are ones that teachers have told me they use to determine what grade to give to a student.  Or, as some like to say, “the grade the student earned.”

     You can do this yourself and “play teacher.”  Here is how to play—first, you need to assign a percentage weight to each of the following ten (10) categories.  The total has to add up to 100%.  Obviously, different teachers use different percentage weights for different categories.  After you have done that, you need to assign a number to each of the categories indicating the score in each category.  (Example:  Say a teacher decided PERFORMANCE is 50 % and EFFORT is 50 %.  You score a 100 for effort and a 50 for performance; you would receive a 75 for your grade.)

     Now, obviously, this can get a lot more complicated when you have different percentages in six or seven categories.  But, do the best you can.

                        1)   Performance
Both written and oral. Homework and in-class work. Projects, etc.

2) Talent
Reading, writing, thinking, oral communication
                  3)   Development
How much progress has there been?
                  4) Past Experience
What has your experience been relative to past classes you have taught in this subject?
                  5) Comparison
Rank in relation to other people in this class
Rank in relation to the rest of the school
Rank in relation to other people you have taught in other schools

6) Effort
                 Have you done everything assiduously and in “good faith?” Do you put in lots of time?
                  7) What have you learned?
                 Consider what has been “internalized" or gained in “personal experience”
                  8) Motivational Factor
What grade would motivate you best in the future?
                  9) Self-Assessment
How well can you self-assess your own learning?
                  10) Subjective Factor
                   Any other factor that you think should count

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had given feedback to my soccer players at half-time the way I used to give feedback to my students. I envision myself standing in the center of circle of players and spinning around pointing at individual players saying, "A, C, D, B+, C-, B-, D+....." and then "OK, we ready for the second half?" I think I might have been fired for incompetence, and I can't even imagine what Parent's Night would have looked like.

Compare your answers to how you compute grades with your colleagues; I would be interested to see what you discover.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience: Final Thoughts

I thought I was done with the last blog post, but then a couple of ideas and questions popped into my head that seemed to warrant a follow up post on the topic of "judgment being the enemy of experience." I am going to pick up from where the last blog left off...

So, why do we love dichotomies and especially the "like / dislike" formulation? I remember we had an authorship seminar a couple of years ago with Gary Shteyngart discussing his novel, Super Sad True Love Story. One of the ideas the novel explores is a futuristic dystopia where technology has taken on an insidious role in everyone's life. The "apparats" (see cartoon below) that everyone wears around their necks are geared to not only connect everyone to everyone else but to display information about the person wearing the device--especially information that compares them to other people in the same room. As Gary said that day, "I am not sure this is actually futuristic..."

During the course of that dialogue, Gary began to talk about how much he was obsessed with Facebook because he could post something, "and people will like it. I post pictures of every 'wiener dog' (dachshund) I see on the street and immediately lots of people will 'like" what I have put up; it makes me feel good." Because he is such a thoughtful and reflective person, he was able to self-implicate and express why he wanted to do that. Though this fall there was a controversy in the literary world over Gary's blurbing of author's books, so perhaps those have replaced wiener dogs.

Later I would come across a Zadie Smith review of David Fincher's film "The Social Network" in the New York Review of Books. In this piece she explores her own use of Facebook and offers that "for our self-conscious generation (and in this I, and Zuckerberg, and everyone else raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked (her italics) is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment."

So, if Zuckerberg has tapped the unconscious dichotomy of his generation--the instantaneous feel good judgment achieved with the one click of the mouse on a "like" button, the un-learning needed to create genuine, authentic experience may require more attention than we think.

My wife is a social worker who has worked with clients diagnosed with "Borderline Personality Disorder." She has used a treatment developed by Marsha Linehan called "Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)." What interests me most is that it is a technique that combines cognitive behavioral techniques with Buddhist mindfulness practice. From an experience-based learning point of view, this combination allows for a cognitive, spiritual approach whose effectiveness can be tested in the real world time. While I am in no way claiming that the people I work with have borderline personalities, DBT provides penetrating insights into the world of emotion regulation and how we might combat the "like / dislike" problem of premature judgment that seems to be so prevalent.

Truth be told, the mindfulness training from DBT is probably what I strive to do with my students in class almost every day. You increase the chances of a moment becoming an experience if you can pay attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment where you are fully present, but with a perspective on yourself at the same time. But how to achieve this double-consciousness? How do we be both on the dance floor fully engaged and in the balcony watching ourselves dance simultaneously?

In DBT there are mindfulness "What" skills--observation, description and participation--that are the content techniques for being fully present. One key is to practice observation and description that are non-judgmental and to focus your participation on the thing one is doing. Last week, my co-teacher did a fabulous exercise where each student got a lemon to "explore" for five minutes. Then we put all the lemons back in the bag and mixed them up. How many people do you think could identify their particular lemon? When I first heard about this experiment, I guessed about half would be able to. But everyone identified their own lemon-- everyone! Would that we could go through everyday seeing every "lemon" so acutely.

But there are also mindfulness "How" skills-- non-judgmentally, one-mindfully and effectively--that are about the communication of what you are observing and describing. I think what DBT achieves with people who chronically struggle with emotional dysregulation might be a lot closer to what we need than we might think. To be sure, there are differences between the populations, but we, as teachers striving to be experience-based, might have much to learn from Linehan's work.

The concept of judgment has a potential to be dangerous territory for anyone, whether it's someone living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), an experience-based learner, or whoever strives to experience life in all its richness for a number of reasons:

1) We sometimes consider a judgment to be a statement of fact.

2) Judgment is often just a shorthand for a preference (when we label something as "bad" it cuts us off from the dialectical/dialogic part of our experience - which allows us to participate more fully in our experiences).

3) Statements of judgment encourage debate over dialogue (and as we have seen in earlier posts, dialogue is far more likely to enhance experiential learning than debate)

The other day I was looking up a former student on Facebook when someone looked over my shoulder and remarked, "Hey, you haven't 'liked" that photo!" It actually had never occurred to me to click on the "like" button at all, I was just looking intently at the picture. May I be able to keep it that way!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Judgment is the Enemy of Experience

"Judgment is the enemy of experience," I would intone as we started talking about what experience-based feedback might look like, "Jot that down in your notebooks, and let's unpack that idea." And I could see my friend and CITYterm colleague squirming in agony out of the corner of my eye as we began class. Later she would say, "You drive me nuts. How can you say that? Judgment is what we are striving for; it is what we want them to achieve. How can you say that it is the 'enemy of experience?'"

And she is right, judgment IS what we are trying to get students to have. After all, if they don't have judgment, then is there any way to judge quality, depth, sophistication? We want them to form opinions objectively, authoritatively and wisely; we want them to be judges. Books like The Primal Teen explore  (in interesting ways) the underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents as being the root of poor decision making and, therefore, judgment. There is a strong case to be made that judgment is precisely what students need more than anything else.

But in the world of experience-based learning, judgment is a bit like the idea of discrimination. We want want people to be discriminating, to make fine distinctions, but being discriminatory has obvious connotations that exhibit a darker side as well. Judgment is a nuanced idea with double meanings. So how is judgment the enemy of experience?

Some of the difficulty lies in the way we are inclined to set up problems. Before we make a judgment, we have almost always created a structure that will determine, in large part, how the judgment wll be made. The point is this, how you set up the problem will determine the range of answers you will get. As Einstein is often quoted as saying, "If I had an hour to save the world I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding the solutions."

I remember listening in a junior American Studies seminar in college to the lists of thesis titles that were coming out that year. What I was struck by was the number of titles that created dichotomies-- "John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Christian Saint?" or "Wounded Knee: Military Necessity or Genocide?
They sounded a little like country-western titles- "I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling" or "I'd Rather have a Bottle in Front of me than a Frontal Lobotomy." In a truly disconcerting way, it sounds a bit like the way Democrats and Republicans are defining the issues (and each other) right now. The problem from an experience-based point of view is that you get caught in an "either /or" set-up that provokes debate rather than exploration or dialogue.

And this is where we start each semester at CITYterm (and in my history class at the Masters School) trying to figure out how to "un-learn" the most common ways that problems are set up in our culture. Look around, see how many choices you are given in a day that are either/or choices. There seems to be a preternatural need for some people to set up issues as dichotomies; I sometimes wonder if part of the heritage of Western culture is binary. The other day on a CITYexpedition we ended up in a Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens and got ourselves into a wonderful dialogue about religion.  One student asked the priest, "What about the evil? Who plays the role of the devil in Hinduism?" The priest looked blankly at him and replied that he didn't really understand the question, but that perhaps the student "was trying to describe the cycle that contains both creation and destruction. And, in that case, we should talk about Shiva." The priest was framing the issue as one of exploration of a process, we were reducing the problem to a dichotomous set of categories that would, we thought, grant clarity.

So, at the beginning of each year, we try to move away from the dichotomous ideas of "like and dislike" as responses to a text, and move toward the more unifying idea of "engagement." The expression of "like and dislike" is a "#gamechanger" because it terminates any exploration and declares for one side of the other. If one's opening response to any text is framed in a dichotomous like/dislike framework then you have short circuited the opening process of making that text an experience. This is why this framework is an expression of a judgment and, therefore, the enemy of experience. Cultivating the spirit of exploration must be the opening gambit for generating experiences; the ability to "wonder and wander" is essential to being open to finding oneself in the DKDK zone.

But my friend is right, we do want to strive to arrive at good judgment--but in its time. I have the feeling there is more to say here--maybe another blog post later is in order.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mature and Immature Teaching: The Self

This is the third of three blog posts exploring the layers of teaching that are involved in an experience-based classroom. I often get comments about how wonderful it must be to have New York City as a classroom and laboratory becasue we can practice experience-based learning. However, when CITYterm is working at its best it is not as if classes are solely preparation for the city experience, rather the teacher is striving to build bridges between the classes and the city trips. It is those bridges where the experience is often found or created. Oftentimes that bridge is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.

One of the reasons that experience-based teaching is dynamic and transformative is precisely because it is working on multiple layers. The last two posts discussed the first four of the "S's"  that make up what  experience-based teachers are looking for when they are teaching-- (S)ubject, (S)kills, (S)trategies, (S)tudents. This post explores the last of those (S's)--the (S)elf.

I remember sitting in the department office one late winter afternoon in my third or fourth year of teaching with my friend and colleague, Buddy, trying to figure out what we were actually teaching that was of lasting value. That evening, we decided that what was really most enduring was simply "tone." We arrived at this conclusion because we both acknowledged that we could hear our most formative teachers and coaches in our heads; we literally heard "voices" in our heads when we taught or coached.

Today, if I were to modify what Buddy and I discovered I would say that it was not only "tone" but a fuller, richer idea - "voice" - that was memorable, and that tone was only part of that. These voices were the omnipresent ghost - like Hamlet's father - that were omnipresent and recognizable. You could see McFeeley in my class design, hear O'Connell in my responses to students in class, discern Arkes in the feedback I gave on essays, and easily conjure up Gooding in every soccer practice. I had internalized these voices, and they popped out constantly.

At the time, I was reading and teaching a lot of T.S. Eliot poetry and came across the following comment about different kinds of poets, "One of the surest tests (of the superiority or inferiority of a poet) is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it is torn..." I still remember the complex feeling that night. First, that being a teacher might be like being a poet--a lovely idea, I thought. Second, that I was simply an imitator, an immature teacher; at worst, a fraud.

In fact, I had not internalized these voices, I had simply recorded them. My teaching was like what my painter friends called " basic rendering;" it wasn't art. It was what my theater friends called "learning the lines;" it wasn't acting. What to do? Well, if Eliot were right, I would have to start "stealing." And so began a lifetime career of outright, brazen theft. Of course, theft in the educational world is legitimate as long as you footnote, so I was generous in attributions to sources.

Theft requires courage because you think you are doing something wrong, something inauthentic. But along the way, I realized that having stolen so completely, I could alter, modify, or destroy what was now mine. In fact, I couldn't help but do it. And, as a result, I began to sound more like me. The paradox of genuine theft is that, if you do it right, you increase the potential of being authentic--of having a "voice." This, you realize, is how the people you were imitating must have created the "self" that they were teaching.

But the most unexpected gift that can then occur at that point is what my wife, a social worker, says is called "transference" and the "parallel process" in psychology. She describes it this way in terms of  describing a social work colleague: "Janet, you're a person who has five cats, and you're trying to help your client who is about to be evicted because she has pets. How could this be affecting your effectiveness as a social worker (positively as in she has the drive and motivation to move mountains for the client - or negatively as she gets stuck and righteous and combative in a way that the landlord becomes even more unwilling to negotiate with the client)?" If you are astute, you can see yourself in your client.

In the world of experience-based teaching and learning it is the ability to turn what has been a window into a mirror.  Having crafted a voice as a teacher, if you begin listen more and talk less, you hear yourself in your students. Not that this always reveals your best self, however. For example, you begin to realize that the student who drives you crazy is actually in your class, in part, to teach you about some Jungian shadow trait that you actually dislike about or disown in yourself. And so the teacher/student relationship becomes about learning for both parties. But for the teacher it is a second way of teaching your "self."

So, how to begin the journey towards "mature" teaching?  I guess it is partly theft and partly looking in the mirror.