Feedback vs Grades

At a recent faculty meeting, we were asked to think about the vulnerability needed to “enter the ring,” to think about who we are becoming and what we are making. These have always been important questions to think about but especially so during these unusual times. If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has been a powerful invitation to reflect on what matters, to interrogate beliefs and “truths,” and to ask if these things are still true. Do I still believe them; do they hold up here in these new virtual spaces?

And, given this move to e-learning, or distance learning (I’m not sure either of those new terms quite gets it right), questions of making and vulnerability take on layered significance. What counts as engagement, as participation in these digital spaces? What do grades mean? A shift we have taken is away from grades and towards feedback (a move many have argued for before COVID). The quarantine framed the issue as one of equity. It is hardly fair to grade a population of learners on teaching/learning enacted in cyberspace when that population does not have access to devices or WiFi. The question of grades, however, has deeper philosophical and pedagogical implications.

I realized, coming out of that meeting, I had no answer for who I was becoming, for what I was making. I had entered no ring. I had not accepted the invitation to reflect and test assumptions. My response has been to hole up and slather myself with armor and defense. I survive, but I am hardly thriving. It is past time for me to lean in to the discomfort, to show the hell up.

Among the guiding principles of Rio del Sol, is inquiry. I want to share some slices of practice with you and ask that you help me think about questions I have of my own practice – questions precipitated by that faculty meeting about showing up and being vulnerable. I have no answers; this is no show.

My question: Does this protocol (this thing I made) for responding to student work generate actionable feedback for the learner? Does it provide actionable, formative feedback for the learning guide?

Before I share the protocol, I need to name some underpinning theory, principles I have tried to apply to this thing, name those whose shoulders I stand on. In a popular Brene Brown talk, she names four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, suspending judgment, recognizing emotion, and communicating emotion. I believe for feedback to be accessible it has to come from and within an empathic culture.

Rather than focusing on deficits, I want feedback to name specific successes. What is working? In his book Walking on Water, Derrick Jensen shares his philosophy for coaching high jumpers: coach through honest praise. Focus on strengths and help jumpers identify and build on those strengths. Anecdotally, all of his eligible jumpers qualified for nationals. Each made All-American status, and one became national champion.

This feedback protocol rests on ideas of empathy and praise. In response to a given piece of student work, I provide feedback as follows:

Summarize: I notice…I read…I heard… (Objective description only)

Point to successes: I liked…because… (Build on strengths, on what is working)

Questions: I wonder… (Inquiry, empathy, suspend judgment)

Apply the protocol to the following slivers of student work:

River Stories

Math Video

Solar Powered Car

Science Writing

When you have finished, return to my question: Does the protocol provide actionable feedback for the learner? Does it provide actionable, formative feedback for the learning guide? I’m happy to read your responses in the comments.


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