When I go to the hair salon I go to relax. I usually roll in on two wheels, slightly late and profoundly apologetic and I then proceed to nestle into the chair and nod off while highlights and colour are applied. The sounds around me are familiar and comforting and do not inhibit my peace. I have mastered the “head perfectly upright” nap. At any given appointment there are a number of assistants hustling around. My stylist is very busy and I will inevitably have my colour removed and my hair shampooed by a different person. I know my stylist tells them I don’t really want to chit chat (I talk all day everyday) and I will be be relaxing while my head is in the sink. Just before Christmas, I am head in sink with a lovely young lady doing her very best to make this a wonderful experience as I know my stylist is a little behind in the Christmas rush. We dawdle and the neck and head massage are a little longer and the warm towel under neck is replaced once. She is very young, I have not seen her before. She is gracious and eventually takes me to the station and gently combs out my hair with a very warm smile. It was delightful in every way. I learn she is a high school student who attends school full time, works many hours and also has a young baby. I am impressed by her resolve and her gentle nature. She never stops moving and has a smile for everyone. I am having my bangs trimmed with my closed and I hear sharp words. I cannot tell who spoke them from where I am sitting. I hear my stylist ask another if she had just yelled at the very young lady who had done my shampoo. She answers, “yes, she has to learn.” I become slightly feral at this point. There had been many people within earshot and her face had become red. We finish up, the other stylist had a client at his point and the young lady was shampooing another client as well. I ask for the owner, he had gone home for the evening. Petty me rises to the occasion. I see the client of the yeller is paying ahead of me. I see the tip she leaves. I ask for a little piece of paper and leave a thank you note for the assistant. I always leave a tip for the person who shampoos my hair (my mother had strict tipping rules) but today I triple the tip the yeller had received and leave it for the young lady. I had no other recourse and the feedback she had received and been to shame rather than improve. It was simply counter to all we know about learning. I left the giant tip because I felt helpless and did not want the young lady to remember this day and think of the way she had been spoken to. I said nothing in the note about the yeller. I simply said thank you for the wonderful shampoo experience and wished her Merry Christmas. My stylist was delighted as she too struggles with the approach this person takes with the folks with the least power and privilege.
I am left with many feelings from this moment in time. But I am also thinking pretty damn hard about feedback and its purpose (the why), the form it comes in and from whom it comes, who receives and how it is applied. What role does feedback play in improving achievement if conditions for giving and receiving feedback are not completely open? Does urgency mean rapid, aggressive, desperate feedback? Does it matter who the feedback comes from? Do we actually receive, take or care about feedback from someone we perceive doesn’t care about us?
“She has to learn.” disturbed me. She doesn’t have to, she has to want to – for her. If it’s for her, she will listen and apply the feedback you give her. She did not appear disinterested nor snotty (although in that moment I had wished she had had a little snotty in her but to no avail – simply quiet and frozen). All my snotty bubbled right up.
How we can make feedback the gift that it is and have it received as such. Students need feedback during the learning – their thinking needs to be pushed and questioned. Teachers want their feedback to be used and not tossed into the recycling bin or simply “resolved.” There have to be conditions for feedback for students and for grownups to give, receive and use feedback in the spirit of genuine improvement. The relationship must matter although, when my child was 16, feedback was not well received. That being said, I wonder if she questioned my purpose and perceived it as something else. Perception feels important. Eye contact, openness, kindness, patience, and the belief that the feedback is going to make a difference seem like things that the receiver of feedback may consider when choosing whether to accept and use it. I cannot help believing that the giver of the feedback sets the conditions for the use of the feedback. If it matters enough to give it, then give it in a way it will be valued. It has to be transparent and real. If I give hard feedback will it somehow be wrong or poorly received? Seeing the receiver as competent and open may be connected to the conditions for using feedback. Fear and shame often create compliance and in fact create a panic zone in which feedback is given and received without actually knowing why, simply do…
Accountability is also a delicate place to hang feedback. What we aren’t doing becomes the reason for lack of achievement and therefore the reason for the feedback and the purpose. No grown up nor child is coming open and ready to receive in those conditions. I am failing and therefore feedback just feels empty and resented and even a little sad. Maybe it’s even sadder when we don’t offer feedback. The gap to the achievement bar is just too wide and too far; they aren’t going to get there, we don’t bother because they are lazy or simply can’t do it.
I spoke to the owner of the salon over the holidays. I went to see him. He listened, he followed up and after that I know nothing. I ask for that assistant if she is there, I tip well and hope more people smile at her in a day than yell at her.
5 am – Dense fog and a strange early glimpse at Spring
A: Is the yelling itself feedback or just a result of rank?
K: I think the yelling had purpose – change what you are doing, it’s not good enough, I expect more and therefore you will hear me and then fix it. That being said, had the receiver yelled back I am not sure she would have fared the same way…power is a thing with feedback – move because I said so.
A: Not really a gift in that case then. More like a threat.
K: The feedback was not about the purpose or the learning. It was about doing, finishing and compliance. Frustration was apparent and it became the thing that was remembered. I couldn’t help not caring about what was to be completed as I was anxious about the moment. I wonder how much feedback we hear when it’s given without care or patience? There is no opening.
A: The different levels of expertise and roles of teacher and learner are already clear to everyone. It shouldn’t be necessary to reestablish that, but urgency and hurry it up already rose to the surface. I’m curious about how it was named as learning.
K: ME TOO! I thought about it on drive home. I also thought about every impatient moment I had had to with a teacher or with a colleague or with my own child. I considered the learning teams I was on right now. I wondered if everything felt so damn urgent that the feedback felt like a hurdle, the co-construction of success criteria for the purpose of feedback felt like a hurdle and at what point does it feel like learning. We push – just because we don’t yell – it may still feel like hurry up. I had a conversation with a colleague yesterday. They needed to give urgent feedback about something of importance. Our conversation was not about the actual feedback – it was about the how so it would be received.
A: Is understanding the importance of success criteria or absolutely anything the same as learning the what and the how?
K: I am curious about whose importance? I have been thinking about success criteria and who it belongs to and for what purpose. I guess I need to think about who the what and the how belong to as well. Does this change the importance? Does it matter more?
A: I’m wondering if we might figure out why it matters first. In the salon, it’s the clients. In the classroom, it’s for the students. Do we believe that we should give feedback?
K: That is a really good question. Do you mean we should just tell you what to fix and voila? I am not so sure it’s not the whole system. Sigh. At every level there is pressure to move. Feedback to change and to know differently to then do differently is a spiral. At some point we are not taking the feedback or It is the wrong feedback, meaningless feedback or not what we need at that moment. Are we even listening anymore? I am going back to the purpose…
A: Yes. I’m talking about listening…learning. “Feedback” “Success Criteria” etc. they are just eduthings.
K: I hate feedback at the end. I just did all this work and now I have to go back and fix it. Absurd. I need it before I make a mess of things. I want success criteria for the all the way along stuff. The end checklist tells me it’s pretty. It does not tell me I learned. The sit beside of both of those eduthings mean I know what’s happening to me as I am in the learning, not as I am handing something in.
A: I want to know if you don’t and be there while you make a mess of things. That’s learning.
K: I need a blessing to make a mess of things and to know I am ok to learn in that mess because someone has my back in all of it. If no one has my back I am not risking anything.
A: You asked “whose importance?”. It’s interesting that in the context you just described, feedback is obviously more important to the learner. The learner is the one taking risks.
K: It’s ironic actually. If I don’t give feedback then I have to keep teaching it over and over until I decide they actually are just not going to “get it” or we have to move on. At what point do I learn that feedback is not an ending to hand back but a place to begin the learning in the mess?
A: There’s also the perceived and predetermined set of learners who just aren’t ever going to get it. And also the learners who put the status quo or the bare minimum between you and sitting beside.
K: I wish I believed that the “it” was a verb. Learning vs performing or the thing at the end. I think all learners can find themselves in the learning. I also believe that sitting beside is the ultimate status quo changer. Belief in the risk creates the space between. When we sit beside them, they know we can see them. They also know we expect different from having spent time there. You cannot hide and I don’t want you to. The feedback is not a checkbox. It’s the backsy forthsy in the learning.
A: Sweep the hair off the floor. Check. Fold the towels. Check. What else do you want me to do?
K: I wonder if anyone talked about priorities, time management, communication and teamwork?
A: Hmm. Now the “whose importance” belongs to the giver.
K: How do we move it to the space between? Figure how both can own the learning and perhaps the feedback is the conversation in that space?
A: The stylist found out in that moment that the assistant needed feedback on priorities, time management, communication and teamwork. However, she defaulted to checkboxes. How does the assistant know what she doesn’t know?
K: She never will if it is simply about the end – what was not done? How did I get here? I don’t know. But I know it’s wrong and now so does everyone else. I needed something else sooner. The other takes time. I wonder if it is time that we may consider to be worth it rather than the time for do overs?
A: Worth it to the giver? The giver has to slow down. The eduthings are not there to reinforce the giver’s significance. The giver has to risk too. She risks her own significance and learns from the receiver. She learns about the mess.
K: I watched you type every word…I wanted to interrupt like I do – I was reducing the worth to time – for both. I had to rethink as you typed – worth – the relationship – the conditions. I wanted to shout that perhaps the feedback itself is the ultimate condition for all of it. Is it the space between? The place to give it over? The space for the mess and the learning and the giving of both the giver and the receiver.