Tell me truly

I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow at present. I have known about his work on optimal experiences for some years but have only just got around to reading the original book. There is much food for thought here, and not only about teaching. I will write more about the wider concept on another occasion, though it may need explaining now that it refers to the state of mind achieved when someone is utterly absorbed in the task they are undertaking, to the exclusion of all other awareness. A bit like our pupils achieve all the time (in our dreams…)

What concerns me here, however, is one of the preconditions for flow, namely feedback. I have written before about the time being consumed by teacher-feedback, and pondered on the its productiveness versus its alternative uses. In general, I think the current emphasis on feedback as a whole is justified, and this can be partly explained by reference to Flow. But because of this, I am also left wondering whether the kind of feedback being asked of us is as productive as claimed, or whether this is just another example of good practice being seized on in an uncritical and misunderstood way and being applied (at great cost in teacher-time) without adequate consideration of its real utility.

Conventional wisdom has it that feedback allows pupils to identify their errors and rectify them, but I am sceptical about how often this really happens in anything more than a superficial way; as a rule, children are not that dedicated or intellectually mature. But Csikszentmihalyi describes feedback as an essential component of Flow, since it is only be being able to sense the consequences of one’s actions that one is able to adjust and reformulate them in order to refine one’s ability. In other words, its function is as much motivational as academic.

As a musician (indeed a trainee violinist) I found that the following particularly resonated:

“Optimal experience involves a very active role for the self. A violinist must be extremely aware of the every movement of her fingers, as well as the sound entering her ears, and of the total form of the piece she is playing, both analytically, note by note and holistically in terms of its overall design.”  

Without the ability to create noise instantly, the above process becomes impossible. The same applies to other everyday situations that can induce flow, such as conversation, reading, playing sports, cooking, and driving: it is the instantaneous nature of feedback that is important.

The other notable point is that the feedback is evaluated first affectively (i.e. with the emotions), and only slightly later rationally. This would seem to be consistent with Flow operating at something slightly below fully-consciousness, inasmuch as people respond more by intuitive reaction than structured deliberation when in Flow.

I’m trying to square this with classroom notions of feedback. While it is likely that Flow itself only arises sporadically in classrooms, what we can learn about feedback from it might still apply. The three essentials are:

1. Actions made by pupils need instant feedback so that they can then adjust their actions in real time.

2. Feedback is likely to be received affectively, in other words in terms of, “Am I doing well?” and “Do I like this?” This seems consistent with my experience: no matter what my advice, pupils normally head straight for the emotional pay-back of the grade or mark, and only later read the comments (if at all). I know the removal of grades has been advocated by some, but my experience was not that this made pupils pay more attention to the guidance, but simply that they paid less attention to the feedback at all. The affective element seems to be quite powerful, so maybe we need to harness it rather than ignore it.

3. With even the fastest turn-around is likely to be a matter of 24 hours before pupils see the feedback – nowhere near quick enough for the process to be of active, heuristic use to the pupil. By that time, it’s dead information about a completed activity; the affective kick will count for nothing and the pupil is left with a dry, diagnostic comment which may do little to inspire. So are we really doing anything helpful by spending so many hours writing in exercise books? As I said, the assumption that pupils are mature learners who crave technical feedback so that they can go away and actively reflect on it seems vastly wide of the mark in most cases.

While intellectual processing clearly develops with age, even in the secondary sector most of our pupils are still immature learners. In my view, the younger ones mainly work hard because they are obeying parental or other entreaties to do so, and what they really crave is affective approval for their efforts; the older ones may be moving towards intellectual self-scrutiny, but they still largely want encouragement as well as dissection.

I’m not suggesting that we should never provide diagnostic academic feedback, nor that it shouldn’t be in books – but whether the current fetish for it is justified, I’m still not sure. Just because something is deemed ‘good form’ does not in itself make it helpful. It would be no great surprise if the bureaucratic monolith had once again completely overlooked the more subjective aspects of this matter in favour of the technical ones.

This is clearly a complex topic and to some extent I’m thinking aloud here, but I think we need to question whether teacher feedback in the useful sense really does mean hours spent writing in books.  It seems to me that the best feedback would be above all instant and affective; diagnostic information is clearly part of the process, but might not be as important as seems currently thought. And given that instant written feedback is just not sustainable, maybe we would be better looking at other interpretations.

In terms of engaging our pupils with their work, more thought should perhaps be given to building flow-type feedback into lessons themselves. I suspect that this already explains quite a lot of why pupils sometimes engage with tasks (because they do provide feedback) – and why when they don’t, they often resort to chatting to peers; one might see this as opting for an activity that offers more instant flow/feedback than the task in hand. Tasks that offer feedback can come in many guises, and can include deep reading and – dare I even mention it – colouring in (though hopefully in a structured way, for example as in devising choropleth maps rather than simply ‘pretty’ ones).

And the other neglected means of providing instant feedback is of course that much-reviled activity talking to pupils. I suggest that verbal feedback is under-rated, and it should probably focus as much on heartfelt encouragement where merited, and tactical ‘nudging’ where not – as on in-depth technical critique.  It should also be used almost constantly in real-time in lessons. Using feedback as a motivational device to maximise engagement in class seems a much more realistic proposition than the current technical-diagnostic model that seems largely predicated on the idea it will directly improve retention.

I am quite attracted to the idea that feedback is not merely providing reams of sterile analysis, most of which will never be more than skim-read when the iron is already cold. Doing less of that would of course also free up more teacher time for more productive activities, and lighten our burden considerably into the bargain.


5 thoughts on “Tell me truly

  1. “And given that instant written feedback is just not sustainable, maybe we would be better looking at other interpretations.”

    I think Csikszentmihalyi would agree that written comments are a million miles from what he means by ‘feedback’ – that’s *such* a teacher way of looking at it 😉

    He’s talking about immediate sensory feedback – very handy when developing a procedural skill (swimming, rock climbing, playing the violin) – rather than delayed instructional feedback.

    As a teacher, you already provide pretty constant and immediate feedback to your students – not just through speaking to them but also through your facial expression, body language etc. You already influence their affective state through this feedback. With specific regard to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, reducing anxiety when they are doing something difficult is probably the most important feedback you give.

    • Yes, there is of course a clear difference between sensory and instructional feedback – but I suspect they are nonetheless connected via motivation. There’s no way we could do without instructional feedback, and there are few other realistic ways of providing it, at least in ‘hard copy’. I was really questioning the balance between the two rather than wishing to be rid of one.

      And you are quite right about the instant feedback that we all give in any case.

      But I see so much ‘conveyor-belt’ marking these days, simply on account of the quantity being required that I wonder how much use a lot of it really is.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. You’ve probably seen these already, but …

    … provides an interesting argument regarding the issue of excessive marking.

    Quality surely trumps quantity after all! There may also be good reasons for delaying feedback …

    One wonders whether the enormous pressure on marking is more to do with accountability rather than genuine learning.

    • Thanks again for those. Yes, I had seen them already, but well worth reading again.

      For me, the two salient points in the second post are:

      >>We’re all a lot more comfortable with the idea of making rapid progress because it ‘feels right’.

      Well, I’m not – and it doesn’t. Anyone who works at something like playing a musical instrument will realise that rapid progress probably isn’t real progress at all – or at least not as much as it might seem.

      I’m going to write a post on the Slow movement in the near future – I led a CPD session on it this week and it went down extremely well. Rapid progress is more a symptom of the instant gratification culture than any more fundamental ‘truth’. It is also a product of teacher anxieties to be securing what they’re being judged on. Just tick box and move on.

      >>Feedback is the ‘silver bullet’ of the moment to determine quality of teacher performance. …Feedback is the ‘must see’ totem now – but probably won’t be in four years’ time; something else will have replaced it as it didn’t do what it promised…

      Part of my scepticism is not aimed at the processes themselves (many of which may be fine if used judiciously) but the fact that so many are misappropriated simply in order to legitimise those who need to be telling teachers what to do. That, to me explains the OTT fervour with which they are seized upon (without due consideration), rammed down our throats – and then abandoned in favour of the Next Big Thing.

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