Clarity is Kind

I can give pretty direct feedback on student work. While I consistently provide “Glows and Grows” to students to balance areas of strength with areas for growth, I find that students often bristle with how directly I communicate the feedback I provide. I preach “leading with empathy” but often forget how candid I can be when offering suggestions for improvement. In fact, one former student communicated my directness in a post on Rate My Professor:

Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

Needless to say, that student didn’t rate me very highly in terms of instructor quality.

To my own defense, I’m honestly not motivated by hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t use putdowns in my feedback or call my students names or anything. I also don’t see myself as one of those people who elevates his own ego by diminishing others. Instead, I subscribe to the Brené Brown mantra: “Clarity is kind.” Applied to my teaching, I try to provide clear, focused feedback for improvement. In my mind, that kind of feedback will better support students’ growth and success. It can often be difficult for my students to hear, but it’s in their best interest.  But my students don’t always see that as being very kind.

But sometimes, the “clarity is kind” practice can lead to unintended outcomes. This semester, I’ve been working with a group of graduate students in one of our doctoral classes. After providing feedback on revisions of their papers, one student joked about how challenging it was for her to read the feedback I gave. “You don’t pull any punches,” she said. “And that can sting.”

Once again, I tried to explain my motivations and how I was focused on her growth. This time, I even brought in an  assurance that I regularly share with my son and daughter: “I’m on your side, 100% of the time. You just might not always know it.”

Flash forward to this weekend. This student gave a presentation at a research conference that some of my colleagues had organized. She was sharing work that she had completed in our class this semester and she did a great job. After the presentation, I met with her briefly to communicate my praise for her awesome work. “You rocked it,” I said. And I could see a grin beginning to emerge, and then she paused. “Are you serious?” she asked, before correcting herself. “Of course, you’re serious. You wouldn’t really hesitate to tell me otherwise.” I laughed, but I knew she was right.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about Paul Hollywood, a judge on the Great British Baking Show. When bakers meet his high standards, he offers a handshake as a form of praise. The handshake is only meaningful because he holds high standards and communicates clear feedback for growth.  While I don’t see myself as being nearly as cool as Paul Hollywood, I’d like to think that I’ve laid a similar foundation so that my praise is meaningful when it is offered.

That might make me unkind. It might make me blunt and unconventional. But I’m not really worried about any of that.

Did I mention that my student rocked her presentation? That’s enough for me.

A Time to Every Purpose

For last year or so, I’ve been getting back into vinyl records. My wife and I dug out our old albums, dusted off our old record player and have been playing some of the classics from our youth. My kids have also caught the bug and have started buying records when we go shopping at vintage stores. While our house has always been full of music, it’s now alive with songs from the Smiths, the Velvet Underground, and the Violent Femmes. Oddly, my children have also taken to some of the classic albums from the 1960’s. They’re playing the Beatles, the Beach Boys and even the Mamas and the Papas. It’s definitely an eclectic musical mix at our house.

One song that has been in heavy rotation recently is Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. If you don’t know the song, it was originally written by Pete Seeger, but he pulled most of the lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The song starts out:

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

If you’re a music lover, you may be humming the song in your head right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “a time to every purpose” lately. It’s the first week of the semester on campus and new classes have begun. It’s the season of introductions and syllabi and book lists. It’s the time when faculty outline their expectations and their assignments. And it’s the season for students trying to figure out how they can meet those expectations considering their other classes, their jobs, and their other life commitments.

To everything. (turn, turn, turn)

Even though it’s early in the semester, I’ve already provided some feedback on the first set of assignments. When providing feedback, I try to remember the work of Grant Wiggins who offers Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. These include:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

The challenge is that since it’s the first week of the semester, students (and maybe some faculty) are feeling their way through a new set of classes. While it’s the season for faculty outlining their expectations, it’s also a time when students may not fully understand those expectations. While we all try to make our expectations tangible and transparent, students come to our classes with experiences with other professors, other courses and other assignments. These experiences may cloud how they interpret our expectations and assignments.

Which makes effective feedback so critical at this stage of the semester. While some may be inclined to go a little easy this early on, providing consistent feedback early in the semester is more important than ever. Drawing back to Pete Seeger’s lyrics, there’s “a time to plant, a time to reap.”

And what we plant in week 1 of the semester, we can reap later on.

(turn, turn, turn)

The misconception of kindness

I’m taking a few weeks off to regroup this summer and thought I’d replay a post from a couple of years ago. This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in April 2018. Enjoy!

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind

Taking a Lifetime

This weekend, I went to see the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, with my wife and daughter. The movie follows Ginsburg’s life as she starts law school at Harvard through her oral arguments for the Moritz v. Commissioner” case at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. For fans of the Supreme Court Justice, the movie is an inspiring and gripping story. I think my daughter held her breath through the last five minutes of the movie.

Early in the movie, one of Ginsburg’s Harvard classmates asks their professor if he had corrected their papers. In his most pretentious tone, the professor answers:

I have graded your papers, but it will take a lifetime for you to correct them.”

To be honest, when I heard the professor say this, I groaned. Literally.

The movie goes to great lengths to portrays the Harvard professors as uptight, stoic and condescending. While this may be an accurate portrayal of these individuals, I kept thinking, “What educator would say that?” I’m certain we’ve all had those high and mighty, self-absorbed individuals who felt the need to use the authority of their teaching role to convey how little their students knew. And that’s how this Harvard law professor is portrayed in the movie. He lords his experience and expertise over his students.

While the quote plays a minor part of the movie, it has resonated with me for the last few days. I’ve found myself repeating the words in my head and ruminating on the meaning.

Flash forward to a conversation I had with a group of preservice teachers yesterday. I was explaining to them how becoming a teacher involved reflective practice and how they should plan to work on their craft over many years. I jumped into a mini-speech on the value of Ten Thousand Hours and how the truly great teachers I knew were the ones who had spent a lifetime reworking lessons and revising their approaches.

Later in the day, I met with a doctoral student who had sent me a draft of one of the chapters of his dissertation.  Despite this being the third (or fourth) revision of this chapter, I still gave him lots of detailed feedback for improvement. While I tried to convey my feedback really positively, I could tell that he was getting frustrated with my assessment of his work. I explained that his writing was definitely improving but, like any skill, he’d need to continue to work on it to develop. Things take time, I explained.

As I reflected on my conversations with these students on my drive home last night, I was reminded of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie and the snarky remark from the Harvard professor. Was the feedback I gave to my students any different than that of the fictional professor? Sure, the packaging and presentation were starkly different (I hope that I’m not that condescending) but the sentiments were the same.

Learning is hard and it may take a lifetime until you get it right.

So, while I originally thought “What educator would say that?” I’m now thinking about it completely differently.

What educator would say that? The ones who want to realistically convey the commitment required to be a lifelong learner.

The Hollywood Handshake

Over the holiday break, my family and I binge-watched the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. If you haven’t seen the show, each week amateur bakers take part in a bake-off that test their skills as they create complex desserts, pastries and breads. After weeks of increasingly more difficult tasks and eliminations, the show crowns one champion as the Best Amateur Baker in the United Kingdom. After nine seasons, the show has grown in popularity and is one of the most watched shows on PBS and Netflix.

Across the different seasons, many of the hosts and judges have changed. One consistent member of the Great British Baking Show team, however, is celebrity chef, Paul Hollywood. Hollywood is the show’s no-nonsense judge. He can be painfully direct and is not quick with praise. He also doesn’t sugarcoat things. When a baker’s custard is thin, he’ll say that it’s “slack.” He’ll also refer to a pie as having a “soggy bottom” when they haven’t been baked long enough and will critique a baker’s ability to properly fold and proof their creations. Despite the competitors being amateur bakers, Hollywood holds them all to the highest of baking standards.

Mixed in with his icy stares and his pointed critiques, Hollywood is also incredibly focused on the competitors’ development. Hollywood doesn’t just criticize the bakers. He gives real feedback for growth. He’ll ask how an “off” dessert was made and offer alternative ingredients. He’ll say that a bread would benefit from longer baking or suggest that a different mixing method would yield better results. When he reviews a baker’s work, Hollywood clearly includes both progress and discrepancy feedback, which I blogged about a few years ago. As he examines a baker’s creation, he’ll identify exactly what has been done right but also give specific feedback on areas to improve and offer suggestions on how to do it. If you’re a beginning teacher, Hollywood’s assessment and feedback processes would be good ones to emulate.

Across all of the shows and the multiple seasons, the one feedback strategy that stands out is the Hollywood Handshake. I know it sounds a little corny but when a baker has met and exceeded his expectations, Hollywood will speechlessly shake his head and offer the baker a firm handshake. In the world of the Great British Baking Show, there is no higher honor. While the judges name a Star Baker each week, weeks will go by without a baker receiving a handshake. But then it happens. And I’ve watched bakers literally come to tears as Hollywood silently shakes their hand. It’s a sight to observe.

As teachers, I think there’s a lot to unpack with Paul Hollywood’s method of feedback. Hold students to high expectations. Be consistent with your assessment techniques. Give students feedback for growth and identify specific areas where they can improve. More importantly, however, Paul Hollywood shows that we must be ready to celebrate when students have met our expectations and shouldn’t offer empty praise to those who don’t. The Hollywood Handshake is powerful because he only offers it to those who reach his standards. Everyone else gets feedback for growth. While both are great to receive, one makes the other more meaningful.