Questioning Things

“Whose needs are being served?”

I know I often bury the lead with my posts, but I thought I’d start this post differently. Instead of wading through some personal story which leads to the main idea, I’m offering this question right at the start.

“Whose needs are being served?”

I’m offering this question as a litmus test for questioning all sorts of things, but I’ll apply it to the work we do in schools and institutions of higher education. Like many industries today, education is faced a host of new initiatives and innovations to position itself for the future. Some colleges are closing their doors while others are consolidating with other campuses. My institution (thankfully) isn’t facing these challenges, but we’re still in the process of change. We’re currently revising our general education curriculum to better serve our students for the careers their likely to face after graduation. As a liberal arts institution, my university seeks to provide a broad-based education across science, technology, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. These diverse disciplines help students see the world through different lenses and can better prepare them to solve the complex problems and careers they’re likely to face after graduation.

That’s the plan at least. Our current general education model was approved almost fifteen years ago. And while it has gone through some minor revisions and tweaks over the years, I’m working with a group of faculty to propose significant changes to the general education curriculum. Although we’ve only been collaborating for the last six months to develop new models, the work actually stretches back several years through campus conversations, self-studies, external reviews, and more. It’s an arduous process that isn’t likely to wrap up in the near future.

As we’ve been working through the redevelopment process, it’s clear that people on campus have different perspectives on what a general education curriculum should encompass. Some believe that it should be really flexible. Others believe that it should be highly prescriptive. Some want to see the curriculum organized around skills and ways of being. Others want to see the requirements dedicated to specific academic disciplines.  As we discuss these different options and solutions, I believe it’s critical for us to regularly return to the litmus test I offered at the start of this post.

“Whose needs are being served?”

As we weigh innovative proposals and hear challenges to their merits, we need to make sure that we continue to serve our students and their needs. We may have different approaches for how serve our students, but we need to remember that it’s our charge.


The Hollywood Handshake

With a brand new season of the Great British Baking Show available on Netlfix, I thought it would be great to dig up this post from January 2019 where I discuss the power of high expectations and providing feedback for growth. Enjoy!

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.

More Feedback

I know that I just talked about feedback in last week’s post, but here we are again talking about feedback. Blame it on Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. I posted about Grant this summer while reading his book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Since then, I’ve been listening to his podcasts and following him on Twitter and Instagram. Grant always shares an interesting, novel perspective on teaching, learning, relationships, work…. and so much more.

Here’s what Adam Grant posted a few days ago:

“The people who are nice to you aren’t always being kind to you. Saying what you want to hear is nice. People sugarcoat feedback to make you feel good today. Sharing what you need to hear is kind. People speak honestly to help you do better tomorrow. Candor is an act of care.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you should recognize that Adam Grant’s perspective resonates with me. In a post a few years ago, I shared how on Rate My Professors a student had written:

““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.

As I wrote at the time, it’s not that I want to be a jerk or hurtful in any way. When I offer feedback to a student, I share what I think they need to hear at the time. I focus on what they’re capable of working on and how best I can support their learning. I consider these factors, but I definitely buy into Grant’s “Candor is an act of care” mantra.

Looking at the comments to Grant’s Instagram post, however, it’s clear that candor itself may be an incomplete lens. Rahaf Harfoush, who is a “digital anthropologist” and author, commented that:

“Candor is an act of care that requires trust. You need to trust that people have your best interest at heart and that they have good intentions in wanting you to improve.”

Harfoush’s comment made me think back to a quote I shared a few years ago.

Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead.” (Daloz, 1999).

While Daloz was writing about mentoring, their perspective is critical for teaching and learning, too. If we want students to have the courage to act on the feedback we offer with candor, we have to first establish trust with them to help them recognize our good intentions and that the feedback is offered for their benefit.


Daloz, L. A. (2009). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Feedback Loop

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester, which for two of my classes, means that we’re in the home stretch. I teach two condensed, seven-week courses which means that stuff moves at pretty quick pace. Even though the end of the course is near, I’m still trying to gather information on the best ways to support my students. This means getting feedback.

As teachers, we mostly focus on giving feedback. We assign papers, schedule exams, and give quizzes and use that information to give students feedback on where they are in comparison to the learning targets and competencies we’ve set. Some of this can be progress feedback where we communicate to students the stuff they’re doing well. We can also provide discrepancy feedback where we explain things that students can do better and offer ways for them to improve. (For a more in-depth discussion of feedback, check out Glows and Grows)

While we’re in the thick of providing feedback, we can forget that we need to receive feedback, too. Sure, the process of assessment should itself serve a means of obtaining some feedback on our teaching. When students are successful on an assessment, that should communicate how well we’ve done as teachers. When students aren’t as successful… well, you get the picture. Sometimes, interpreting assessment data can be a little like reading tea leaves, though. It can be hard to decipher exactly what the assessment data means and what that says about our teaching. I graded some papers recently and found that half of the class did really well, while the other half didn’t do as well. This “bimodal distribution” seems to confusingly suggest that I’m doing a great job and a not-so-great job at the same time. And that confusion can stifle any efforts for me to revise my teaching practice.

Thankfully, teachers have other feedback strategies at their disposal. At the end of every class, I survey the students about what questions they have or what they’re confused by. I sometimes use the survey to simply ask “How’s it going? How can I help?” These exit tickets serve as both formative assessments for students (and for me) to gauge what they learned, but also as feedback opportunities for me to check how things are going with class. While I’ve used a bunch of different techniques over the years, I really like the ones that I’ve (slightly) modified from Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (2017). Brookfield offers these “critical incident questionnaires” as a way to “see ourselves through our students’ eyes.”

  • At what moment in today’s class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in today’s class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in today’s class did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took in today’s class did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about today’s class surprised you the most?  (pg. 108)

While the student responses can be hard to read at times, the questions can help to uncover opportunities to course-correct (no pun intended). And that’s important to do, even when there are only a few weeks left.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. John Wiley & Sons.

Mounds of Papers and Feedback

I’ve been navigating the perfect storm of the semester the last few weeks. I don’t know how it happened, but my courses aligned perfectly (or not so perfectly) so that the students in all of my classes were submitting major assignments at the same time. I probably should chalk it up to poor planning on my part, but I’ve been spending a lot of time providing feedback on student papers and their revised drafts.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve written about feedback a bunch over the last eleven or twelve years. Personally, I subscribe to Wiggin’s Seven Keys to Effective Feedback which outlines that for feedback to have an impact on student learning it must: be goal-referenced; be tangible and transparent; be actionable; be timely; be ongoing; be consistent; and progress towards a goal. I know that’s a lot to address, but basically it means doing a whole lot more than writing “Good job!” on a student’s paper. It involves setting a clear target for students and providing clear, actionable feedback to help students work towards the target. Reflecting on the feedback I provide to my students, I feel like I meet this standard pretty consistently.

The frustrating part for me is that sometimes I’ll provide feedback to students and won’t see that feedback addressed in future revisions. For most of the assignments in my classes, I allow my students to revise and resubmit their papers for better grades. And while I’ll provide detailed feedback on ways to improve their work, I won’t always see that feedback appear in students’ revisions. Some colleagues have advised that I shouldn’t grade those papers where students have ignored my feedback. Others have suggested that I have students write a revision audit outlining how they’ve specifically addressed the feedback I’ve given in their revision. If you’ve ever submitted an article for publication, this type of audit is common after receiving feedback from reviewers. Despite my frustrations with some of the revisions my students submit, I’ve avoided incorporating these policies. Honestly, they just sound like additional barriers that students need to circumvent to revise their work. I want my students to revise their work. But I also want them to incorporate the feedback I provide.

This morning, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across an article from ASCD titled Getting GREAT at Feedback. Initially, I didn’t think I’d find anything groundbreaking, but then I read the byline to the article: “The key to feedback is how it is received by the student.” That prompted more reading. In their article, the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, offer a unique perspective on feedback. They write:

“However, a common misunderstanding is that it’s all about the amount of feedback given—and the more the better. But the key is actually how the feedback is received by the learner. The relationship between the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it is paramount in terms of how much ‘gets in.'”

To better address how feedback is received by students, Fisher and Frey offer a different feedback model that “forges trust, helps the hearer sense a positive motive, and is clear and informative.”  Drawing on work by LarkApps, they offer the GREAT model for effective feedback. I know, it’s kind of a corny acronym, but the dimensions are pretty thoughtful.

  • Growth-oriented: The delivery signals one’s intention as constructive, focused on improvement not criticism.
  • Real: Feedback is honest, targeted, and actionable (showing the speaker’s grounding in the area in question), not vague or false praise.
  • Empathetic: It combines critique with care and a quest for mutual understanding.
  • Asked-for: The speaker encourages the receiver to ask questions and seek more feedback, after offering brief comments.
  • Timely: It’s delivered soon after the task or learning is demonstrated. Feedback gets stale fast.

Reading through this list, it may sound similar to Wiggin’s Keys to Effective Feedback. From my point of view, however, the main difference is the intentional focus on care, empathy, trust, and relationship building, which makes a lot of sense. People are more likely to receive advice and feedback from people they trust. Although I’ve never done anything to make my students distrust me, I also haven’t explicitly attended to these areas in my feedback, either. If I believe teaching is about relationship building (which I do!), I have to apply that mindset to all areas of my work, including the feedback I provide.