THE CULT OF PEDAGOGY PODCAST, EPISODE 87 TRANSCRIPT
See a shorter recap of this interview in the blog post.
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This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 87 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, we’re going to talk about how shifting from feedback to “feedforward” can make a huge difference in helping the students and other people in our lives grow.
As teachers, we pretty much give feedback all day long: We tell students how they can improve on assignments, we praise them for things they’re doing well, we correct their incorrect responses, and we redirect them when they behave in ways that aren’t helpful to learning. And that’s just the students. We also give feedback to our colleagues, although in most cases, these exchanges don’t happen as often or as freely as they probably should. We receive plenty of feedback as well, from our students, their parents, our administrators, and our peers. And we encourage our students to give feedback to each other, with pretty uneven results. Really, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.
And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace.
It turns out there’s a different way to give feedback that works a lot better, a way of flipping its focus from the past to the future. It’s a concept called “feedforward,” which was originally developed by a management expert named Marshall Goldsmith. As far as I know, not a lot of educators are familiar with the practice of feedforward, and I really think if we learned how to do it and started using it more consistently, it could make a huge difference in how our students grow and how we grow as professionals.
My guest today, Joe Hirsch, is going to help us do just that. In his book, The Feedback Fix, Joe digs deep into the practice of feedforward and shows us how and why it works. After listening to our conversation, you should have some new ideas for how to communicate with people in ways that will have a much bigger impact on their growth. To check out Joe’s book and read notes on our conversation, go to cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 87.
Before we get started, I want to thank this episode’s sponsor, Kiddom. Kiddom is a free platform that allows teachers to plan, assess, and analyze student work, and now, more teachers are using Kiddom to collaborate with each other. Using Kiddom’s free curriculum planning tools, teachers can plan in the cloud, so you can put your heads together no matter where you are. And when we work together, our students reap the rewards. Visit cultofpedagogy.com/kiddom to learn more about co-planning and sharing your best work with each other.
I’d also like to thank you for the reviews you’ve left for this podcast on iTunes. The more reviews a podcast has, the more likely other people are to check it out, so if you like the podcast and you think other teachers should listen, take a few minutes, head over to iTunes, and leave me a review. Thanks so much.
Now here’s my conversation about feedforward with Joe Hirsch.
GONZALEZ: All right. So just tell us a little bit about who you are, what got you interested in studying feedback and what your educational background is too in terms of teaching.
HIRSCH: So, Jenn, thank you for having me on. So excited that we’re doing this.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for coming on too.
HIRSCH: It’s awesome. So for the past 12 years I’ve taught fourth-graders at a private faith-based school in Dallas where I’ve also held various leadership positions, and I’m also finishing up a doctorate in instructional leadership and innovation. And, Jenn, I am happy to say, there is light at the end of that tunnel. It’s been a grind, but it’s coming to an end. But I’ve always loved to write and for a while was contributing pretty frequently to Edutopia, and one of my blogs was about this alternative to traditional feedback called feedforward, which really seemed to resonate with a lot of people and eventually got picked up by an acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield who somehow convinced me that it should become a book, about helping teachers give better feedback. But pretty early on it became clear to me that traditional feedback, you know, which is about a past that people can’t change, not a future that they can, wasn’t just a problem in the classroom. It’s a problem in the boardroom, it’s a problem in the dining room, it’s a problem everywhere. So my publisher and I agreed to reframe the whole concept and to look at how feedforward unleashes the performance and potential of people all around us, at work, in school, at home. And while there’s a lot of content in The Feedback Fix that appeals to a broader audience, for example, like how some of the most successful organizations, from Fortune 500s to world-class hospitals to championship-winning football teams, are applying the concept, the teacher in me wanted to show how feedforward can dramatically improve the way teachers are communicating and collaborating with their students, with their supervisors, most importantly with each other.
GONZALEZ: OK. And what grade do you teach? OK, fourth-graders, fourth-graders.
HIRSCH: I teach fourth-graders.
What’s Wrong with the Way We Give Feedback?
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk for a second about feedback in schools in particular and that’s who’s going to be listening to this are teachers and administrators. It’s pretty much nonstop feedback all day long. We give it to each other, as teachers we give it to our students, students give it to each other or at least we try to teach them to do that. So let’s talk for a little bit about what the problem is, what’s wrong with the way most people give feedback currently?
HIRSCH: So people can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past, right? And that happens to be the focus of most of the feedback that we give or receive. We can’t change the past. We can only fix the future, and when you look at the research, there are three really big reasons for why the traditional model fails.
HIRSCH: First, it shuts down our mental dashboards. When we get negative feedback about something that we can’t change or control, our brains flood with stress-inducing hormones, cortisol, that trigger our threat awareness and put us on the defensive. You remember those, the anti-drug campaigns, I think it was from like the late ‘80s, “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs,” and showed the fried egg in the pan?
GONZALEZ: Yes, yes.
HIRSCH: Yeah, so it was a horrifying moment for me as a kid, and I remember thinking as like an 8-year-old, you know, I am never ever going to try drugs or have fried eggs ever again. And if neuroscientists created a similar campaign for this, “This is your brain on feedback,” you would literally see vast swaths of our frontal lobe go dark, I mean literally dark. The parts that are responsible for executive function, for creativity, the parts that allow us to sort of set our agendas and make rational decisions, essentially we are in a state of mental paralysis. And it’s not to say that all negative feedback is bad or that it’s bad all the time. There is surprising research that shows it can actually be a good thing. It can lead to creativity, it can create more resilience. But on the whole of it, traditional feedback, it makes us braindead. So that’s one.
HIRSCH: That’s one.
HIRSCH: So it shuts down the mental dashboards. The second reason traditional feedback fails is because it really tends to focus primarily on ratings and not on development. And this is a huge problem in the corporate world and a major reason why 60 percent of Fortune 500s have pledged or have already begun to revolutionize their performance management practice, it’s why huge companies like Microsoft, Gap, Adobe, Medtronic, Cargill, Juniper Systems, I mean the list goes on and on, they’ve gone ratings-less in their appraisal process. But it’s also a really big problem for teachers, because when feedback consists of an impersonal set of performance standards that’s based on classroom observations that happen at best twice a year and last about as long as an episode of The Big Bang Theory, we’re overlooking the essential goal of feedback, and that’s to create positive and lasting improvement. You don’t get that with most teacher appraisal systems. They’re highly standardized, they focus exclusively on ratings, not on coaching and development, and they tend to be dominated by the person giving the feedback, that would be the supervisor, and not on the person receiving it, who would be the teacher, the person ultimately responsible for owning that change.
GONZALEZ: Right. OK. And so in this case, you’re talking about feedback that is given to teachers about their own teaching. And I think most people would agree with you. I know that in my experience, the people observing me would come in maybe once every other year in some cases, it was really very, very spaced out, and yeah. And I think people who’ve gotten the negative ratings, they don’t necessarily know what they can do about it, and it’s just a snapshot and —
HIRSCH: And that really, you know, is the third big problem that emerges when you look at traditional feedback. It’s that it really just reinforces those negative behaviors —
HIRSCH: — and beliefs that we were trying to shed but just struggled to get rid of. Because when we hear about flaws that we can’t fix anymore, because they’re in the past that we can’t change, it creates a feeling of learned helplessness, you know, the feeling that we are unable, literally unable, to do anything about our future. And so we just quit.
HIRSCH: And that leads us to adopt a fixed mindset about our shortcomings and our pitfalls.
HIRSCH: And it’s really ironic in a sad way, because the very process that’s supposed to energize us to become a better version of ourselves, it ends up making us think that no better version is out there. So instead of committing ourselves to improvement, which is what we would hope would happen, we hold onto this debilitating view of who we are instead of focusing on who we are becoming.
GONZALEZ: Do you find that the feedback that teachers give to students has the same impact?
HIRSCH: It really does, and it really focuses much more on ratings and grades and we can get into that a little bit more. But because it’s lacking a developmental focus, and it’s focused on things that students can no longer change or control, right? The grade is done. The number is set. It’s very final. Students can’t really actionalize or operationalize any of that information, and because it happens well after the event, they’re powerless to do anything about it. So feedback in schools in the form of grades, in the form of numbers that are delivered well after the incident has occurred, that very much triggers the same feelings of defensiveness and helplessness in students as it does among employees in a business setting.
What is Feedforward?
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. So you’ve pretty clearly identified why traditional feedback doesn’t really work. So what you have done is you are flipping that now into a concept called feedforward. So explain just sort of briefly what feedforward is and why it’s better.
HIRSCH: Yeah. So as a concept, feedforward has been around in the research literature for about two decades. I discovered it through Marshall Goldsmith, who’s popularized the concept. Marshall is one of the world’s most admired executive coaches who I’ve gotten to know recently and was kind enough to write the forward to the book. And Marshall really introduced feedforward as a way for people to very quickly share an issue they want to solve or get better at, and to get advice from as many people as possible in a very short amount of time. No judgment, just present a problem, ask for suggestions, and listen to what people say, and then say thank you and move on.
HIRSCH: You know, it’s kind of like speed dating for self help.
HIRSCH: Karen May, who’s currently vice president of people at Google, has a funny name for it. She applied the concept and called it speed-back, because it happens so quickly. What I’ve tried to do here with Marshall’s blessing is to put this concept under a microscope and to really look at the research supported attributes and features that make it so successful. I guess when you look at it, the difference between feedback and feedforward seems very subtle. Feedback focuses on the past, feedforward focuses on the future. Feedback is all about judgment and ratings, and feedforward is about people and development. But as I started to really dig into the research and began my reporting for The Feedback Fix, I came to realize that there’s really a lot more going on here, and when we make the shift from feedback to feedforward, we’re not just engaging in a subtle art. It’s really a hard science, and it’s a hard science that’s shaped by very specific dimensions, which is good, because that means that it’s something that can be learned and ultimately something that can be applied.
GONZALEZ: OK. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to get into some of the characteristics or the qualities of feedforward, but before we do, if you could just give like a really simple example of a situation where somebody would get a certain type of feedback and how you might flip that and turn it into feedforward, just so that we all have, we’re all sort of on the same page when we’re thinking about what the difference is. I want to give you an example of some feedback that I got as a teacher, and I want to see if you can sort of tell me how my administrator could have sort of flipped this around or something or done it in a more feedforward way.
GONZALEZ: So she observed me one time and, you know, sort of ticked a lot of the boxes, a lot of things were fine, and one of the pieces of feedback she gave me was that, it was actually about feedback, interestingly enough. She said that I wasn’t giving my students enough positive praise. Like, I was pointing out, I was correcting misconceptions and that kind of thing, but when students were doing things right, that I needed to add in more sort of pointing out what they were doing right during my lesson, which at the time I thought, “OK. You know, I can do more of that,” and so it was, you know, something that I tried to remember to do more of. So how could that same flaw or need for improvement in my teaching, how could that have been communicated or dealt with in a feedforward way?
HIRSCH: Well, let’s assume for a minute you only got that feedback about your feedback weeks or maybe months after you had already settled into a habit with that pattern of behavior.
GONZALEZ: Well, yeah.
HIRSCH: See already, already there’s a time lapse, right, between action and the response, but OK. Let’s say right after your supervisor came into the room, she told you about it, so there’s no time lapse. And now we’re talking in present tense. I suggest that when administrators are doing their classroom observations, because by the way with feedforward, you don’t dump everything. I mean that wouldn’t make sense. Classroom observations serve a very good purpose. Even having a form, like a Danielson form or a Marzano form or a Marshall form, you know, looking, that is really sort of the standards in teacher evaluation and observation. Those are useful guides. Those are not pat. They’re not inherently wrong. It’s more about the way we’re using them. And what I would suggest is that the supervisor in this case sit you down and use what I call the four leads. Instead of telling you what he or she saw, sit you down and say, “Jenn. I noticed that during the lesson … .” So that’s one lead. Or, “Jenn, I wonder why you decided to talk to Johnny this way, but when you spoke to Jimmy, you spoke that way. It seemed like Johnny got a lot of harsh feedback from you, and Jimmy was getting a lot more positive praise. So why was that?” So “I noticed” and “I wonder,” those are more of your ponderer questions, and then you have sort of probing lead questions, which are your what-ifs and your how-mights. “Jenn, what if you decided to really try to give three pieces of positive praise that was focused on process,” not product, right, because we don’t want to upset Carol Dweck fans out there. “So what if you focus on process praise? What do you think would happen?” What if? Or, “Jenn, how might your lesson go differently if you used a 3:1 ratio, positive to negative feedback?” So now I, the supervisor, have not told you what to do. I haven’t described a problem. I’ve opened you up to thinking about your practice, and that is really the essential goal of feedforward is to move from what I call being a window gazer, someone who stares through a window and tells you what he or she sees, to becoming a mirror holder, someone who holds the mirror up to the other person, can’t see anything, right? All that person sees is the backside of the mirror and lets the other person, the receiver, describe what he or she is seeing for themselves. It’s a much more powerful coach approach to giving feedback.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. OK. And yeah, that really, it involves me in the process more, and also, I mean just listening to you say it as my principal, you sound more interested, and I’m taking this language now right out of your book, but you sound more interested in my development as a teacher, as opposed to just rating what I’ve already done.
HIRSCH: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean we have to view people as incomplete people. We have to see ourselves as incomplete people who need our support to become the best versions of themselves, but often they hold the answers, they just need someone to help them uncover those answers, to find that path, to find that internal locus of control, that sense of “I can do this” and a willingness and a desire to want to do it, but it only happens if we guide them to finding that solution, not actually telling them what that solution should be, because then people become defensive, that goes back to your brain on feedback and all the defensiveness and helplessness and argumentativeness that emerges from traditional models.
GONZALEZ: OK. So now that we’ve looked at this just one simple example, one of the big things that you do in the big is that you break down this whole concept of feedforward and you look at six sort of essential components of it, and you call this by the acronym REPAIR. So if people really want to give effective feedforward, I keep wanting to just say feedback, but that response should have these qualities, they start with the letters that build the word repair. So if we could now spend some time digging into this REPAIR process and what, if somebody’s really wanting to embrace this feedforward concept, how will they use these components as ways to make it really effective?
HIRSCH: Yeah. Well, if something’s broke, you fix it, right? So we have to repair traditional feedback. And drumroll please: REPAIR stands for regenerates talent, that’s R, expands possibilities, that’s E, it’s particular, it’s authentic, it makes an impact, that’s I, and it refines team dynamics. So regenerates talent, expands possibilities, particular, authentic, impactful, and refines team dynamics. So want to break this down?
HIRSCH: One by one? Sound good?
GONZALEZ: Yes. Let’s do it.
Feedforward REGENERATES talent.
HIRSCH: OK. So R is for regenerates. I feel like I’m on Sesame Street. OK, so the talent landscape today is really very different, right? We have more and more millennials taking over the workplace, which is both good and a challenge, and as someone who is himself a millennial though often tries to deny it, I really, I think that we have to be very sensitive to the different needs of today’s learners who are frankly much more interested in lattice and not ladders, right? The old way would be like climb the corporate ladder, climb the classroom ladder, become a principal, become a superintendent, become a district person, or become senior vice president in your organization, become CEO. Today’s generation is much more focused on employability, key factors that drive personal development, than they are about where they work, about employment per se. They’re more interested in moving sideways than they are in moving up, and they’re looking very carefully and consciously for people and places that are going to give them those opportunities, not just to get ahead but to become better. And actually, there’s research that confirms a lot of this sense that we have of people’s desire to grow as individuals. And one study I saw recently surveyed almost a thousand new entry-level employees, so millennials, and they rate professional development as the No. 1 driver of their engagement at work. This wasn’t just in a school setting, this was across the board, but it wasn’t money, Jenn, it wasn’t perks, it wasn’t free lunch, it wasn’t foosball tables, which is, you know, sort of what we tend to think about millennials. It was about skills, it was about development, it was about helping them become the best versions of themselves. So feedforward has to drive this focus on development by bringing coaching into performance conversations. So, like, give you another example with a teacher, right? So let’s say I’m the supervisor and you just started using these pineapple charts, right? Which I know is kind of a hot topic on Cult of Pedagogy right now, right?
HIRSCH: And I say, Jenn, pineapple charts. So amazing. Love it. Love what you’re doing. Have you ever thought about leading a staff development on that for our team? How about running the next in-service in the spring? And you’re thinking to yourself, “That’s not me. I don’t do staff development. I go to staff development. I don’t actually lead it.” Right? “That’s not who I am.”
HIRSCH: Instead of me just telling you, “Jenn, great job. Love the pineapple charts,” which really just affirms what you already know, because feedback isn’t always bad, right? Feedback is also good. That doesn’t push you to become a better person or challenge yourself or stretch. But by telling you, “Jenn. Great job on the pineapple charts. Do you ever think about leading a staff development on that?” Well now I’ve just given you a different message. That’s a different conversation.
HIRSCH: You are now thinking about how you can stretch that talent, which you already knew about, into an area which is still kind of unknown to you, and that’s where the growth occurs, these unknown, unformed areas of personal development and potential. So that’s regenerates.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I can see this working with the feedback we give to students all the time too that, you know, if you see a student that has a particular talent in something, asking them if they can just give a quick presentation to the class or if they can show this to a smaller group of students who’s really struggling in that area, that does that, that puts them into more of a leadership role with that skill. It really does take it to another level.
Feedforward EXPANDS possibilities.
HIRSCH: Which is kind of what leads us the second attribute, the E, which is expands possibilities. The company that I saw really do this so, so well is Pixar. And we love their movies, right? Their pretty successful and the most imaginative, creative, really just industry-breaking kind of stuff, but behind that magic on the screen is a very fundamental feedback technique that they call plussing, which is all about driving the idea count up and not down.
GONZALEZ: I love this word.
HIRSCH: It’s really awesome.
HIRSCH: So I actually had the chance, Ed Catmull, who’s sort of the creative director at Pixar, and he said, here’s how it works, OK? The animation team gets together every week for something called a crit session, like critique or critical, I don’t remember what that was exactly, but they’re basically there to tear each other apart.
HIRSCH: To break down the storyboards and to make it something useful.
HIRSCH: And something people will want to watch. And so when you’re at these crit sessions, there’s a very simple rule among the animators. You are not allowed to critique another person’s idea unless you can figure out a way to keep it floating. So rather than dismiss the idea completely, these animators have to accept the premise and then add on their own suggestions for improvement. And if it sounds a lot like improv, that’s because that’s where it comes from. Ed told me that Pixar unabashedly stole the plussing idea from the improv world where comedians are trained, literally, to accept all offers —
GONZALEZ: “Yes and.”
HIRSCH: — make your partner look good. “Yes and.” Yes.
HIRSCH: Yes. The power of a “yes and” over a “no.”
HIRSCH: So one example that he told me that they’re actually, they’re working on now for Toy Story 4, which I’m so excited that they’re doing, right? There should be Toy Story 15 or 1,500 as far as I’m concerned. So let’s say, you know, an animator presents a storyboard and Woody’s there and Woody’s eyes are looking straight ahead. So the director of animation might say, “Love that. Love how you had his eyes.” So that’s your yes. That’s accepting the premise. Great. “What if they rolled left?” All right, so that goes back that, the four leads that I was talking about before, like those what-if questions. What if they rolled left? Hmm? Right? So all of a sudden now the animator’s thinking, I was so preoccupied on the painstaking process of getting Woody’s eyes to look forward I didn’t even entertain the possibility of his eyes rolling left. Let me think about that. So if you think about it in our classrooms today where there’s such a drive toward project-based learning, which is a good thing but really does have to be managed carefully in order to be effective, instead of shooting down a student’s design idea, you say to them, “Yeah, Johnny, I see where you’re going with that, and what do you think would happen if you tried it that way?” Right? “Instead of using kerosene, which we probably can’t bring into the school building, what if you used olive oil? Would that work?” And Johnny’s like, “Oh. Yeah. Olive oil could probably work. It’ll combust. It’ll light.”
HIRSCH: “It just won’t blow up the school,” right? So you’re challenging them directly, you’re prompting them to reconsider an assumption, and you’re helping them create a different and maybe better version of what they thought, because this is focused on the receiver, not on the giver. It’s not my idea. It’s your idea. And that goes back to what I was saying before about being the window gazer versus being a mirror holder.
HIRSCH: Window gazers, they’re talking about their ideas. Mirror holders are talking about the other person’s ideas, more specifically, they’re letting other people talk about their ideas.
HIRSCH: And it’s not just telling you what I see. I’m challenging you to see it for yourself.
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Now let’s get back to my conversation with Joe Hirsch.
Feedforward is PARTICULAR.
GONZALEZ: OK. So we’ve got the first two, yes. We’ve got regenerates —
HIRSCH: Yes, so regenerates and expands. So then feedback has to be particular. Because, let’s face it, there’s a limit to how much we can absorb and operationalize in any given time.
HIRSCH: Feedforward is really about picking your battlegrounds strategically and selectively. The idea here is really to trim, not shave everything at once, which is what usually happens when we get this information dump in traditional models like our performance review, which is basically a punch list of 15, 16, I don’t know, 20 items I think was something on my last performance review. And it’s all happening at once, and you’re like trying to process each one individually, but it’s like a fire hydrant. It’s like a geyser that’s just coming at you and you can’t process that. And it turns out there’s a very strong basis for really being more selective, being more particular about our feedback. Social psychologists have named it as decision fatigue.
HIRSCH: It’s basically that our brains can only process so much, and we get too much information, the brain essentially short circuits and we then choose the path of least resistance, right? We do the easy, obvious, intuitive action, which is not the change or the improvement that we want, but the behavior or the pattern that we have adopted up until this point.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
HIRSCH: And there’s some really cool research stories that I share in The Feedback Fix. One is about these parole judges who are more likely to grant parole for cases they heard in the morning and not later in the afternoon. And it was like a really big range, it was a really big differential. And when researchers are going through it, they were like, “What is going on here? Like, is it bias, is it — ?” They couldn’t figure it out. And then they started to look at the timing of when these decisions were being made, and at the time that these judges were making late afternoon decisions, they had heard 15, 20, 30 cases. Their brains were shot.
HIRSCH: And so they went into decision fatigue, and when you’re in decision fatigue, if you’re a parole judge, you’re going to opt for the default choice, which is to deny parole.
HIRSCH: So unfortunately for these people who had their cases heard in the late afternoon, timing was really everything.
HIRSCH: It also explains a lot of voter behavior at the polls. The reason why people tend to vote down ballot, it’s a really interesting study, is not out of ideological purity or allegiance to a party. It really just comes down to exhaustion.
HIRSCH: So like let’s say you’re at the polls and we, let’s face it, I mean, unless you’re really into this stuff, you don’t know the names of your local candidates. You don’t know their issues. You don’t have any idea what they stand for. You probably don’t even recognize their names. And so by the time you’re down to like issue 15 or candidate 15, you’re just going to tick a box that, you know, is the easiest and least resistant path, which is, “Oh. There’s an option to check all? OK. That sounds good. I’ll do that.”
HIRSCH: Right? So the lesson here is to be selective and strategic. Don’t treat appraisal as a one-time event. It has to be an ongoing, continuous, and job-embedded conversation that happens every day. It can’t be seasonal sport.
GONZALEZ: And that allows you to really focus in on specific things.
GONZALEZ: Instead of dumping everything. We use this concept a lot in writing instruction, and I’ve told this to a lot of my student-teachers who are teaching English. If the student submits an essay, you’re not going to mark it up for organization and the tone and fix every single grammar error you see. Like it’s too much information, so you really do need to focus on one or two key things that the person can fix that would make the biggest difference and maybe do another round later where you’re fixing some of the more minor things.
Feedforward is AUTHENTIC.
HIRSCH: Absolutely. People need to see themselves as unfinished products. And the more we view ourselves as works in progress and look to others to help us become the best versions of ourselves, we’ll be the best people we can be, which is part of why this next step, authentic, is hard for a lot of people who give feedback. Because we see problems, we see pitfalls in other people, and we know it’s a problem, and they may even know it’s a problem, but we don’t want to be mean, right? We don’t want to crush them. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or rock the boat, and so the tendency among supervisors, whether that’s principals at school or your boss at work, is to either avoid giving feedback altogether or to disguise it as a praise sandwich, these really, in my mind, useless conventions where we basically slip one piece of criticism in between two very, very surface level gauzy praises.
HIRSCH: You know, you’re at parent-teacher conference and you’re sitting across from Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones and you say to them, “Mr. And Mrs. Jones, Johnny is so excited in class.” There’s the praise, and now here’s the meat, right? “You know, his excitement tends to get the better of him, and he’s actually become quite disruptive in class lately.” Then the praise. “Oh, but Johnny, he’s such an asset to our classroom environment. I love having him here.” So you think you’ve done a good job. You’ve done good by the parents. You know what the parents heard? “Johnny is so excited. He’s an asset in class.”
HIRSCH: They totally missed the critical piece because of what researchers label the recency effect. We tend to only remember the most recent thing we hear. And so if the last thing they hear is praise, that’s what they’re going to remember, not the critical piece in the middle. And so a much more effective way to go about being authentic and yet not being soul crushing is to use an approach I call PREP, which stands for point, reason, explain, and prompt. And it kind of brings together all of the elements that we’ve talked about so far, and a couple more that we’ll talk about at the end. And basically you just say it like this, right, you’re with Mr. and Mrs. Jones and the key is to be authentic and real, and yet afford the receiver, in this case the parents, with voice and choice to give them some measure of control and say in the process. So if Johnny’s really causing a disturbance in class, at parent-teacher conference, you don’t give a praise sandwich. You tell them this: “Hey Mr. And Mrs. Jones, is it OK with you if I give you some honest feedback?” Because asking permission, even though it’s really just a formality, right? Of course you can give permission, you’re the teacher. But it actually puts people at ease. Like, it’s not even feedforward, it’s just good practice in general when you give feedback.
HIRSCH: “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, can I give you some feedback?” And they’re like, OK. They’re getting nervous now though, right, because that’s what happens. You start to go on the alert. And so you immediately, you have to locate this feedback, very specifically and very authentically, quickly. And so you say, point, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, lately Johnny has been interrupting class.” And then you give the reason, right? You want to kind of give the reason for why you think this. Don’t make it abstract. “Actually, I’ve been seeing this in the last two weeks almost on a daily basis, and I’ve been recording kind of informally times when I’ve seen Johnny really disrupt the class, and to me it really does seem now like a pattern of behavior. It’s not just a fluke.” So you’ve given it an address and you’ve given it a name, OK? So now they know where it’s happening and what’s happening, and that’s your P and your R. Now you have to explain why it’s a problem. Now this may seem very obvious, right? But we have to make our feedback as clear as possible to other people, because most of the time the reason why people reject feedback as often as 70 percent of the time, according to one estimate, is because they don’t understand what you’re saying to them. It’s either too vague or it’s too much at once, it’s that geyser effect. And so you have to really be specific about where it’s happening and explain why it’s a problem that needs to be solved. So you’d say, “As you can understand, when Johnny’s interrupting like this, it’s disturbing to the others in class and more importantly it’s really interfering with his ability to become the best learner he can be.” And now the critical piece, the prompt at the end. “So Mr. and Mrs. Jones, what do you think about that? I mean, do you see this happening yourself? What do you think we could do together to figure out a way forward?” Now I’ve tried this. This isn’t just like an abstract. I’ve used this and I remember talking to a colleague of mine once and she said, “Joe, if you tell that to a parent they’re going to be like, ‘Why are you asking me to solve your problem? This is your problem. You’re the teacher. We’re paying you to solve our problem for us. So you tell us what the answer is.’”
HIRSCH: But that’s not what happened, it’s not what happens, Jenn. When you ask people for their opinion, they feel validated, they feel heard, and they feel like your partner. And prompting them for their ideas for solutions doesn’t mean you make them own it exclusively, right? You still as a teacher are going to guide that conversation. You’re the pro, and they’re looking to you for that help. However, the simple act of prompting your partner for a more collaborative solution makes such a difference, and even bad news, when delivered this way — point, reason, explain, prompt — it puts people at ease, it takes them off the defensive. It is clear, it is concise, it’s locating the problem, it’s looking for solutions together. It makes such a difference in how we are authentic with people and ultimately people want us to be authentic with them. People don’t want a praise sandwich. People want the truth. Because honestly, it’s not that we fear change. We fear being changed. And that essential truth, to me, is really why negative feedback is kind of this big taboo, this big no for a lot of people, because they’re worried about changing the other person. They don’t want to change people. They don’t want to control them. They want people to be themselves, and people want to be themselves too. So receivers also don’t like it when they feel like it’s a command and control approach. But when you do it this way, you’re bringing people into that conversation. That’s why that first example I gave to you, what this looks like, it’s really about giving voice and choice, and as educators today, and really beyond education, in business settings as well, it’s much more about personalization and choice and voice. And if we’re doing that in the way that people are learning today, sort of this personalized, on demand, self directed path, then we should be doing that in how we help provide people with opportunities to learn, which is the feedback, right?
GONZALEZ: What if though, what if you do want to change the person? If you’re dealing with, because I think in these scenarios, I’m sort of imagining these mostly high-performing people who can just get a little bit better. But if, what if you’re dealing with, I taught with some people who had gotten pretty negative throughout their years of teaching. I’m guessing that this approach would work much better for them, but it might be kind of hard for them to see how they are, you know? So I mean is that, I’m guessing maybe that’s part of the point, reason, and explain. You just sort of describing what you’re observing?
HIRSCH: You know, you’re making such a good point. And I actually, I asked Marshall Goldsmith this question. I was like, “Marshall, what if the person doesn’t want to change? What do you do?” And he’s like, “Easy. You do nothing.” I was like, “What? No, no, no. You have to do something.” And he said, “No. You actually, you do nothing. You can’t force someone to change. You can’t. I mean you can threaten them. You can lock them up, but you generally cannot force a person on their own volition to change. We can’t do that. They have to own the change.” This is why traditional feedback is so flawed, because it’s command and control. It’s not collaborative.
Feedforward has IMPACT.
HIRSCH: And in a way, I think this gets to the next part of repair, which is the I, impact. If you want feedback to make an impact, you have to really put it in terms that people can understand and that people can operationalize. So maybe when you’re giving this PREP approach, you’re giving your points, your reasons, and your explanations, there are some things you can do to make it a little more successful like instead of just telling them, you could show them video samples of what they’re doing. I mean that’s Jim Knight’s really progressive way of doing — I trained with Jim and he’s unbelievable at really pioneering this idea of video-based instructional coaching, and Jim helped me see the benefit of doing that, and that could be something. I’m not saying it’s easy, and there’s a lot of barriers and a lot of hurdles. You’ve got to be really familiar with what you’re doing, but if you do it well, that’s the best way to open someone up to who they are and more importantly who they can become. But the thing to me that really is like the guide when we talk about how you get people to make an impact, it’s the research on transfer, Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce who really did pioneering work in this area, showing that simply telling someone what to change or even just doing a simple demonstration of what that change looks like produces a transfer anywhere from 0 to 5 percent adoption.
HIRSCH: Zero to 5 percent. That’s terrible.
HIRSCH: That is basically striking out every time.
HIRSCH: But when that process is joined by active coaching, a much more collaborative approach, it involves reflection and guided support, Joyce and Showers found that the transfer rate skyrockets to 95 percent.
HIRSCH: And it seems so simple, right? It seems so simple. Just guide them, support them, give them time for reflection, for frozen thought. Provide that just-in-time support. But we don’t do this nearly enough. You know, we tend to treat feedback like a cleaver, right? We are chopping off big pieces of performance at once. We need to think of it as a toothpick, small, precise, spot treatments, right, guided by incremental support. Don’t try to do it all at once, right? Use a toothpick, not a cleaver. And I know I’ve said this already a couple of times in our conversation, but I really do believe it: People don’t fear change. They fear being changed. And the reason why they don’t put things into practice is because changing your practice, that feels like you’re being asked to change a part of yourself. Nobody wants to do that, right? But guiding people toward that change and helping them uncover those improvements through self discovery and coaching, that sticks. That makes an impact.
GONZALEZ: You know, I’m remembering in the book too that you described how in order to really make sure that the feedback you give makes an impact, you sort of need to guide the person to make a specific plan for how they are going to implement and transfer that new learning or that new habit.
HIRSCH: Mhmm. Absolutely. I think turning ideas into commitments and resolutions into results is a more simple process than we give ourselves credit for being able to do.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
HIRSCH: I really love Atul Gawande’s approach to checklists. He actually helped doctors save more lives using simple checklist procedures in surgical rooms. Pilots go through checklists before they take off. So what if teachers were just using checklists in their performance and craft? We would eliminate a lot of the errors in style and substance that we tend to make just because we’re in constant motion without a lot of time to reflect on what we’re doing.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. And this would be a skill that we could easily teach students to do, any student that’s trying to reshape their habits or start new ones, teaching them how to do something like create a checklist that they refer to on a regular basis is another way to build that habit. Yeah. And that actually reminds me of a lot of meetings that I’ve been in, and this is just in and outside the school, there’s a lot of times where we’ll introduce a problem, we’ll all sort of talk about it, everybody will give their input, and then we just sort of trail off, and there’s never a plan actually made.
GONZALEZ: Everybody sort of says, “Yeah, we need to do something about that,” and then we move on.
HIRSCH: Yeah, yeah. And it’s just as true for personal development, personal behavior as it is for staff-wide development, staff-wide behavior. There have to be small, incremental changes. Dan and Chip Heath in their book Stick, they say, not like mile markers but like pebbles, right?
HIRSCH: Instead of these, like, gigantic processes and concepts, shrink the change, you know, it really just, it makes things much more manageable, much more doable. That’s the impact, which I guess there’s one left, right? R, at the end of REPAIR?
Feedforward REFINES group dynamics.
HIRSCH: So we had regenerates, we had expands possibilities, we had particular, we had authentic, impact, and now for the last one, refines team dynamics. Because, Jenn, feedback is a team sport. It is not just something that happens one to one. It happens in groups and across and within organizations. And when we dump that command and control nature of traditional feedback, we make room for something much more collaborative and shared. The story I tell in the book is about Nest technologies that introduced the world’s first smart thermostat. Thermostats are pretty boring. They are overshadowed by just about everything else in the home, but what the engineers at Nest did, which was really unique for its time, was not just try to design a smart thermostat by handing it over to engineers, which is what you would normally do. They assembled a team that looked really unlike anything that had ever been assembled before in the world of product development. They had software developers, they had marketing executives, they had math professors. It basically, people with zero experience in the design of heating and cooling units. They had never hacked HVAC. And it was specifically because of that difference that existed within the team that they were able to create these unbelievable ideas and to generate what psychiatrists and psychologists have called creative abrasion, which is the collision of ideas that are so unique, they’re so different they end up becoming something altogether new and unfamiliar.
GONZALEZ: Love that expression.
HIRSCH: Isn’t it awesome?
HIRSCH: Yeah. Creative abrasion. It’s just a great way to help organizations and really students at school develop the very best ideas and in the case of Nest, it was the first smart thermostat. In the case of our schools, it can be the very next creative idea that is unleashed. It’s where our new ideas come from. It refines the ways teams are interacting with each other and changing the way those teams are designed to deliver results, sort of drawing upon all the other steps that come before it, you know, not being afraid to give particular and specific and authentic feedback, even when the feedback is bad. Really trying to drive the idea count up through plussing, not shutting it down. Really focusing on impactful solutions, not just pie in the sky ideas. That’s where ideas stop becoming just ideas. They become realities.
GONZALEZ: One of the things you talked about in the book is this idea of putting people together who come from different perspectives, people who are more likely to disagree on something, how that ends up producing better results than having people team together who mostly see things the same way.
HIRSCH: Mhmm. Yeah. I think we already, as teachers we have a sense of this, just in terms of differentiating for process or differentiating groups based on prior knowledge and readiness and all that stuff. But this is another level, right? This is really understanding the talent that exists in your team or within the walls of your classroom and unleashing that team genius to create something so much more powerful. You know what I like to say, like the smartest person in the room is the room?
HIRSCH: I think there’s truth to that, right? I mean there’s a lot of truth to that, that we have in our midst smart people, but smart in different ways.
HIRSCH: Who bring different skills, talents, and dispositions to bear every day, and that’s true at work and that’s true in the classroom. That’s why companies like Facebook and Google are experimenting with things called job crafting, which is basically allowing people to shape parts of their jobs, you know, not to just work off of a pre-established job description, but really to have voice and choice in that process.
HIRSCH: That’s why when we build capacity within our own schools, we really, like the best administrators, they’re not just managers, they understand who their people are and who they can become, and they very specifically and ruthlessly drive that potential and that talent to the forefront, and they make people into the very best versions of themselves because as much as I think there’s a value in bringing in outsiders, there’s a lot of wisdom already that exists within.
GONZALEZ: Absolutely, absolutely. Gosh, I’m just thinking about all the potential if our administrators think more this way and if our teachers think more this way about their students, school just becomes much more than a place where we just sort of churn out the day-to-day stuff, when you’re really looking at the potential of every person. So we are at the one-hour mark already, so I think we are going to have to skip our plans for this last section.
HIRSCH: We’ll have to do a part two.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Because that’s, I mean there are so many good points in that second part of the book that I will probably hang onto these notes, and maybe we can do that some other time.
HIRSCH: Yeah, that’d be great.
GONZALEZ: So tell my listeners where they can find you online. I’m going to be giving them links to The Feedback Fix so that they can go straight from the website, but tell us where else we can find you online.
HIRSCH: Yeah. You can find out more about me, sort of what I’m up to aside from being a teacher, how I’m helping schools and businesses apply behavioral science for more positive and productive workplaces at my website, joehirsch.me. Whoever has joehirsch.com, thanks a lot. I appreciate that. And you can get The Feedback Fix in hardcover or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, you know, pretty much anywhere books are sold.
GONZALEZ: Fantastic. I really appreciate you coming on here and also with the patience that you have had for how slow it was for me to get this going. I really appreciate it.
HIRSCH: It’s all about a journey, it’s not about the destination. It was awesome having the chance to talk with you today, Jenn, and hopefully in the course of our conversation we were able to really help your listeners understand how feedforward can not just change how people see who they are but really who they are becoming.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, including a link to Joe’s book, The Feedback Fix, go to cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 87. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.
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