Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Refining your thoughts: the diminishing feedback loop

“Have any of your children ever come home with a marked up essay draft that they were supposed to revise and turn in for additional feedback?” I’ve been asking this question lately of parents of school-aged children.

I was thinking of the feedback I used to get a generation ago at my public junior high and high school in my medium income school district: those elaborates and explains on literature papers; those hows, whys, justifys, and much to generals on history essays; the gigantic question marks that sometimes appeared next to particular sentences and paragraphs; and perhaps the best prose-tightening advice I ever got: “this paragraph can be reduced by about 50% without losing any actual content.” The feedback was often quite elaborate and precisely targeted at specific sentences, but left it up to me to identify the precise problem and deal with it. If it persisted in my next draft, there’d be more feedback about it, and perhaps a one-on-one conference with my teacher. These teachers seemed to know implicitly what recent studies have been showing empirically: that one of the best ways to learn is through regular feedback and self-correction.

Of the various interdisciplinary deficits in today’s schools, perhaps the most troubling is the decline in the feedback that students receive on their thoughts. How well have they have they expressed, organized, and justified these thoughts? Are they relevant to the given assignment? Do they collectively answer the question they were supposed to address? As you might have guessed if you are the parent of a current student, none of the parents I’ve queried so far about marked up drafts has answered “yes.”

What feedback students get today appears to be a combination of “peer editing” and teacher comments on final drafts. In the case of peer editing, you’re getting feedback from non-experts, much of which is skewed by the peer pressure (or is it the societal pressure?) to be positive rather than critical. As for teacher comments on final drafts, even the most critical of these, as far as I’ve seen, focus more on global factors like organization and overall argumentation and creativity and less on the building blocks: the individual sentences, the specific thoughts they express, and their linkages to other sentences. If what I’m hearing is representative of what’s going on generally (in private as well as in public schools) revising marked up drafts is totally passé. There’s little targeted feedback, and what feedback there is doesn’t loop.

The loop is missing from more than just essays. A generation ago and before, geometry students proved theorems from axioms. Filling out the steps in our two-sided proofs gave us implicit feedback on whether each next step in our reasoning was warranted. Similar, but more compelling, was the feedback we’d get in writing our own computer programs. Back when people used relatively basic programming languages that didn’t do most of the debugging for us, we’d write basic routines, run them, debug them, rerun them, etc. Today there are actually fewer true programming courses than there used to be: “computer science” now often means Power Point, Photoshop, and web development. Students who write actual programs are mostly using higher-level programming languages that are less logically challenging and are generously forgiving of inconsistencies and syntax errors. Geometry proofs, replaced by “hands-on inquiry,” have gone the way of the Dodo.

In my earlier post on students’ diminished ability to sustain attention, I worry about a resulting decline in the ability to comprehenend, or express, ideas that are beyond a certain level of complexity. Yet another obstacle is the minimum amount of critical feedback students get on any of their thoughts.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

While computer science and programming courses in high school are rare, I don't accept your contention that the programming languages now used are any more forgiving of syntax errors or logical errors. The popular languages for first programming courses are Java, Python, and (in some places) Scheme, none of which are the least bit forgiving of syntax errors.

Some places use Scratch to start, which does relieve some of the typing burden, but none of the conceptual burden.

Katharine Beals said...

I'm thinking of today's programming editors that assist the coder in keeping track of embedding via automatic indentation, color-coding of brackets, and/or bouncing of cursors from bracket to bracket.
And I'm thinking of languages like Java and Javascript, etc., that have built-in list operations that obviate much of the need for recursion (which fewer and fewer programmers, I'm told, know how to do--same with pointers).

kcab said...

This is one of the best aspects of my 6th grader's new school. Yes, he gets teacher feedback on his writing drafts. He has had several writing assignments which have required multiple drafts, each with teacher feedback. The drafts have been of increasing complexity for the first few rounds (start with a paragraph, then flesh that out into an essay with intro, body, & conclusion, then revise that essay a couple of times). Thank goodness, because he needs this. I should also give some credit to his teacher from last year, she worked with him extensively on his writing, but I think that was for him individually while what is currently happening is for all the students. He's currently in a public middle school in CA, in an affluent district. I have no idea if the writing instruction is something new, due to Common Core, or what they've always done.

I was very frustrated with the writing feedback (none) my older child received at school.

As far as computer programming and IDEs, you do still have to pay attention. Some things can be a bit easier to find (personally, I like color coding of different program elements) but it's still completely possible to make syntax mistakes. Or at least, it sure is for me.

momof4 said...

I had an excellent HS college-prep English sequence in my small-town 1-12 school and the same applied to history (combined US class but extra readings and papers for college prep kids). However, I don't remember ever being asked to turn in drafts of any paper, including major research papers done to college standards. Only the thesis statement, outline and reference list had to be approved (and I recently checked with a classmate). We often did short (1 page, handwritten) in-class essays, which were expected to be clear, well-organized and grammatically correct, with no revisions.

Perhaps it was different for the secretarial and general kids. However, we were all explicitly taught spelling, grammar and composition every year, starting in first grade. Also, every paper was corrected for grammar, in every subject. In 7th-8th, we diagrammed sentences. By the time we entered HS, we had a real foundation, even though most were relatively poor and only a few would go to college. The kids in the secretarial program could be asked to write a letter to X, saying Y and Z, and it would be grammatically correct, correctly formatted and without spelling errors (no correction tape,manual typewriters) within 30 minutes; prospective employers sought them.
Waiting until HS to teach grammar and composition is 9 years too late.

Katharine Beals said...

Momof4, I agree that feedback on grammar is crucial, particularly in the early grades. Here, though, I'm thinking here more about feedback on thoughts and argumentation, something that all of us can benefit from throughout our lives!

Anonymous said...

Teachers at our grade school give little feedback. Writing assignments often involve text-to-self and self-to-world connections and are largely about emotions or personal perceptions of events, so it is hard to give critical feedback about thoughts. The teachers believe that expository writing should be reserved for junior high and high school. Maybe the problem is that kids are getting a late start and are missing the opportunity to refine writing skills in the early grades.

David Foster said...

Yes. And any activity which provides feedback automatically, as an inherent part of the work, is going to aid in developing conceptual a way that is sadly difficult for a human teacher to do directly in an age of the hypertrophy of "self-esteem."

Teaching a simple programming language to kids makes all kinds of sense (a procedural language like Basic, not something like PowerPoint or PhotoShop)...also, projects in the physical world, both electronic and mechanical (the mechanical ones are probably better for kids with high spatial intelligence but less verbal skill)...robotics, of course, can encompass all three of the above.