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Unmuted: Using Student Feedback to Create an Effective Secondary Learning Environment
I had no idea how important it was to my high school students that I asked them for their feedback on our courses. The impact was far more profound than I ever imagined.
In light of the recent Duncanville issue, where student Jeff Bliss offers criticism to his teacher, the time to discuss listening to student feedback, particularly on how they're learning, is now. Had his teacher taken the time to establish a learning environment where criticism was not considered a form of disrespect, but rather, a constructive dialogue, things might have turned out differently for both of them.
In this video, some of my former students offered their perspective on just how much they appreciated being asked for their feedback. We're also offering a webinar on the topic!
Unmuted: Using Student Feedback to Create an Effective Secondary Learning Environment
Hosted by Kappa Delta Pi, June 25, 8pm
Register at: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/580671226
School staff focus on curriculum alignment, differentiated instruction, professional development, college and career readiness, standards, and academic interventions. Is it possible that schools can lose their focus on customer service? Customers include families, community members, and all guests who visit the school website or schoolhouse.
Customer service involves the front office staff, classroom teachers, teacher assistants, custodians, counselors, and all staff members. How are customers treated when they enter your school? Ask your school staff, “What does it mean to go the extra mile for the customer?” Do families feel like the front office staff answers the phone in a professional manner? Do teachers fire off emails when they are upset with students or parents? How do schools analyze the way they are treating customers?
Six Ways To Pour Some Sugar On The Customer:
The school website is the new front door. Families and community members make a judgment about your school before they arrive in the front office. Is your school website customer friendly? If you have a focus on technology integration, does your school website look like it was created in 1990? Does your website offer a welcome message or invite families to visit the school? If Open House was the biggest event between 1980-2000, then the school website opens your school to more than the all of the guests who attended Open House during that 20 year span. Your school is connected with the world. What kind of message are you sending? Would a family in Florida view your site and want to buy a house in your community, based on the information and message on your website?
Customer service involves phone skills, email etiquette, communication skills, and the way the customer is treated when they spend time at your school. Which restaurants come to mind when you think of outstanding customer service? Have you ever had poor customer service at a hotel? Have you ever visited a church and felt like none of the members knew you were in attendance? Customer service is easy to identify, especially when we are the recipient of poor customer service. When families have a bad experience at your school, they will spread the word throughout the community and through social media. As communities build more charter schools, private schools, and home school organizations, customers will walk rather than talk.
The media may promote your school once or twice a year. Administrators and teachers can promote the school on a weekly basis by posting on a school or teacher blog. Pictures from field trips, class projects, community service, guest speakers, and student awards can assist in communicating with families. Most blogs allow for families to forward the message to their family and friends via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Blogs also allow for two-way communication. The traditional method of communicating with families was a flyer in a second grade student’s backpack. With a blog, the school can communicate with families and families can post comments or ask questions about the event before their child arrives home.
Several schools host a Principal’s Coffee Hour once monthly. There is usually a topic that the principal or a guest speaker shares with families. The highlight of any Principal’s Coffee Hour is the time that families are able to share their opinions, ask questions, and brainstorm ways to support all students. Coffee Hour provides a monthly time for two-way communication. Parents will provide you with their opinions and they will feel respected because the school provided a forum for adult conversation about their most prized possession, their child. How is your school promoting two-way communication with families and stakeholders?
Twitter allows home-to-school and school-to-home communication. Families can receive updates from the school. While Twitter may not work for all families, it is a great tool. Most schools see social media as one form of communication. The sign in front of the school reaches some families, the school website reaches others, and a flyer may still work for families without a computer or a Smartphone. The reason I feel like schools should consider Twitter is because it allows families to forward or reply to each tweet. If you have ever been in a relationship with someone you realize the importance of two-way communication. A strong relationship between families and school staff will improve your customer service and customer satisfaction.
As the number of people with Smartphones increases, your school should consider a school app. “Smartphone vendors shipped 216.2 million units in the first quarter of 2013, which accounted for 51.6 percent of the worldwide mobile phone market” (Bean, April 16, 2013). If the school website is the new front door in 2013, then the school app may be the new front door of the future. An app can combine all of the items highlighted in this article. A school app may not be nice to have, but the next step in your communication and customer-service plan.
Most schools have a professional development plan, school improvement plan, and a curriculum map. I have rarely seen a school’s customer service plan. When it comes to service, if you fail to plan you may be planning to fail. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, said, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” There are only two kinds of schools; those with outstanding customer service and those without outstanding customer service. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rank the customer service at your school?
Questions for School Staff to Consider
1. Does our school provide outstanding customer service?
2. What are our weaknesses? What action steps do we need to take to improve?
3. What are the characteristics of outstanding customer service?
(Share your own experiences in school and non-school settings)
4. What can we measure every 18 weeks (semester) to analyze our efforts to provide customer service?
5. Do we have a school plan outlining what customer service looks like?
(Think Chick-fil-A; It doesn’t matter if the manager or a teenager provides you with service. There is consistency within and across stores).
A common saying about schools is that schools are a reflection of the communities they serve, but communities are complex. Schools by nature are a complex interplay of social, cultural, economic, political, and symbolic capital unable to be bound or directed by simple directives such as legislative mandates. Schools should try to use the complexity of the community to envision an even better community than the one that exists. The edge of the community, the unsure boundary, the frothy-foamy conversation between organic fractals of human existence gives complex systems the capacity for innovation and organizational learning (Fels, 2006; Stacey, 1996).
Equilibrium-oriented systems want to control disorder to move toward stability which limits energy crossing into the system so they act as ‘closed systems’ to keep energy from escaping. These systems apply negative feedback and other controls for order resulting in “strict policies, rigid hierarchies, resistance to change, and maintenance of the status quo” (Gilstrap, 2005, p. 58). In contrast, self-organized behavior reaches a steady state on its own while still remaining ‘critical’ in that it is barely stable (Waldrop, 1992). This is a fine point created by tension along the continuum.
Stuart Kauffman believes human organizations that are too structured or specialized do not allow agents to learn beyond the traditional processes for performing a job. On the one hand, if no one has clearly defined roles, the organization is chaotic without progress. The organization wants a balance of agents having a common purpose with the ability to adapt to the behavior of other agents in the organization. Complex problems can be solved at the edge of chaos because of the redundancy, loose couplings, blurry but present hierarchical roles, etc. Organizations that can evolve processes to bring in an increasing flow of energy move to the edge of chaos where they can solve complex problems and gain a competitive advantage to anticipate the future in order to survive (Waldrop, 1992).
Chaos by itself doesn’t explain the structure, the coherence, the self-organizing cohesiveness of complex systems…complex systems have somehow acquired the ability to bring order and chaos into a special kind of balance…called the edge of chaos where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life…The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive….learning and evolution move agents along the edge of chaos in the direction of greater and greater complexity (Waldrop, 1992, p. 12, 296).
These zones along the edge are similar to boundary conversations discussed by Bruffee (1999) where constant struggle determines what will shift to center and what will be marginalized. This gives new meaning to the phrase “on the cutting edge” of education. With no room to move in either direction, or you will no longer be on the edge, all you can do is move along the edge to stay on. “Systems function best when they are at the ‘edge of chaos’, poised between too much rigidity in the face of change and too much change in the face of achieved progress” (Levin, 2002, p. 12). Education needs emergent boundaries to allow work to be done and to keep systems from freezing up or flying into chaos (Church, 2005).
Normally, I am not one to write on controversial issues, but there is freedom in the provocative, and the time is now (or yesterday) for action in education. Although this speaks to one state's journey through the massive budget cuts and the looming additional injustices, I think that most educators in the nation have experienced a degree of this. I humbly share my thoughts with legislators considering budgets for next school year and the community of ASCD advocates:
How will your child suffer? We must stop this ridiculous abomination of a proposed budget now. The incessant and continuous hit that education has taken in the last 5 years has been beyond reason. However, this year's proposals fall just shy of criminal. As a voter, a parent of children in the school system and a school principal, I have many perspectives to offer. First, as a voter: We elect officials into office who we believe will stand for the things that we hold close to heart. Public schools are the birthplace of some of the best minds in America. What does it mean to be American? Please ask yourself this, as our elected representative. Americans value critical opinions and diversity but stand united when someone attacks our home or our community. To my esteemed elected officials, I say: We are under attack. Make no mistake... this is a war of interests. We must not let the future of our children and ultimately our country falter to other priorities. We know that you are under pressure to invest in the political interests that got you into office, but we beg you not to sacrifice our children, your children or the future of our great nation in doing so. As a parent: We cannot provide quality schools without adequate funding to do so. Should we settle for mediocrity? Would you settle for mediocrity for your own child? Absolutely not. I want my children to get access to teachers with skills that will challenge their minds and inspire their hearts. Teachers deserve pay worthy of the countless hours they spend planning. Let Principals hold them accountable to that. I want my children to have adequate support in their classes as they are acclimated to the rigor of public schools. Teacher Assistants provide this support. They are educators, advocates and probably teach your child in a center or reading group. I want my child to have access to the equipment, books and materials needed for 21st century learning. As a school principal: Is the public aware that kids in most counties are still using outdated books, so teachers have to develop their own curriculum materials to match the new standards? And what justice do we pay teachers when they do this with a smile on their face and protect our children from the perils of society? We cut their support (TAs), cut their pay (furlough), cut their money for supplies (instructional money), increase their class size (class size waiver elimination), increase their insurance premiums and cut their access to resources and support (district funding going to charter/private schools). Teacher Assistants are not just secretaries for the teacher, and I wonder if the public realizes that. They are instructional assistants... they help your children and grandchildren learn. Also, as a school administrator, one of the ways in which we can provide a duty-free lunch for teachers (which is a state requirement) is through the use of teacher assistants. Similarly, I wonder if the public understands the correlation between effective instruction and the number of students in a class. There is an inverse relationship between time for critical learning and the number of students in a class. This state and this nation is in a dire place of certain demise, if we cannot commit to providing safe, quality schools for our children today, so they can solve nationwide and worldwide problems tomorrow. With the proposed legislation about class size, harsh cuts to public schools (again), elimination of Assistants, sequestration at the federal level, and funneling the leftover pocket change to charter/private schools rather than public schools... I must ask the question... how will your child suffer?
I would like to share my words of wisdom to the 8th grade. Every year, I speak to them briefly, but my own daughter, Savannah, was being promoted. She is a strong personality who marches to a different drum. I never know if I am going to see her come down the stairs to go to school in a pink tutu, leather leggings, and a zebra striped shirt; or athletic shorts, dressy blouse, and flip-flops carrying her flute and her archery bow. She inspired this short speech.
“Welcome to 8th Grade Promotion. I would like to read you a poem by Robert Frost called The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“Today, you face a choice. You can take the road taken by most. Well-worn, easy, and clear. Life may be safe, but not very exciting.
“Or, you can take the one less traveled by—sometimes rough, sometimes muddy with uneven footing and roots to trip over. But it can be exciting, challenging, and rewarding.
“I hope for the next four years, you will help me take Sarcoxie down the road less traveled by. And when we come to your Graduation Day, you will say, ‘That has made all the difference.’”
Five aspects of complex systems help define internal structure. Internal diversity keeps the system flexible. Redundancy keeps small fluctuations from rippling into chaotic, destructive change. Decentralized control allows innovation and creativity to emerge from the complex interactions between diverse agents. Organized randomness keeps the system moving along cohesively without limiting where it will go. Neighbor interactions keep the system in check in relation to the environment and local fitness peaks (Davis et al., 2006).
Structure is important to complexity because “a hierarchical, building-block structure utterly transforms a system’s ability to learn, evolve, and adapt” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 169) by giving systems an opportunity to move subsystems around to increase complexity and creativity without having to try out every possible combination of agents and schema. Order is a byproduct of structure through routines and clear structures, rules, and procedures (Marzano et al., 2005). The structure itself is “influenced by social, economic, and political factors; created and socially constructed; learned; and dialectical” (Church, 2005, p. 48). Practices are determined by structures as well as construct structures (Swartz, 1997). Reflective practice gives individuals and groups the iterative vehicles to change complex organizational structures.
Despite the structures present in complex systems, “it is not possible to separate complex adaptive systems into neat categories based on whether and where selection is operating. In most systems, selection is manifest on multiple interacting scales” (Levin, 2002, p. 4). Structure cannot be permanent because agents reorganize themselves in response to internal and external stimuli so that renewal is continual (Fels, 2006). Complex systems can move along a continuum ranging from order to chaos with complexity sitting at the edge of both simultaneously (Waldrop, 1992).
“Since the boundaries of complex systems are difficult to determine, it is impossible to draw tidy lines between these organizational layers” (Davis & Simmt, 2006, p. 296). Fuzzy boundaries in the school as a complex system are especially evident when talking about differences in social class, the curriculum of a school, and the schemas used in the school community (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Lareau, 2000; Weiner, 2006). The unique sociocultural capital of diverse social classes determines alignment of groups of agents with the capital present in a school. “School practices and assumptions emerging from the deficit paradigm often hide student and teacher abilities” (Weiner, 2006, p. 1). Deficit thinking comes from either the recessive schema of the marginalized system or the dominant schema of the legitimate system depending on the context the school currently finds itself. The curriculum itself emerges from and as part of the emerging, iterative structures of the school community with “formal, informal, and even ‘hidden’” aspects (Barr & Parrett, 2007, p. 141).
The subsystems of complex adaptive systems are the legitimate and recessive systems with agents interacting according to schema with dominant and marginalized parts respectively. Paradox exists multi-dimensionally as well at the system, agent, and schema levels. Ordinary management techniques drive legitimate processes while the recessive system requires extraordinary management. Stacey (1996) claims that the boundaries of the legitimate system are “clear-cut” while the recessive system’s boundaries are “fuzzy”; however, the fact that the legitimate system is aware of and ignores much of the activity of the recessive system makes the legitimate system’s boundaries fuzzy even if they are less permeable than the recessive system.
The legitimate network in an organization plans enculturation and avoids surprises by using the dominant schema to control interactions keeping them linear (uniform, conformed, repetitive) resulting in proportional response to stimuli, balanced input/output, and in the end, the system equals the sum of its parts. The recessive system, a subsystem of the legitimate system, can also stop renewal and maintaining stability by resisting change; however, changes to the legitimate system are actualized through processes in the recessive system. Efficient legitimate systems are stable with the equilibrium to actualize the mission of the organization. The recessive subsystem’s schemas lead to diversity in the system which is an integral part of complexity and “comprises all social and political interactions that are outside the rules strictly prescribed by the legitimate system” (Stacey, 1996, p. 290). Conversely, power is relative and can exist in either the dominant or marginal ideology. Social change can be brought about by activating power and negotiating interests in the margins (Watkins & Tisdell, 2006).
In complex systems, team-based units allow for structure without being overly so through redundancy in the form of organic fractals. Teams exhibit characteristics of open systems with permeability and high information flow; nonlinear responsibilities and interests; self-referencing knowledge and redundancy; organic in the self-selection of members; and share vision, culture, and meaning as possible strange attractors (Gilstrap, 2005). Creativity also resides in the redundancy that teams allow “for the repetition of different ideas and experiments in slightly different ways, and…means that the organization will be more resilient in the face of inevitable failures” (Stacey, 1996, p. 280).
The principal acts as the recognized leader of the legitimate system; however, leaders operate as participants in the recessive system helping contain anxiety in the face of change through urgency and assurance at the boundary while observing processes in the organization. Leadership shifts from ordinary management in structured times to extraordinary management in phase transitions as the school moves along the continuum between order and chaos (Stacey, 1996).
Long-term predictability. In non-linear systems, a lack of understanding, the smallest miscalculation, or the smallest bit of information missing magnifies throughout the system until predictions are useless (Waldrop, 1992). Unpredictability is key to creativity which emerges from complex interactions and “cannot be intended in any comprehensive way….we are agents in systems that are coevolving into an open-ended evolutionary space” (Stacey, 1996, p. 71, 217). We are not in control of what happens in long-term outcomes.
The system moves toward a strange attractor like the mission and vision of a school, but never reaches the mission and vision. The system continues to move toward the mission and vision from the given point of the school generated by the sociocultural and environmental contexts driven by the specific interactions of the multitude of agents residing in the school community or any networked systems resulting in the school “orbiting” shakily around this strange attractor as those negotiations are made (Gilstrap, 2005). Long-term outcomes based on these uncertain, complex movements are unpredictable at best (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Short-term predictability. In complex systems, themes and archetypes are recognizable (Stacey, 1996; Waldrop, 1992). In fact, understanding the history of a complex system to look for patterns allows educators to plan within a short-term time frame, sometimes simply the next move to be made. This almost total lack of control causes the behavior of the system to emerge. Short term, general predictions are possible since tiny fluctuations take time to build and the momentum of the system is rooted in the past (Kieren, 2005; Stacey, 1996). “Patterns emerge at higher levels as a result of adaptive dynamics at lower levels of integration…prediction is limited, and…we must develop statistical mechanical methods to extract the knowable from the unknown” (Levin, 2002, p. 15).
When analyzing their school’s organizational context, principals cannot underestimate the unpredictability of the long-term future of the system. Marginalized populations within the school act as a recessive system undermining the efforts of the dominant, legitimate system. The future of the school emerges from interactions within and between the recessive and the dominant systems. A new paradigm that recognizes and makes meaning of the dynamic, nonlinear versus linear nature of the processes and interactions of these two subsystems would help protect principals from unreasonable long-term planning, unproductive and unmanaged conflict, innovative but misguided agents, and wasted time due to superficial work and restructuring efforts not based on emergence (Bower, 2006; Stacey, 1996).
The dominant paradigm rosily sees success in stability, predictability, and carefully strategic plans (Stacey, 1996). “Predictions are nice, if you can make them. But the essence of science lies in explanation, laying bare the fundamental mechanisms of nature” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 39). Educational complexity is not different. Researchers have to look at explaining how education works with the knowledge that it may not result in predictability since education is emergent based on too many factors to mathematically analyze.
History and past pedagogy is important to creating effective high-performing, high-poverty schools (HP2S), but vast changes in the sociocultural capital available to students in this decade make research of previous decades null or irrelevant. Even within the same time period, findings in one context will not be generalizable to another setting. Failing schools that are trying to transform cannot hope to perfectly implement what other successful schools have accomplished because of the unpredictability of complex systems (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Berliner, 2002; Brady, retrieved October 22, 2007; Church, 2005).
Strategic planning in complex environments results in rigid processes such as goal setting and action plans that restrict emergence. Educational institutions should allow for a more flexible process that takes into account causal relationships (Gilstrap, 2005). Small fluctuations would have a harder time permeating multiple boundaries within similar structures across a flattened hierarchy. This redundancy provides stability, robustness, and resilience against small environmental fluctuations (Stacey, 1996).
Deficit (noun): Inadequacy or insufficiency, an unfavourable condition or position, to be lacking or a shortage. From the Latin – it lacks
Developmental (noun): The act of developing from a simpler or lower to a more advanced, mature or complex form or stage
I received a call this morning from a teacher friend of mine. Claire is a second year out teacher who began her teaching career after a varied and wondrous life journey. Her life is a litany of success and achievement. She has been a nationally ranked gymnast, playwright, leader of transformational seminars, managed sales teams, mother, and carer. She rang me because she needed to talk to someone who understood the life of a teacher but was outside her school environment.
Claire felt that she was struggling at school. The school had asked her this year to step up to co-coordinate and rejuvenate English at a critical year level whilst taking on managing the school play and teach more classes. The school leadership team obviously thought a lot of Claire and her capabilities otherwise they would not have given her this opportunity. Claire’s challenges echo that of most teachers in the profession – the feeling that there is never enough time to get everything done that you need to do, let alone what others expect of you. Claire was currently experiencing her work as never being complete to her satisfaction, teaching as well as she would like to with a particular group, as well as having times of being overwhelmed. Much of her concern was self-talk about not being enough and that other staff members were judging her performance.
In my experience this is a common feeling amongst teachers. With the relentless day-to-day nature of education many teachers rarely have the time to neither reflect deeply nor acknowledge the progress they make each and every day. The feeling of needing to be constantly driven yet never enough is familiar to many. It is an experience of deficit – and I assert it is symptomatic of the paradigm in which education currently swims.
Recently in my work with a school to create supportive structures to empower and develop teachers I had a blinding insight about what we were actually trying to achieve – and it was far larger than I had anticipated and could explain why “performance” and “teacher evaluation” was resisted by many teachers.
Human beings, for the most part, live in a deficit paradigm. It is everywhere. It is in how we see ourselves, how we see the world, how the media portrays the world, in how politics is currently working, it is endemic in our schools. It is how companies sell us products, programs and desires. We aren’t doing enough, productive enough, rich enough, thin enough, smart enough, careful enough, etc. The recent viral Dove Real Beauty Sketches are a perfect example of how people see themselves from a deficit paradigm and the impact of that viewpoint.
Our education systems are then built upon this deficit thinking. We need to “improve” our schools. We need to “evaluate” or “appraise” our teachers and get rid of the bad ones and pay the good one’s more. Politicians use the language of deficit and impose deficit thinking models on schools and school systems. They look at other countries like Finland and Singapore through deficit eyes. If you just look at the language alone (e.g. ‘appraisal - the act of estimating or judging the nature or value of something or someone’) I am not surprised teachers and schools are resisting this thinking.
If you look at ANY high performing school, school system, team, organisation anywhere in the world, the paradigm that they operate from is one of nurturing, growing, building and development. This is not the language or viewpoint of deficit. There is nothing lacking but something to grow and nourish. Two recent TED talks by Rita Pierson and Sir Ken Robinson both point vividly to this.
Currently, we are immersed in a world of deficit and because of this we develop learning in schools from this mindset and we relate to one another from a deficit mindset. Our school structures hamper and hinder developmental thinking. Teachers need time to think, to reflect, to develop, to grow. Running from one class to another limits this. To improve performance in schools we must create structures for teachers to develop their own meta-cognition as a core part of being a teacher (or as I like to refer to them – master learner).
If we wish to create and transform the education system to unleash the potential of young people (and of ourselves) it is critical we create a developmental mindset and view the world through the eyes of “developing from a simpler or lower to a more advanced, mature or complex form or stage”. When something is developing it experiences stages of growth and stages of challenges. It needs to be nourished and watered and fed to grow.
The real battle we need to be fighting is one of context.
Inside a developmental paradigm there is empathy for the stage of development people are currently at. There is not judgement just an acknowledgment. It allows for acknowledgement of progress, and celebration. It realises there are muscles to build, and capacities to grow. In the realm of agriculture one does not judge the value of a plant and ask it to improve. We create an environment for it to flourish and grow. That is what we are actually trying to do with students and staff in schools – aren’t we? In fact, I assert that wherever you find a great teacher, a great school, great parents, great coaches, great teams and high performance – you will find this paradigm. Not surprisingly you will also find habits, structures, practices and actions that develop and grow learning.
My coaching to Claire was simple. As we spoke she became clear how hard she was on herself. She saw that she could have a lot more empathy for herself and also share and communicate with people at the school what she is dealing with right now and what support she would like. She left clear and empowered.
How does deficit thinking play out in your school? Where do you struggle with deficit thinking? Where do you see developmental thinking?
Here are some slides from my leadership presentations. Enjoy!
(Royalty-free background photos from sxc.hu)