Promoting a positive response to oral post-observation feedback
Educators across disciplines regard feedback on performance as an integral part of learning and teaching (Brandt 2008, Copland 2011, Winstone et al. 2016). Its purpose is to make students aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a basis for further development (Forsythe & Johnson, 2016). However, whereas positive feedback is usually well-received, constructive criticism – particularly when delivered face-to-face in a group setting – often meets with a negative response. As a recently qualified CELTA trainer I have found such a response to hinder rather than help trainee development. In this paper I will therefore evaluate ways of promoting a positive attitude towards oral lesson feedback amongst CELTA trainees. I will do so by relating guidelines for good feedback practice to the CELTA context.
Keywords: teacher training, CELTA, feedback, trainee response, good practice
Being able to provide constructive criticism on teaching practice is one of the core competencies a CELTA trainer-in-training needs to develop (Cambridge English Language Assessment, 2013). However, as a recently approved CELTA tutor I have found that trainees differ considerably in their response to developmental feedback. Whereas some welcome constructive criticism, others see it as a threat and become defensive, slowing down or halting their progress on the course.
Providing necessary feedback can sometimes lead to tensions between trainee and trainer, as well as amongst trainees, creating an unhelpful environment for developing teaching skills. I have found this to be particularly the case during oral group post-teaching practice feedback sessions. The purpose of this paper is therefore to gain a better understanding of some of the underlying factors that influence trainee responses and to identify good oral feedback practice that takes account of such factors. In order to achieve this, I will review current thinking on the topic – in relation to CELTA and more widely. I will relate selected theories to my experience as a CELTA tutor to date and comments on practice made by other trainers.
1 The CELTA context
To be able to review trainees’ response to oral feedback, it is useful to consider the context in which the feedback is given and received. The CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is a widely recognised initial teaching qualification endorsed by Cambridge English. CELTA courses vary in length and therefore intensity, but all feature six hours of assessed teaching practice (TP). TP is usually followed by a short break, during which trainees complete a self-evaluation form about their lesson. All the trainees in the TP group (up to six) and the supervising tutor subsequently meet to discuss the lessons, with the trainees giving feedback on peer lessons and receiving tutor and peer feedback on their own lesson. The feedback meetings generally last for approximately 45 minutes. Lessons are graded below standard, to standard or above standard by reference to a set of criteria covering categories such as lesson planning, language teaching and feedback. The oral feedback is complemented by a written report.
2 Feedback: purpose and response
In higher education in general feedback aims “to help students become aware and translate that awareness into fruitful behavioural change” (Forsythe & Johnson 2016, p. 1). Within the CELTA context, the purpose of post-observation oral feedback is to enhance trainees’ teaching practice (Brandt, 2008).
2.1 Response to feedback on strengths
Both tutors and trainees find it relatively easy to discuss what went well in a lesson. This is my own experience and appears confirmed by the fact that research exclusively focused on highlighting strengths is relatively scarce. Positive feedback seems to set in motion a positive cycle: trainees gain confidence and as a result get even better at what they were already doing well. For example, in her first assessed lessons one of the trainees in my TP group used computer-manipulated images of her dog to elicit travel vocabulary. Her humorous, creative and personalised approach helped her build good rapport with her learners, as well as elicit some of the target vocabulary. The positive feedback she received in the post-observation TP meeting resulted in her exploiting these strengths further: in subsequent lessons she used personal themes as a coherent, engaging context throughout. She fine-tuned her humorous teaching style by developing greater learner awareness, turning it into one of her main assets by the end of the course.
2.2 Response to feedback on weaknesses
By contrast, highlighting areas for improvement in a trainee’s lesson during TP feedback can lead to tensions, in particular if the lesson is graded as ‘below standard’. The following extract from a CELTA trainer’s blog illustrates this:
On being told that [the lesson] was ‘below standard’ for that stage of the course, the trainee asked if the grade could be changed. I said it couldn’t, and started to explain why with reference to the Cambridge criteria (although I thought the points had already been made clear during the preceding few minutes of feedback). The trainee stormed out of the room and slammed the door at this point. This was a shock to me and the rest of their TP group, and I wasn’t really sure how to react. In the end, I did the only thing I could, which was to apologise and move on to the final trainee’s feedback. (Millin, 2015)
I was confronted with a similar problem – although less extreme – when a worried trainee persistently diverted attention away from the evaluation of peers’ lessons to continue arguing points raised about her own lesson. It is not uncommon for trainees to react so negatively to carefully worded constructive criticism, either verbally or non-verbally, that tutors feel pressurised into becoming overly polite. As a result, there is a danger that the message is lost (Gakonga, 2017) or that the tutor refrains from commenting on a particular weakness at all.
Winstone et al. (2017) suggest that even when the message is received and understood, a negative attitude can result in students not acting upon challenging feedback, making the feedback ineffective. This was the case when one of the trainees on my trainer-in-training course was highly resistant to changing his authoritative teaching style. As a result, he failed to build up a good rapport with his learners, one of prerequisites for creating an environment conducive to learning. Naturally, there are other reasons why trainees fail to act upon feedback, but these fall outside the scope of this paper.
3 Factors influencing response to oral feedback
Given the key role of constructive feedback in the development of trainees’ teaching skills, an investigation of the underlying causes for negative trainee responses seems the first step towards identifying good practice. Factors inhibiting positive engagement with developmental feedback have been extensively researched in a wide range of disciplines and findings apply equally to teacher training (Brandt, 2008). Below I have therefore considered relevant points raised in relation to teacher training, psychology and the wider educational context.
3.1 Feedback as a face-threatening act
Constructive criticism from tutors and peers can leave trainees feeling offended, resulting in a defensive rejection of the feedback. ‘I don’t like the people in my group. Some are rude to me’, one trainee commented after contesting justified, carefully phrased feedback from her fellow-trainees on the balance between teacher talk and student talk in her lesson. Gakonga suggests that the post-observation feedback meeting is a ‘vulnerable space’, where trainees feel in danger of losing face (Gakonga, 2017). She argues that TP feedback is inherently face-threatening, relating the interaction to Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Summarising this theory, she notes that requests, suggestions, advice threaten negative face and that criticism threatens positive face: “We all want to be free and we all want to be liked, so anything that threatens either of those two aspects of our face has the potential to be upsetting.” (ibid)
However, it can be debated whether Brown and Levinson’s ‘universal’ rules equally apply to educational post-observation meetings. Trainees want to and need to become aware how they can improve their teaching skills and therefore invite feedback. ‘You are all very nice, but I want to hear what I did wrong’, one of my trainees observed after receiving nothing but praise from her peers, which resulted in more constructive feedback. Gakonga’s point that TP feedback is “different to other interactions” (ibid) therefore seems valid and suggests that trainees may not respond as defensively.
3.2 Personal beliefs
Whereas maintaining ‘face’ relates to one’s interaction with and perception by others, Forsythe & Johnson suggest students’ negative reaction to developmental feedback may be related to how they see themselves. The authors refer to Dweck’s concept of mindset (Dweck, 2002) to relate students’ rejection of feedback to their innate conviction that they are unable to change their basic ability significantly: “The detrimental impact of a fixed mindset lies with the replacement of active learning opportunities with self-restoring mechanisms that protect self-esteem.” (Forsythe & Johnson 2016, p. 2)
Conversely, students with a growth mindset believe that they have control over their ability and are motivated to learn (ibid). Applied to TP feedback one could therefore conclude that trainees with a growth mindset are more likely to be open to constructive criticism, or even invite it, as was the case with the trainee quoted above.
Forsythe and Johnson’s study revealed that the university student population under investigation was dominated by fixed-mindset students, leading them to conclude that “Generally, students are fostering self-defensive behaviours that fail to nurture remediation following feedback” (Forsythe & Johnson 2016, p. 1).
As yet it seems little or no research seems available about the proportion of fixed versus growth mindsets amongst CELTA trainees. Further research into this area might reveal whether CELTA trainees are more likely to have a growth mindset, just as they may be more open to criticism, as suggested under 3.1 above.
3.3 Pressure of time limiting dialogue and reflection
A critical issue raised by CELTA trainees in a study conducted by Brandt is that there is little time in TP feedback for trainees to justify their planning and delivery of a lesson. Trainees wanted to enter into a dialogue about feedback received, but felt that “it would be selfish […] to take up more time” (Brandt 2008, p. 41). Yet Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick point out that such dialogue is essential for the understanding and internalisation of feedback (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Mann & Walsh confirm both Brandt’s and Nicol and Macfarlane’s findings:
We are fully aware that time is always pressing and that relatively short courses (like CELTA) mean that this is necessarily a challenge. Also, tutors may feel that, under time pressure, it is necessary to ‘cut to the chase’ and be relatively directive and authoritative. (Mann & Walsh 2017, p. 48)
Such an authoritative approach is likely to evoke resistance to feedback, instead of engagement, reflection and ultimately changes in trainees’ teaching practice. When giving TP feedback one feels one has to guard against ‘telling’ trainees to save time. On occasions when on reflection I felt there had been too much trainer talk, subsequent lessons showed that trainees had not internalised suggested changes or reluctantly implemented changes without clear insight into the underlying reasons. For example, one trainee responded to previous feedback on her board use by dividing the board in clear, colour-coded sections at the start of her lesson, but failing to use the board at all during the lesson. My dissatisfaction with the delivery of my feedback illustrates the ‘disjuncture between trainer’s hopes for feedback and its realities’, as observed by Copland (2011).
3.4 Quality of feedback
Another factor that can contribute to trainees responding negatively in post-observation meetings is the quality of the feedback. Brandt reports that trainees prefer ‘authentic feedback at all times’ (Brandt 2008, p. 39), although it could be debated that this may be at odds with the need to avoid face-threatening acts as mentioned under 3.1 above. Experience has taught me that the need to preserve trainees’ face and self-esteem may necessitate adjusting the authenticity of the feedback.
Inconsistency in the application of course criteria and judgement of related performance between different tutors can also lead to confusion, as illustrated by the trainee comment below:
Tutors took different views and it sometimes seemed that they rarely if ever communicated amongst themselves. What one tutor would find acceptable and worthy of compliments, another might condemn. (Brandt 2008, p. 40)
One could expect this to be particularly the case on relatively new courses, or courses using freelance trainers who have had little opportunity for discussion with their colleagues.
Further issues with the quality of feedback involve the quality of peer feedback. Contributing to TP feedback on peer’s lessons is one of the course criteria, but, as Brandt observes, trainees can be reluctant to criticise their peers or simply not be interested in their peers’ performance, as they perceive their own progress as more important (Brandt, 2008). In addition, trainees may feel that their peers lack the expertise to identify areas for improvement. Conversely, in the past year several trainees have commented that they felt they had not yet developed sufficient insight into teaching skills to be able to provide valid comments, particularly in the early stages of the course. One of my trainees observed: “We get asked to give feedback, but I don’t really know what I’m looking for. I don’t feel I know enough to see what’s wrong.”
4 Good feedback practice
Various models of good feedback practice provide strategies for addressing some of the issues raised above. Below the scope for using some of these strategies to promote a positive response to oral post-observation feedback is evaluated.
4.1 Building and maintaining positive relationships
Mercer (2017) highlights the importance of a good relationship between teacher and learners, or – in the case of teacher training – trainees. At IATEFL 2017 conference she asserted that training teachers is just another form of teaching, so that the same psychology applies as when teaching language learners. Research into CELTA trainees’ views confirms that the quality of the trainee-tutor relationship has a great impact on the value trainees attach to tutor feedback (Brandt, 2008).
In order to build and maintain good relationships, Gakonga highlights the merits of observing universally recognised politeness strategies, as proposed by Brown & Levinson (1987). Such strategies are deployed to avoid resistance and embarrassment (Gakonga, 2017). Although criticism is an inherent feature of professional training and it may therefore be argued that TP feedback deviates from the universal situations that Brown and Levinson envisaged, trainees’ reactions in TP feedback meetings indicate that such social conventions do nevertheless apply. It therefore seems appropriate and useful to be aware of them.
To avoid the risk of damaging the tutor-trainee relationship by seeming overly critical, as well as trainees losing confidence in their own abilities, it is widely recommended to ‘sandwich’ constructive feedback between positive feedback, resulting in a positive-negative-positive pattern (see, for example, Robson, 2014). However, this approach can become predictable and therefore lose credibility. After hearing the ‘good news’, trainees seem to prepare for the ‘bad news’, some prompting ‘but…?’ Consequently, varying one’s feedback method would be advisable.
4.2 Developing a growth mindset
Students with a growth mindset are more likely to be receptive to feedback than students with a fixed mindset, as they feel they have the ability to develop (Forsythe & Johnson, 2017). Mercer applies the same principle to language learners and teachers (Mercer, 2017). Interestingly, she argues that mindsets are ‘domain specific’ and people can have contradictory mindsets. Relating this to trainees I have observed, this could explain why some confidently embrace the complex area of phonology, but are convinced they cannot understand or teach grammar, although both may be relatively unknown territory. Similarly, Mercer relates how trainees taking part in her research project felt confident about developing their teaching competences, but did not believe they could develop their interpersonal skills.
In addition to being domain specific, Mercer observes that mindsets operate on a continuum between fixed and growth, rather than being either one extreme or the other. To convert a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, she advocates praising frequently, setting a good example and showing confidence in the leaner’s or trainee’s ability to develop (ibid). However, Korthagen warns that “identity change is a difficult and sometimes even painful process” (2004, p. 85). An evaluation of trainees’ mindsets with regard to specific teaching competences at an early stage in the CELTA course could raise both trainees’ and trainers’ awareness of potential barriers. Little data seems available on this subject and further research into the impact of such evaluation on trainees’ attitude towards and internalisation of feedback could therefore be worthwhile.
4.3 Time for reflection
As established under 3.3, trainees are less likely to respond well to feedback if they cannot enter into a dialogue with their tutor and peers. Brandt observes that reflective practice positively influences trainee attitude towards feedback and suggests post-observation TP meetings should be viewed as ‘reflective conversations’ (Brandt 2008, p. 43). Other researchers hold the same view. Copland, Ma and Mann, for instance, advocate a more dialogic approach, where trainers and trainees participate on equal terms (Copland, Ma & Mann 2009).
However, due to the various roles trainers perform during TP feedback meetings, such equality can be difficult to establish. Trainers not only provide support and advice, but also assess trainees’ performance (Copland 2011). Copland suggests making deliberate use of discourse strategies to encourage trainee participation (ibid). As part of her dissertation study Tudor Jones (2012) explored using ‘open floor invitations’ to reduce the directive role of the trainer and provide more opportunity for trainees to reflect on lessons. Amongst other things, this technique makes use of minimal approving or questioning sounds to encourage trainees to elaborate and reduce trainer talk. As a former trainer-mentee I had the opportunity to observe and use this approach during my training as a CELTA tutor and I have found it to be very effective for encouraging trainee participation and reflection in subsequent TP feedback meetings.
4.4 Providing good quality feedback
As one might expect, trainee feedback suggest that good quality feedback is more likely to be well received than feedback that is perceived to be inconsistent or unsubstantiated (Brandt, 2008). To address inconsistencies in the interpretation of assessment criteria between tutors, CELTA tutors are required to take part in standardisation exercises organised by Cambridge English, the awarding body. Regularly observing other trainers during TP feedback has also proved beneficial for alignment between tutors.
Providing evidence, such as a video recording of the lesson, can help to make feedback more objective (Mann & Walsh, 2015). Quotations noted down in a running commentary can also contribute to clarifying a point made. For instance, when discussing a particular trainee’s need to grade her language more, being able to illustrate my point with clear evidence made the feedback both clearer and more objective. The trainee attempted to elicit the word ‘optimist’ in an upper-intermediate lesson and used the following concept check question:
“Being an optimist, is that a positive emotion at the end of the day?”
Apart from being evidence-based, good feedback practice also makes it clear what objectives need to be achieved and what criteria are applied (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Criteria are set out in a personal CELTA file, which every trainee needs to keep up to date and referring to these during TP feedback makes assessment more transparent.
The quality of peer feedback can be improved in various ways. Tutors can contribute by providing a clear model. After the first few TP feedback sessions, trainees start copying the model, both in the way they phrase the feedback and in the points they raise. Experience has shown that the quality of the feedback improves as the trainees’ own teaching skills develop. Guidelines on receiving and providing feedback are set out in teacher methodology books (e.g. Scrivener, 2011). Finally, it is good to make trainees aware that their feedback and reflection on peers’ lessons is assessed, as set out in the CELTA syllabus.
Feedback on performance is generally regarded as an integral part of learning and teaching (Brandt 2008, Copland 2011, Winstone et al. 2016). However, if trainees respond negatively to developmental feedback in post-observation TP meetings, there is no gain. In this paper ways of promoting a positive attitude towards such feedback have been considered and guidelines for good feedback practice have been evaluated in relation to examples from feedback practice.
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