The Theology of Feedback

The Ancient of Days by William BlakeAn area of great interest to me at the moment is the value of effective feedback in raising standards. This is partly due to the prominence it has been given in recent research reviews of the relative impacts of different interventions in the classroom. When looking at the most successful interventions (see also the new course from @Dragonflytraining on ‘Research for Learning’) you see that findings from Hattie and The Sutton Trust rank feedback as one of the most influential ways that teachers can make a tangible difference to their students’ progress. Hattie is quick to point out that the teacher’s view of what is considered useful feedback often differs hugely from that of the student. The underpinning importance of the relationship of the teacher to the student prompted some interesting connections with key theological concepts that perhaps gives an insight into the true nature of effective feedback.

Firstly, what is crucial to a truly differentiated approach is an understanding that not all learners are the same. This is not news to teachers who have spent many a break and lunch time discussing their students as individuals. Good marking, reporting and feedback to parents has always been individualised and personal. This recognises the personhood of students rather than any attempt to define them as a collective which diminishes their individuality. Of course this can be hard work to achieve, especially when faced with large classes, and unfortunately sometimes the opposite does occur. I remember the schoolgirls who told me that they had no idea how to make progress in Maths because the whole class was always awarded a C3 when it came to termly reporting. I assumed this to be typical student exaggeration until I looked up the set’s results for the past few reports, only to see it was true. These occurrences are thankfully rare, as the majority of teachers spend hours attempting to personalise learning. The example however does highlight something that Hattie makes clear, that it is important to think about how feedback is received rather than merely how it will be given. In Christian Theology there are some amazing writings, particularly from the patristic era, concerning the idea of humans as a reflection of the Divine Personhood (Gregory of Nyssa et al). Even without a belief in the Divine Personhood it could be worth thinking about the individuals in the class as a reflection of the characteristics modelled by the teacher. Either way, feedback is feedback to an individual responding to their learning experience.

This is just one aspect in which I see a correlation between feedback and theology, but the main way I want to consider here is to look at the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the individual student. One of the hardest topics I would normally teach as part of A level Philosophy of Religion was the response of Process Theodicy (‘theodicy’ comes from the Greek, literally meaning the righteousness of God) to the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil states that there appears to be an incompatibility between the concept of a loving deity and the existence of evil. The two main Judeo-Christian traditional positions that are usually studied first are those of Augustine and Irenaeus. A third position that is often looked at is that of the Process Theologians, such as Alfred Whitehead and David Griffin, amongst others. Whitehead believed that God pushed the world forward in creative ways. These theologians argue for a neo-classical view of God that instead of being omniscient, omnipotent and infinite, God is located in time, not knowing what the future will hold. The reason for this is because by sacrificing these qualities God is able to be affected by human actions and to be able to respond to them. 20140220-173152.jpgThis quality was a particular focus for Jurgen Moltmann’s seminal work, ‘The Crucified God‘ which argued against the traditional view of God as impassible, meaning that humans were unable to affect God. Instead he argues for the passibility of God, that God suffers with humanity in their suffering. By sharing in the process, the future is a product of that reciprocal relationship. Humanity is comforted and encouraged knowing that God is alongside them. The Process Theologians argue that this is a truly loving relationship where God has initiated the creative process and urges it forwards.

Not surprisingly I have not done justice to the full arguments of these great thinkers, but it is the co-sharing relationship that I felt linked with the concept of effective feedback. Of course I am not suggesting that all teachers see themselves as gods (only a few and these are definitely in the minority – see Twitter), but there can be a sense, even a worry, that the teacher should play the omnipotent role in the classroom. Everything is known and it is for the students to aspire to their knowledge. We are the constant in every lesson, the unchanging absolute, whilst students come and go. What the recent work on feedback really highlights is the importance of the shared journey. Adaptive planning is a consequence of reacting to individual learning experiences with individual students.

Process Theodicy does not uses the language of coercion, instead God lures humanity through love into producing creative responses. The process is dynamic, changing, and one of interaction. This can also be said for the creative relationship between pupil and teacher. This example also links to the notion of praise, often mistaken as equating to effective feedback. In the divine relationship humans affect and are affected by God, but the individual can act with free will and as a consequence sometimes bad things happen as part of that dynamic process. So it is too that with an honest, reciprocal relationship there will be times when failure occurs, but lessons are learnt from those experiences. This idea would promote the importance of ventures such as Wimbledon High School’s ‘Failure Week’ that first happened in 2012. With feedback, meaningless praise has no effect on moving the process forward, but it is the exchange of ideas that can make the long-term difference. In the divine relationship the Process Theologians argue that God is genuinely loving, because He responds to the changing relationship with members of creation. The love is both absolute and present in the changing interactions. Writers such as Hattie and Dweck suggest that praise can dilute what should be learnt from feedback. This is not suggesting a ‘no praise’ approach, because it is part of the dynamic of the class, but it is not the coercion that determines the student’s next step. Creativity is not an optional extra that is sought and only sometimes achieved, instead the on-going interactive process itself is an act of creativity.

Hattie says that,

‘The more the teacher receives feedback from student engagement, then the more likely he or she is to adapt their actions and expectations and thus students are the beneficiaries’ (2014, p69).

This reciprocal relationship benefits both teacher and student and both can move forward together. It might be worth considering renaming feedback as ‘process feedback’ because it is part of the bigger picture. Just as with Process Theodicy, to enter into a relationship where you are affected by the interaction, involves taking risks. The ‘omnipotent’ position can be far more attractive because certainty means the outcome is known. However, by taking on board the personhood of pupils it is clear that the outcome cannot be established by pre-determined factors, education has to be reactive and adaptive if it is going to succeed in enabling pupils to make the best choices.

There are of course criticisms of Process Theology, including that it is not a solution to the problem of evil, because advocates have changed the definition of God, rather than answer the dilemma. One criticism that might be relevant to education is that the outcome of this creative process is not known. One can hope that everything will work out well, but there is no guarantee and unfortunately we are living in a time when guarantees are expected. So can you have both – a guarantee and the uncertainty of process? I would suggest not. Some think that finding the right piece of research will solve the problems of education, but with the personhood of pupils we have individuals to work with not objects and therefore research is on-going and dynamic. If we take risks, engage with the creative interaction, the outcome may be worth the gamble. Certainly feedback, or ‘process feedback’ appears to have one of the biggest positive impacts on learning and so I think it just might be worth taking that chance.

photo(1)Hattie, J & Yates, G (2014) Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn, Routledge, Abingdon

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One thought on “The Theology of Feedback

  1. Pingback: Week Four: Blog Entry | Emberscales Ed Tech

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