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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

The Fundamentals of Fast Feedback

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New principals can improve their instructional coaching by having brief, targeted conversations with teachers.

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LeadershipProfessional Learning
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Being a new principal can feel like directing a ship while teetering on a life buoy in a roiling sea. Many novice administrators embrace the demanding skills and erratic pace required to manage everything from nightly extracurricular activities to teacher evaluations, student outcomes, parent demands, strategic planning, and facility issues. As former turnaround principals and current principal coaches, we work with thousands of administrators in the United States and abroad. According to the new principals we work with, the following needs drive their work:
  • The need to distribute leadership.
  • The need to manage challenging adult behaviors.
  • The need to provide consistent, effective feedback to staff around instruction.
We'll address the latter issue here because it's the most pertinent, and we'll offer key ways to individualize quick, targeted feedback.
Whether you're a new leader or a leader struggling to ensure that your staff receives and acts on input more effectively, consider adding intensive and compact conversations to your feedback approach. Yes, longer feedback sessions of 45 minutes or more, and even half-day team planning and data analysis meetings with a grade level or department, are an important part of the feedback process. But because there is limited time in a workday or week, the need arises to provide quick input in 5- to 10-minute chats. To this end, we suggest four key strategies, many of which form the backbone of chapter three in our book, The Instructional Coaching Handbook (Young, Julien, & Osborne, 2023). In our experience, we've found that providing numerous, targeted feedback sessions that encourage teachers to make immediate, manageable adjustments results in far more significant improvement, both in teacher efficacy and student learning, than laborious once- or twice-a-year evaluations that often don't reflect actual daily practice. In other words, we suggest supplementing the traditional evaluation process with multiple succinct feedback conversations.

Strategy 1: Nail the Praise

Start by acknowledging effective work generously. However, resist the urge to tell people that they're "rock stars" or that they're doing "great work" without telling them why. If you want to keep seeing solid practice, look to a four-step acknowledgment approach adapted from research by Hattie and Clarke (2019):
  1. Describe precisely what the teacher did: You led that student discussion with equity!
  2. Describe the effect of the action: Because you made every student signal or write while others were speaking, they all had a voice in the topic, not just the quickest and most verbal.
  3. Describe what the teacher needs to do next: Follow this same approach during every whole-class dialogue.
  4. Describe why that practice is vital to continue: When you ensure that every student has agency in the classroom in such practical and intentional ways, you're moving all our students toward being articulate scholars, which is our schoolwide goal.
Basing praise on the practice's effect (step 2) and rationale (step 4) increases the chances that the teacher maintains the practice when you're not around. Support your praise with research or best practice; don't base it solely on your opinion. Although you can let a few comments like "Good job!" or "I loved that!" slip out (it's human nature), make sure to follow up with why that action was significant to you, to the students, or to the school as a whole. Hammer the rationale.

Strategy 2: Differentiate the Frequency

Many administrators proudly proclaim that they're in every teacher's classroom once a week; we took the same approach as principals. However, over time we learned that highly effective leaders adapt the number of feedback sessions according to student and teacher needs. Teachers struggling to produce positive student outcomes may need input two or three times a week, whereas other teachers may only need it once every week or two. You can use drop-in visits; classroom data, such as student work artifacts; test scores; student feedback; or other vital measurements to decide on your frequency variable.

Resist the urge to tell people that they’re 'rock stars' or that they’re doing 'great work' without telling them why.

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Use the same principle of varying frequency for determining how often you need to review a given teacher's lesson plans, which many principals use as guidance opportunities. Most principals find that many teachers only need quick, occasional feedback on their lesson plans. However, high-needs teachers may need lesson critiques or intensive planning work twice or more a week. Think of the rhythm of your lesson feedback as triage: Who needs more continual input, and who can wait longer between feedback sessions?

Strategy 3: Differentiate the When and Where

Consider the following approaches to delivering feedback. Match these practices to the needs and receptivity of your staff, as well as to your own capabilities and comfort level with each technique.

Guide Teachers During Instruction

Start with a whisper. Don't be afraid to guide teachers out of earshot of students. Provide both praise and critique this way. Respectfully give the teacher a heads-up that you might chat with them during a natural break in explicit instruction. Offer a quick appreciation message or one minor point the teacher can adjust, something you can communicate in two to three minutes. For example, out of earshot of the students you might say, "Ms. Lovett, the precision you're giving students in your praise is remarkable. You didn't just praise them; you clarified exactly what they did right. This specificity aligns perfectly with our school improvement goal around student feedback. Keep it up!" Many teachers report that they appreciate the immediacy of this type of feedback. Some administrators use this technique to provide quick instructions for the teacher on a small whiteboard. Frequently, a tiny nudge during teaching is all a teacher needs to implement a practice fully.

Converse Standing Up

Consider a stand-up conversation for quick feedback. Catch the teacher in their room or the hallway out of earshot of colleagues and students, and collaborate on your feet. Typically, the standing chat accelerates the conversation, possibly keeping unrelated topics at bay. Similarly, a second-year assistant principal in San Diego, California, conducted "ramble coaching" with teachers as the two of them monitored students during recess (Matheson, 2019; Young et al., 2023); the pair engaged in coaching chats as they walked (or "rambled") around the perimeter of a large field.

Consider Asynchronous or Video Feedback

With asynchronous work, the principal and teacher discuss teaching points by email or using a shared online document following an observation. This process provides flexible timing for both teacher and principal and works well with highly skilled and reflective teachers. Ensure this is not a one-way conversation; both the leader and teacher must share. Be cautious about providing critical feedback solely in writing; without the warmth or sincerity communicated through body language, much of your point may be lost.
With video feedback, the teacher records a lesson or lesson segment; the principal views the video and provides notes about specific moments the teacher needs to review. For example, if the teacher is repeating the same types of student engagement approaches, such as choral response, you might suggest alternatives to add variety and interest, such as having students write their responses on a whiteboard or engage in quick partner drills. This expedites the live meeting in which the teacher and the principal debrief the video data and set specific goals. Narrowing the video and instructional focus enables the teacher and principal to conduct brief 5- to 10-minute consults at any time of day.

Collaborate in Small Groups

If you have existing strong relationships with your staff, perhaps because you were once their coach or teacher colleague, consider small-group collaboration in which you provide guidance to three to five teachers simultaneously. For example, if you visited the classrooms of all the math teachers in a given grade during a given week, you might meet with them later on to provide feedback pertinent to the group as a whole. One principal we worked with met with the math department during their collaboration time while standing in the school courtyard; in just over eight minutes, she not only provided evidence of positive practices she had noted in each classroom, but also led the group in brainstorming solutions that would more directly tie the teachers' lesson warm-ups to current student weaknesses in math. Again, for this to work well, you need a great deal of preexisting trust and rapport among the team—and between the team and you.

Strategy 4: Be Brief—and to the Point

From starting small to recapping the session, the following pointers can help you stay focused on the change you want to see.

Start Small

Target one primary goal with the teacher, especially if you've encountered several problems while observing instruction. Focus on one aspect of the curriculum or on one small group of students. Refrain from overwhelming people with too many critiques. Key in on a strategy you know the teacher is ready to hear, and, as important, make sure it's one you can clearly communicate.

Target one primary goal with the teacher, especially if you've encountered several problems while observing instruction.

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For example, instead of attempting to advise the teacher on something complex, such as changing the tone of their voice during redirects or increasing the level of thinking of their entire unit, focus on something more concrete or basic, like how to move from seven-step to three-step directions or how to quickly engage the entire class with a call-and-response or with a quick-write technique. Like a blocked writer staring at a blank screen, overwhelmed or stressed teachers often cannot move toward systemic improvement; they need to begin with one small task.

Alternate Between Inquiry and Explicit Guidance

Teachers new to the profession, new to the subject or age group, or just overly stressed by the work may need more mental or emotional access to ideas. You (and they) may need to rely more on your expertise. In these cases, freely toss out ideas or solutions while you solicit ideas from the teacher: "Here are two quick ways to have all students provide responses. … Besides those, what other methods might you use?"
Adults love choices (Knowles et al., 2020). Instead of telling the teacher how to solve a problem, pause and ask them to brainstorm solutions. With three or four ideas at hand, ask the teacher to select the solution that best fits their students' needs. Then set a time to see the teacher implement the strategy.
On the other hand, if the teacher demonstrates high proficiency in instruction and content skills and routinely reflects on their work, your best match is likely solid inquiry; pepper them with open-ended questions so they can solve their problem: "You say you're concerned about some students not responding; let's chart several methods you have used in the past, and you can rank which ones might work best with this group."
Switching between inquiry and explicit guidance demonstrates a practical application of situational leadership theory (Northouse, 2022); you're differentiating the process according to the needs of the adults or the students and their current contexts. To get at the heart of feedback, you can speed up a conversation by putting your opinion in the mix more quickly or slow down the process by using more open-ended questions.

Courageously Critique

Be confident in providing quick critical feedback when necessary: "No, that's not what we planned. Tell me why that's not an example of ___." "You had the first part right. Here's how to complete the strategy." Most adults manage mistakes without being devastated (Saphier, Haley-Speca, & Gower, 2018). To this point, multiple researchers highlighted employees' desire for positive and frank critical feedback (Fishbach & Finkelstein, 2020; Fong et al., 2018; Killion, 2019). Be kindhearted, use precise data, be humble, describe how to correct the issue, and provide an explicit critique—all simultaneously. These attributes are not mutually exclusive.

Stay Focused on the Who

Another approach to quick reflection involves asking simple, powerful questions, such as, "Who learned what in the lesson today?" or "Who demonstrated what independently?" These straightforward prompts get to the heart of what is happening with students. With these queries, you lead the teacher in examining multiple aspects of the lesson. Stay focused on the who, and ask the teacher to show you data—student work, writing, artifacts, and so on—that support their response. The teacher can often diagnose learning problems by responding to these simple reflective prompts.

Switch Gears

If the teacher doesn't grasp the concept, stop talking and revisit the issue another way. Try a less verbal approach, such as using a video example, providing a visual, or turning the coaching session into a make-and-take, where the teacher constructs something needed in the lesson. For instance, if a teacher is struggling to use physical proximity with students during independent work and manage the classroom at the same time, have them role-play how they will circulate to check student work while keeping an eye on the class.

Don't forget the value of personal reflection time. Not every minute needs to be filled with talking.

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Don't forget the value of personal reflection time. Not every minute needs to be filled with talking: "Let's take three minutes to reflect on what we've said and draw or jot down notes to make our thinking visual."

Request a Recap

Ask the teacher to summarize what they understood from the exchange. This action enables you to clarify information before the teacher goes and practices it, and it helps them recall their action steps. Explain to the teacher that you're requesting a summary to check your own feedback; you want to know whether you have been clear. As you listen carefully to the recap, you'll be able to assess what the teacher heard. This may decrease the likelihood that you'll need to address the same topic in the future with that teacher.

A Word About New and Veteran Teachers

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) suggests distinguishing how you approach novice teachers in feedback conversations. You may need to focus on more procedural matters with newbies, such as classroom routines or curriculum implementation checklists; they tend to obsess over minor, actionable details. Also, new teachers often need help retrieving information; they take more time to think about problems and implement actions. For this reason, they may need more frequent input from you.
Consider role-playing and in-class modeling work for novice teachers, who often require more guided practice to gain fluency in new methods. Novice educators also typically prefer more praise and less critical input. Praise tends to improve their work commitment (Fishbach & Finkelstein, 2020). This doesn't mean that you should avoid critiquing new teachers. Simply realize that they may not yet have developed a devotion to the profession, so they may need more recognition at the start to increase their dedication.
For seasoned teachers, NASEM recommends focusing on the big picture, the major concepts, or the rationale of the practice; expert teachers frequently approach problems from this perspective. However, experts may struggle with conditionalized knowledge—the when, where, and why of using a specific skill or concept. In addition, when critiquing experienced teachers, be prepared to defend your judgment, as they often prefer to debate the root causes of any problems you have identified.
For example, we observed a new principal in Wisconsin talking with a veteran science teacher who was accustomed to developing all their experiments for the lab and having students simply follow the directions for the investigations. However, new standards suggested that students should plan and develop experiments themselves. The teacher needed help from the administrator in deciding which investigations to hand over to students and which ones they might need to continue to guide more directly; they needed guidance about "when" to use the new requirement.

Moving Forward

For a new leader, thinking about how frequently, where, and when you offer input provides new ideas for quick feedback conversations. In addition, differentiating topics between novice and expert teachers, adjusting the conversation structure, and executing a tight praise message can allow for more efficient collaboration.
Experiment with these variables and combine them with your longer, in-depth exchanges. Soon you will discover that you possess a broad repertoire of powerful communication skills.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How might you increase or decrease the frequency of your feedback to educators based on teacher needs?

➛ Can you think of opportunities, in addition to traditional conversations in team meetings or in the principal's office, where you might provide feedback to teachers? Why would you use that time or place for feedback?

➛ How might frequent and brief instructional feedback improve the outcomes for your student population?

The Instructional Coaching Handbook

Three instructional coaches share more than 200 of the most helpful problem-solving strategies they've used in their decades-long work with teachers, administrators, and coaches.

The Instructional Coaching Handbook
References

Fishbach, A., & Finkelstein, S. R. (2020). How feedback influences persistence, disengagement, and change in goal pursuit. In H. Aarts & A. Elliot (Eds.), Goal-directed behavior: The concept of action in psychology. Routledge.

Fong, C. J., Patall, E. A., Vasquez, A. C., & Stautberg, S. (2018). A meta-analysis of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. Educational Psychology Review31(1), 121–162.

Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2019). Visible learning: Feedback. Routledge.

Killion, J. (2019). The feedback process: Transforming feedback for professional learning (2nd ed.). Learning Forward.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., Swanson, R. A., & Robinson, P. A. (2020). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (9th ed.). Routledge.

Matheson, R. (2019). In pursuit of teaching excellence: Outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace. Teaching in Higher Education, 25(8), 909–925.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. National Academies Press.

Northouse, P. G. (2022). Leadership: Theory and practice (9th ed.). Sage.

Saphier, J., Haley-Speca, M., & Gower, R. R. (2018). The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills (7th ed.). Research for Better Teaching.

Young, A. K., Julien, A. B., & Osborne, T. (2023). The instructional coaching handbook: 200+ strategies for success. ASCD.

A. Keith Young is an education coach, trainer, and writer. After a short stint at seminary, he pivoted to teaching secondary students English and math. Eventually, Keith shifted to training teachers and leading school improvement efforts at the district level. Later, he became a principal, leading school turnaround work and regularly increasing student outcomes by double digits in Colorado, Puerto Rico, and Arizona. Keith now trains and coaches administrators, school leadership teams, and teacher coaches. As a trainer, he maintains a progressive philosophy and teaching style that embraces the best of constructivism and direct instruction. As a coach, he's known for telling it like it is and using a blended coaching model.

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