The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle has had a profound effect on my thinking over the last few months. Indeed, I used several sections from the book to frame my recent whole staff Inset. High expectations in everything is a key part of our ethos and so the first extract I used was about having high expectations of our students, using the study by the Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal from 1965, where teachers were told some of their students had high potential. These students thrived over the following year, despite the truth being that they had actually been chosen at random. What had changed was the teacher’s expectations. Coyle goes on to explain that these teachers showed more warmth, more input, more response opportunities (as in asked more questions to check understanding) and gave more feedback, presuming that when the students made a mistake it was because they just needed better feedback. These thousands of small behaviours over the following year contributed to huge student success. What a challenge for us as teachers! We should constantly be asking ourselves whether we really have these high expectations for the students that we teach.
The second aspect of the Culture Code I shared with our staff was around giving the most effective feedback, again related to a key part of our school priorities as we continue to embed our no written feedback policy; using live feedback and whole class feedback. Coyle gives the example of the research carried out by a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia where middle school students were given feedback on an essay. The most effective, nicknamed “magical feedback,” consisted of one single phrase – “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” What this communicates links to high expectations, but it also shows that students are noticed, this feedback makes them feel valued and part of the group. It helps the students believe that their teacher believes in them and cares about them. This phrase is so powerful, and is one I am encouraging staff to use as part of their feedback process.
There are so many other aspects of the book which have really changed my thinking but the one I want to spend some time unpacking now is the section about avoiding typical sandwich feedback and what we can do instead to make our feedback more effective. Coyle outlines that the usual way leaders give feedback is by giving some positives, perhaps of a lesson observation, some areas which need an improvement and then end by going back to a positive. Coyle says: “This makes sense in theory, but in practice it often leads to confusion, as people tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative.” He advises that the best leaders he observed separated this feedback, and made them distinct.
Lesson observation feedback is high on my agenda anyway, as we move to an Instructional coaching model over the next year. I have been reflecting a great deal on the process of observations after reading David Didau’s section on this in his fantastic book Intelligent Accountability. He advocates avoiding a checklist or any form of guidance on “looking for” and instead promotes “looking at”. In the excellent training materials for Powerful Action Steps, the professional learning platform devised by Josh Goodrich, which we are using for our Instructional coaching, one of the key principles is around how we give feedback. We know that the sandwich approach mentioned above is not effective and we also know that feedback can be emotional. Despite a huge shift in culture away from graded, formalised lesson observations to short drop ins which show typicality, staff still to an extent crave that feeling of “knowing I’ve done ok”, or “Was it good enough?” Instructional coaching is a powerful tool in shifting feedback to a conversation about what was seen in the lesson and the setting of a granular action step followed by deliberate practice. But if the sandwich approach doesn’t work, how else can you open up a discussion with the teacher where what’s going on in the lesson can be discussed in the “looking at” sense, whilst still being meaningful?
This is where we have started using “I noticed”, also shared in the PAS coaching feedback process of praise, probe, agree action step, plan and practise. “I noticed….the three students at the front didn’t start writing anything immediately, why do you think that might have been? How can we ensure a more prompt start?” or “I noticed….the students were quite chaotic when they entered the room, one student threw something at another and none got their books out, how do you think the entrance to the room could be made less chaotic?” are good openers for a meaningful conversation to take place before the setting of an action step. “I noticed” takes the emotion out of the lesson feedback and gives the teacher concrete evidence of something that has been seen in a “looking at” manner. This simple phrase opens up a discussion, rather than teachers being told straight away what aspects of the lesson are “good” or “need improved”, and it makes it far less threatening.
We are early on our Instructional coaching journey, but this is certainly one element of how lesson drop ins are changing which has been received overwhelmingly positively by teachers and I’m really grateful both to the Culture Code and Powerful Action Steps for challenging my thinking.