How can we ensure teachers receive effective feedback?

29 Jun 2020, 5:00

Good feedback can be a powerful way to help teachers to become (even) more effective, writes Rob Coe

We know effective feedback is incredibly powerful for students’ learning (Hattie and Timperley, 2007) and supporting task performance much more generally (Kluger and DeNisi, 1996; London, 2003). This is as true for teachers as for students. But are teachers actually receiving effective feedback?

My own PhD research, more than 20 years ago (Coe, 1998), was on the impact of giving teachers feedback. The evidence, then and now, suggests that this can be a powerful way to improve outcomes.

If we want our students to be able to do hard things (eg use capital letters properly, present complex arguments or do column subtraction), we don’t just describe the final product. We have a complex sequence and iteration of different strategies to enable learning to happen: checking what they already know; breaking a complex task into digestible chunks; scaffolding to match the readiness of learners; checks and opportunities for practice; feeding back to correct and guide; integrating the parts; taking away the scaffolds; etc.

Teacher learning is just like every other kind of learning. If we want teachers to get better at something as complex as teaching, we need to provide the same conditions we provide for our students to support their learning.

Not all feedback is good feedback

Feedback for teachers often comes from colleagues, managers or outside experts. However, those colleagues often over-estimate their own ability to make sound judgments about overall effectiveness (Coe, 2014) and may also not understand the underlying mechanisms and theories that would enable them to give really helpful formative feedback. Not all feedback is good feedback.

For some aspects of classroom teaching, there may be task-inherent feedback: if children are climbing up the walls it will be obvious to any teacher that their classroom management could be improved. However, even this feedback may lack formative value. Worse still, for many aspects of its performance teaching may be characterised as a “wicked domain”, where feedback is either not available, biased or arrives too late (Hogarth 2003). People still form intuitions and make judgments, but they are often wrong, so learning is unlikely to occur and improvement is slow at best (Hogarth et al, 2015).

If we could create “kind environments” with feedback loops that allow teachers to gain timely and trustworthy information about the quality and impact of their teaching, my hypothesis is that this could help create the conditions for better teacher learning. In an environment with good feedback, teachers can, we hope, learn to be more effective, optimising their behaviour to suit their context.

This approach acknowledges that many aspects of “effective teaching” may be more complex than we can easily describe, measure or advise. What is effective in one context may not be in another. There simply is no recipe, and, in the words of Dylan Wiliam, “Research can’t tell teachers what to do”.

But if we create feedback that allows teachers to see clearly whether what they try is working and combine these kinds of feedback with targeted support and professional learning (eg through expert coaching; Kraft et al, 2018), then the combination will be more powerful than either alone. And we know that teachers improve most “when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment” (Kini and Podolsky, 2016), so the role of school leaders in creating this environment is crucial.

Last week, Evidence Based Education, in partnership with Cambridge International, published the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review. This research presents an accessible summary of the evidence about what teacher practices make a difference to their students’ learning, and offers a framework for teachers to develop the underlying skills and knowledge to be more effective. It is the first step to creating a range of tools and resources that can support teachers in learning to be (even) better.


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