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Crafting Constructive Positive Feedback

Consider the following scenario:

You have been working on a research project at work for a while now, and you present your findings to the department, including your supervisor, before you have to present them to board later in the month. You’re confident in the content, but you have been distracted by problems at home recently, and the presentation lacks the polish you customarily present.

Your supervisor reacts in one of three ways.

1. “Well that was a disaster. You fumbled over the technology. Your slides had several typos. You said ‘um’ 27 times, by my count. This kind of sloppiness is unacceptable.”

You might feel as though your supervisor neither recognizes nor appreciates the effort you put into the research. Worse, you might not feel like your supervisor values you as an employee or as a person.

2. “Stellar work! This was easily the best presentation I’ve seen in years. We’re so lucky to have you on the staff.”

Your supervisor is giving you a compliment that you know to be overblown and unwarranted. You might think, was she even paying attention? What’s more, if your mediocre effort elicits that response, why bother to work harder in the future?

3. “I know things have been crazy at home and I really appreciate your taking the time to do this research. The data are impressive and the methodology is sound. You crafted poll questions in such a way that they eliminate biased responses. Some of your findings lead me to view things in a different light. What can I do to help you refine the presentation before the board meeting?”

Your supervisor recognizes that you are a human being, and that your work is a part of your life, but not your entire life. Your supervisor lists specific aspects of your presentation that were successful. Your supervisor is willing to help you do the best work that you can.

As teachers and practice parents, we know that the type of feedback we offer profoundly affects the tone of the lesson or practice session, and the quality of the student’s playing. We are aware that excessive negative feedback (as in example #1) can be extremely damaging, and we try to choose our words carefully, so that the feedback is constructive but not negative. We also recognize that students need positive reinforcement, and that a comment that reinforces a desired behavior can be far more powerful than a comment that seeks to correct an undesired behavior.

What can sometimes catch us off guard, however, is when, despite our best intentions, our positive feedback proves to be destructive. Sometimes a compliment results in reduced effort or lowered self-esteem. Sometimes a reward can lead a child not to want to try again.

Here are some thoughts as to how we can frame our positive feedback in ways that promote learning rather than hinder it.

Be Specific

We all make vague and general comments from time to time: “Nice job,” “That really sounded beautiful.” In moderation, I think such comments are fine, but when employed exclusively (or even often) they cease to have meaning.

As much as possible, comment on a specific behavior, particularly if the behavior is linked to the teaching point on which you want her or him to focus. “I noticed your bow stayed on the highway that time, and that really made the tone big and ringy.”

Tell the Truth

When you make a statement like, “I think you’re the greatest cellist in the world,” what you mean is, “You are my child, and I love you and I’m proud of you, and so to me you are the greatest cellist in the world.” What your child hears is “You sound better than Yo-Yo Ma.” He has ears. He can tell that isn’t true.

Kids see right through embellishment and hyperbole. Better to keep your feedback factual.

Remove the Child from the Equation

That is to say, try not to credit (or blame) the child. This might seem pretty obvious when it comes to corrective feedback. Instead of saying, “You played that out of tune,” which is an attack on the child, we would probably say something like “The F# needs to be higher.”

Compliments can also be problematic, though, when the child is given credit for a particular outcome. “You played that in tune!” might also come across as an attack, because it implies that it is unusual for the child to play in tune. Whereas “that F# landed high enough,” simply draws attention to what needs to happen in order for the F# to continue landing in tune in the future.

Focus on the Effort/Process Rather than the Outcome

Education expert Alfie Kohn has a lot to say about the inhibitive effect praising outcomes can have on actual learning. Grading systems, curriculum standards and test scores, which link values to results, can be harmful in three important ways.

  1. They Impose a Timeline - A third grader who reads at the second-grade level can still develop into a highly literate adult, who speaks and writes articulately and who loves literature. However, a third grader who is told he only reads at a second-grade level might assume that he is stupid and will never be able to read.

  2. They Set Goals, Which Become Limits - A student who earns an A, despite making very little effort, might conclude that there is no point in working harder.

  3. They Sometimes Punish Effort - A student who earns a D, despite making a considerable effort and learning a great deal, might conclude that she is not good enough or smarter enough to achieve better, and that there was no point in working so hard.

After all, the process is the whole point, not the outcome. You didn’t sign your daughter up for violin lessons so that she could become the next Midori, but because you want her to understand that consistent effort and discipline we can develop a skill to the point of excellence; because you want her to develop aesthetic sensitivity and attention to detail; because you want her to be a thoughtful collaborator and an effective communicator; because you want her to be an accomplished learner.

Therefore, instead of praising outcomes, we should encourage effort.

“You just played that measure twenty times, being careful to keep your fingers rounded. If you continue to work that way, eventually your fingers will start to be round and you won’t even have to think about it.”

“I can see that you are really stopping and thinking and making changes with every try. That is a good way to make progress.”

“The new spot is very difficult, and I can see that you are getting frustrated. I am proud of you for continuing to try.”

Observe Objectively and Describe

Again, when we evaluate a behavior, we infuse it with the element of enough. It was good enough, or it was not good enough. Often it’s better simply to observe and describe.

“Your bow was straight the entire time.”

“Perpetual Motion had a slow steady tempo and was staccato from beginning to end.”

Label the Demonstrated Desirable Quality

“Your bow was straight the entire time. That really shows control.”

“It takes a lot of patience to keep a steady tempo in Perpetual Motion like that.”

When All Else Fails, a Hug and an “I Love You” Go a Long Way.

It’s okay if you occasionally offer feedback that backfires. None of us is perfect. It is probably a weekly occurrence for me that I think, on my drive home, “There was a better way to say x,” or “I wish I had commented on y.” But if you start to approach practice with a heightened awareness of the words that you choose and the comments that you make, then you are on the right track.