Our director is instruction Carl Cooper shared this reflection in our weekly newsletter. Had to share as it’s a. I’ve reflection on the role of formative descriptive feedback as part of a reflective feedback loop:
The Art of Teaching Your Child How to Drive a Standard Car (and formatively assessing as you go) . . .
“I have a couple of confessions to make before writing about teaching my daughter how to drive a standard this past weekend,” confesses Director of Instruction Carl Cooper.
“First off, I have always been a ‘fan’ of letter grades, and of percentages when it comes to assessment and espe- cially reporting. It worked for me.”
“Second, because Reporting and Assessment are such large tasks for our district this coming year, I dedicated much of my summer reading to assessment books and articles (for example Transforming Schools and Systems Using Assessment, How Children Succeed, Formative Assessment: Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms, and The Secret of Effective Feedback).”
“So as is often the case when we ‘read’ or start learning something, it always seems to connect to our real world, our brains seem to nd ways to apply what we have learned. Thus this all converged for me this past weekend when my daughter asked me to teach her how to drive a standard car.”
“As we got in the car I started with what I knew best, my own experience of being a new driver. I can still hear the ever increasingly loud and repeated instructions from my step-father as I continued to bunny hop, stall, and over rev the car. I both demonstrated for my daughter and then gave my daughter the instructions: push the clutch in, press the gas until you can hear it rev (I demonstrated the right amount of gas and what it sounded like), slowly release the clutch until you feel the car catch and want to pull forward, and then, even slower on the clutch until you are moving.”
“Simple! Right? Or so I had been told 40 years ago. “
“I used almost the exact same words my step-father had used. I mean after all that’s how I learned to drive a stan- dard, and I know how to drive a standard.”
However, he said, it became clear very quickly after some minimal success on his daughter’s part, that he needed to rethink his ‘teaching’ and his ongoing feedback to her. “I recalled as a 16-year-old being ‘stuck’ on a hill for about an hour as my increasingly frustrated step-father re- peated the instructions about releasing the clutch slowly, etc. I also recall that eventually I asked my mom to take the car to a school parking lot and I basically taught myself (through trial and error, and probably at the cost of one clutch).”
“So first off I re-evaluated my teaching and got behind the wheel and realized that actually I was missing a step. When the clutch starts to engage, I very subtly ‘increased’ the gas. This instruction had never been given to me. It made a difference. I noted the observation and my daughter added that into her somewhat overwhelming list of things to learn. At this point I came to a self-revelation, the improved instructions were now complete, but for her the real learning was now starting.”
“I, and the car, began giving immediate and descriptive feedback. The car gave feedback by stalling, hopping or ‘going’. I could have used a performance standard metric and evaluated each effort with a 1,1,2,3,2,3,2,1,3,2, etc. Instead, I started using phrases like ‘can you feel it catch’, what does that feel like, can you hear the sound, slower on the release of the clutch, gently press on the gas, etc. etc.“
“I didn’t evaluate with a number, percentage or letter grade. I did not say that clutch release was a ‘2’ or a C-. In- stead I used descriptive language (gently, slower, feel it catch, hear the engine, etc. etc.). The progress was remark- able and the improvement immediate if not smooth. She would get it for 3 or 4 times and then suddenly lose the skill, she was competent and then not, driving and changing gears one moment, stalling the next.”
“Yet over time there was clear improvement even to the point of us adding ‘starting up a hill from a standstill’. Now, today, I could if need be, do a summative assessment and give her a letter grade (a 2 for minimally meets, and a C-) not because I kept track of the 100 plus gear changes that she did, but because it is clear that in this skill she is an emerging learner who has the minimal understanding and skill. She cannot always demonstrate the skill, but she can ‘most of the time’. “
“I then thought of the many athletes I have coached in various sports and in particular swimming. In a sport which is as empirical as you can get (‘what was your time?’) I realized that in teaching and helping my swimmers improve that I have always used ‘descriptive feedback’. “Your arm pull is too wide’, drop your chin, or focus your eyes on the pool bottom. I could easily evaluate each of my swimmers with a number or letter grade, but when I am trying to get them to improve – to learn – I describe to them how they can improve. That’s why we call it coach- ing! As I have come to understand more and more, so is teaching. Teaching is coaching our students to be better. It’s what we try and do every day.”
“I had to laugh when I shared parts of my revelations with Jim Howie our Music Supervisor. He laughed and said it’s not just coaching in sports –what do you think music teachers do every day. Music teachers constantly use descriptive language to teach our students how to play instruments. We are all coaches – math coaches, reading coaches, socials coaches, personal responsibility coaches, etc.”
“So while there may (or may not) always be a need or place for percentages, letter grades, and numbers at the end of a course or school year, the real teaching and learning comes every day in the feedback we give our students, how we describe what they are doing well and what they need to change or try differently. Perhaps ‘descriptive feedback’ should be the standard feedback,” he concluded.