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Receiving feedback is far more skilled than we recognise

Feedback, they say, is the breakfast of champions: a critical ingredient in professional development and a staple in most teachers’ diets. Yet for so many of us, even the prospect of getting feedback from a colleague can provoke dread.

When we are freely offered the necessary support to improve our practice, why is our instinct so often to hide from it; to avoid, reject, or dismiss?

This conundrum has long fascinated me. And from years of studying the psychology of receiving feedback, I’m clear that engaging constructively with constructive feedback is a skill in itself.

It’s a damn difficult skill at that, and we can never take for granted that anyone (whether pupil or professional) has mastered it. So when we serve platefuls of advice to new and developing teachers, we might then pause to wonder whether the effect will be more than indigestion.

Several years ago, my colleagues and I interviewed university students about how they engage with feedback. This led us to identify four types of barrier that inhibited their engagement. Broadly, these barriers covered understanding the feedback, knowing what to do with it, feeling capable of acting on it, and feeling willing to act on it.

In my role with the National Institute of Teaching, I now get to see the myriad ways that expert feedback informs each part of the golden thread of teacher professional development. Naturally, I was curious to know how commonly these barriers affect new and experienced teachers.

In a survey conducted via Teacher Tapp, we asked more than 9,000 teachers in England to think about the most recent feedback they had received on their teaching from a colleague. We then asked about their reactions to this feedback.

The results paint an unambiguous picture of challenge. Fewer than two-thirds of teachers said they had understood the feedback they received, and only around half said they understood how to act on it, or felt able or willing to act on it.

Worse, almost one in ten teachers said they had ignored their feedback entirely, while 7 per cent admitted it had upset them.

The consistency of this picture across demographics and contexts was striking. That is to say, primary and secondary teachers identified similarly with these barriers, irrespective of their geographic region, school type or size, age, or gender.

Receiving feedback is far more skilled than we tend to recognise

There was one divide, however: male teachers were almost twice as likely as female teachers to say they had ignored their feedback.

For some, these thousands of teachers’ difficulties might signal a crisis in quality: evidence that teachers are routinely getting low-quality, unclear or mean-spirited feedback from colleagues.

Perhaps so. But for me, the more likely interpretation is that receiving feedback is far more skilled than we tend to recognise. It demands an extraordinary balance of interpersonal, metacognitive and self-regulation skills, alongside protecting our senses of self-esteem and professional integrity against threat.

For smart, highly skilled teachers as for any human, achieving this balance is no small feat. Indeed, our respondents’ difficulties in receiving feedback seemed only to grow with experience and seniority.

For instance, whereas 53 per cent of classroom teachers had felt capable of following their feedback-giver’s advice, just 33 per cent of headteachers felt the same.

If the essential skill of receiving feedback is so difficult for developing teachers, shouldn’t we spend more time on training it? Teachers appear to think so.

Our survey assessed teachers’ agreement with the following statement: “Initial Teacher Education needs to better prepare trainees for how to engage with feedback on their teaching”.

A majority of respondents agreed from every demographic, every career stage, and every school-type. This included 56 per cent of early career teachers, 63 per cent of their mentors and 70 per cent of headteachers.

Developing teachers receive a lot of feedback that doesn’t always land. But giving ever more (or ‘better’) feedback is not always the answer.

What might happen if we took some of the time currently spent on producing and providing feedback to trainees and ECTs, and reinvested it in developing conversations, activities and cultures that foster their skill in receiving feedback?

Perhaps the professional development that ensues would be more impactful and more sustainable for everyone.

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