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The importance of high quality feedback

Discover the similarities between dogs and humans when it comes to giving feedback and how not all feedback is equal. 

I listened to a very interesting talk recently about 'hyper-social' people.  That is, people who show 'extremely cooperative behaviour with unrelated individuals, often for the benefit of others or society without expectation of payoff'.  Wow!  I thought.  How amazing.

But then the talk related this concept to dogs.  There are some dogs with a mutation that means they exhibit this kind of behaviour towards humans.  The dogs that wag their tail at everyone, always want to say hello, are friendly and like human company.  They also exhibit separation anxiety and can't be left alone at home.

Even more fascinating, this has been used to explain possible reasons why dogs were able to be domesticated.  10,000 years ago, wolves would have started to take opportunities to feed off human scraps.  The dogs with the mutation may have decided to spend more time with humans, overcoming their natural fear, thus gaining more rewards, and thus becoming more successful, having more pups and more of them surviving.  And began the process of selection.

All very interesting.  But I was struck by the point about telling dogs off for something wrong.  In an example, the speaker raised how a dog might make a mess in the house overnight.  Then, in the morning, the humans admonish the dog for what it had done.  The result?  Confusion.  From the dog's point of view, all it perceived was on some mornings the humans are loving and kind, sometimes they shout and are angry.  

Why?  Because there is a total disconnect between the action and the consequence.  The dog just can't connect events hours apart.  And what is the optimal time you might be able to help a dog connect?

One minute.

I reflected on what this might tell me about the human condition, and the role of the educator.  Feedback is an integral part of school work and marking.  But not all feedback is equal.

One of the findings from Professor John Hattie's work, (now at the University of Melbourne), 'Visible Learning' meta-study about what actually makes a difference in education, was that feedback has a greater or lesser effect, dependent on its type and how it was used.  Written feedback, seen as the time-honoured 'marking', can be effective but can also be ineffective.  It has to be meaningful, relevant and a student must have to interact with it.  So called 'Tick and flick' marking is not feedback, simply an acknowledgement of work done and correct.  But even effective written feedback has its limits; the greatest is time.  Hattie's work shows that the most meaningful feedback is immediate.  It is in the moment.  It is happening as a student works.

So, in a parallel to dogs (not one I often make!), it can be much more effective to provide verbal feedback around the time a student completes work than it is 24 or 48 hours later.  It more easily allows a pupil to make the connection between what they are doing and what has been produced.  And when the feedback is praise around effort, resilience and problem-solving, then it is even more powerful.

But why stop there?  Parents, coaches, carers, or whoever they might be can all learn from the importance of meaningful, authentic and spontaneous feedback.  This allows us to make a human connection that is much more than we might think.  We have the power to initiate real learning and change.  Why confuse children with feedback that is disjointed, delayed and for them, long gone?  Be that person who is with that young person in whatever they are doing, and help them make the most of it.

As for dogs?  I think most of this would be lost on them.  Mine just stare back blankly. 

Matt Shroff
Director of Wellbeing

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