Teamwork and collaboration are bywords in education today, as they are in contemporary workplaces in all fields. More than ever, our daily tasks, our goals, and our overall performance are shaped and evaluated in collaborative settings, through peer and supervisory feedback. And it’s easy to agree that feedback can be a powerful tool for growth.
Then why is it so hard to give feedback, and often even harder to hear it? Why do we feel that feedback misses the mark — that it’s generic or irrelevant, or, worse, that it’s undermining, or threatening?
Part of the reason, say authors Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano, is that we aren’t giving it in a way that others can actually hear — and others are not hearing it in a way that makes sense to them as a strategy for supporting growth and improvement.
What if feedback acknowledged those barriers? In their new book, Tell Me So I Can Hear You, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano offer a blueprint for a new kind of feedback dynamic, one that helps principals, teachers, and other leaders connect to educators in specific and individually supportive ways, and that helps teachers feel heard, challenged, and inspired from feedback they receive.
The book outlines an approach that Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano call feedback for growth, premised on the notion that adults have different ways of making sense of their work and relationships, as well as the feedback they receive — different “ways of knowing.” To matter, feedback has to acknowledge that people on both the giving and the receiving ends will have different lenses through which they make sense of the world, and different capacities to hear and grow.
Based on developmental theory pioneered by Robert Kegan, the authors contend that there are four main ways that adult learners make meaning in the world.
In the feedback for growth model, each way of knowing carries strengths, and each carries opportunities to grow.
What does all this look like in real-world feedback? To take just one example: “Instrumental knowers don’t always understand what ‘thinking outside the box’ really means in practice. So as a piece of feedback, it’s challenging for them,” says Drago-Severson. “But for self-authoring knowers, that’s a welcome invitation. They are reflective, and they have the internal capacity that would let them hear that and feel motivated. What’s challenging for them is to critique themselves and their own theories about how things should work. They can take in perspectives and ideologies that align closely with their own. But for them it’s hard to be open to ideologies that don’t align that way.”
Of course, the person delivering the feedback also has his or her own way of knowing. Imagine what giving feedback is like for people who make meaning as socializing knowers. “In the socializing way of knowing, reality is co-constructed,” says Drago-Severson. “They hold other people responsible for how they feel, and they feel responsible for how other people feel. So to be in a mentoring relationship or to be in a principal’s role — if you’re oriented toward having other people’s approval, it is very difficult to give critical feedback. And it can be hard to get feedback when you are a socializing knower, unless you feel you’re cared about.”
A core assumption of developmentally oriented feedback, she says, is that every group will contain every kind of meaning-maker. As leaders and learners, we grow when we attend closely to those needs and perspectives — in ourselves and our colleagues.