There is a lot being written about what learning needs to become and how to inform learners, and those that have an interest in their learning, of their progress. We all need to be effective learners: students in school, adults living life, and employees. Will Richardson in his book Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere says
“The World has changed – and continues changing – rapidly and radically when it comes to the ways in which we can learn, and what knowledge, skills, dispositions, and forms of literacy our children will need to flourish in their futures.” (Kindle 65) and “what happens inside of schools is going to change, now that the Web connects us the way it does. It has to.” (Kindle 75).
I wouldn’t limit this view to schools, this applies to all of us regardless of what we do in life or to earn our living. There is a relentless march of change driven and accelerated by technological progress and invention, moving to continuously disrupt the norm. Why is it then that most feedback mechanisms are still based on the “old world”? When today “if we have an Internet connection, we have fingertip, on-demand access to an amazing library that holds close to the sum of human knowledge, and equally important, to more than two billion people with whom we can potentially learn.” (Why School? Kindle 94). Prioritizing the testing memory of facts, historical events and figures, specific procedures, and processes, as the way to determine how well someone has learned seems quite limited and ineffective in a world of abundance doesn’t it? It might be a valid way, in the past, and the easy way to provide feedback but the hard way is more authentic and meaningful today.
Grant Wiggins in Educational Leadership (September 2012, Vol. 70 No. 1) tells us that “feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal” (p. 11). Thinking about employees for a minute, we often think about feedback as the annual performance review, or negative comment on an action. I’ve been thinking about this in my own context where I lead and oversee 35 employees. I’ve not always provided timely or helpful feedback – it’s something I’m trying to improve, to learn to do better. Interestingly, working with a group of information technology professionals you would think learning would be a primary orientation. I find that often there is a higher interest in being taught rather than being self-directed learners. If someone is taught and provided some kind of exit certificate, they presumably remembered enough content and process details to pass the test, right? However, what does that say about their ability to apply it in their own context? Is an exit certificate worth more than the paper it is printed on? I wonder… I prefer learning in context where the feedback is more real world and applied (it didn’t work, or not as expected, or it did and someone noticed and affirmed the individual’s work, etc.). Also, it’s not what individuals know, rather “knowledge is moving from the individual to the individual and [their] contacts” (Why School? Kindle 328). Wiggins in the same article says that feedback should be goal-referenced, tangible and transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing, and consistent.
A personal anecdote involves my three sons (now grown) who attended a self-directed learning high school. None of them were model students per se, they did not like school and for them it was a tiresome march to the exit ticket: graduation. But, they did learn to self-direct their learning. My eldest son (24 yrs old) has started his own business and is continuously learning how to improve the speed and quality of his and his employees work. Feedback is immediate (and has all the attributes Wiggins refers to) for him from customers, both positive and negative. His reaction to negative feedback is to research ways (online through online forums, videos, manufacturers) to make it better. The results (more feedback) is a very profitable business with increasingly positive feedback and references, and increasingly more customers. My second son (23) is a self taught musician. He has enough technology in our basement to start a small recording studio. He uses sophisticated computer-based mixing software to produce pretty cool music. He plays rock/metal guitar, has started a small band with others, and he produces all the music in his home studio. No one told him to do this, he’s never taken music lessons, or a course on how to do this – he learned it. Feedback for him comes through friends and family and sharing his work on Facebook and Youtube. My youngest son (20) is becoming somewhat of a Bible scholar. He learns through reading but primarily by connecting with various Bible scholars around the world online. Feedback for him comes from working with others in his church and from online connections.
What might futuristic feedback look like? Think about the feedback Apple enjoys. They design and announce a new iPhone every year or so and receive tremendous feedback. People worldwide weigh in with blog posts, comments on posts, video posts, and of course their wallets. What if as students progressed from Kindergarten to grade 12, their feedback was shifted from the teacher to the world? What if the goal was to shift assignments and learning tasks to those that are not assessable with a test or short answer essay question? What if it involved measures of engagement with others both face to face and online? A student works with others locally and globally to research and produce an authentic “product” where they have significant choice in and feedback was required to be sourced from their Twitter network, Facebook friends, or other networks in the form of comments, likes, questions to push their learning further, etc. All of the data could be incorporated in their electronic portfolio. Teachers might evaluate their students primarily through their portfolios, presentation of work sessions, and engagement statistics. Supervisors could have similar processes for employees. Perhaps rather than sending employees to expensive training courses, employees are given time to learn together and online. Feedback could involve question and answers sessions, demonstrations, participation levels, and engagement statistics for online research and connections. Their learning and feedback data could be housed in an electronic portfolio. A final event could be a session where they show what they’ve learned and accomplished in real work such as implementing a new system, an upgraded tool or procedure, how they solved a problem, running a small project successfully, etc. Additionally, employees could be required to share everything they learned and to mentor a colleague. Feedback in the form of a mentee’s success would flow back to the employee to help them learn further.
I know, this doesn’t sound all that futuristic but I liked the title for this post… An authentic “living” online portfolio for students and employees would be a valuable feedback mechanism. It would replace the report card and the resume. Perhaps it could inform “ranking” where necessary and whether someone meets the entrance requirements for a university program or into a job. Essentially, when “we can now carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets” (Why School? Kindle 549), feedback should be more about performance and less about memory. There’s way too much to know and remember today and the availability of and access to facts, people, and ideas has never been easier. We need to value what and how someone can perform and work with others, not what they can regurgitate on Jeopardy!