Sunday, December 22, 2013


When most people think of feedback, they think of complaining to their superior.  I think that's the case because we don't ask for feedback frequently enough -- we just wait for things to get bad.  We also don't think about how to give feedback, as most of our feedback turns into rant-y emails or angry surveys.  And finally, we don't think about how to receive feedback in a way that builds trust with the giver and leads to positive change.

Most people don't feel comfortable passing on unsolicited feedback.  People who want to share their opinion about everything without being prompted are often viewed by society as annoying or self-centered.  Even I'm not a fan of these people.  If you want to be open to feedback from everyone, you need to ask everyone and provide a wide-enough variety of ways to give it.  The worst form, in my opinion, is anonymous feedback.  However, it is important to have that channel always open in case there is a reason why somebody doesn't trust connecting their name with criticism.  Other non-anonymous feedback channels include online surveys, email, phone calls, or face-to-face office hours where people can drop in and share thoughts.  I personally prefer face-to-face, but if that is all you offer as a channel, you are not truly asking everyone for their honest feedback.
Finally, ask for both positive and negative feedback from both content and frustrated people.  Feedback is not for ranting, it is for understanding multiple points of view.  If you only hear the negative feedback from a small group of people, you might make changes that alienate the quietly content crowd.

The goal of giving feedback is to help the asker better understand your world so they can empathize with your needs and goals.  The goal of giving feedback is NOT to come up with solutions.  I'll say it again because it is the opposite of everything we have all been taught: FEEDBACK ≠ SOLUTIONS.  I say this because this misconception leads to two issues: (1) people who have a problem but don't know how to solve it shy away from giving feedback so they don't sound negative, and (2) people who come in with a solution assume that they are the expert in solving this problem (when they often are not and come from a limited perspective).  Exception: framing your solution ideas in the right context.  You could say "Possible solutions I thought of that could at least solve my immediate problem include ___ but I don't know how those might affect other problems people face".
On a similar vein, feedback is not a rant of opinions or judgments of the current situation.  Useful feedback is rooted in fact and feeling.  State clear objective observations that you make.  Even if your perceptions are flawed, nobody can deny what you perceive.  Similarly, even if your feelings appear ridiculous to others, nobody can deny that you felt the way you did.  The more feelings and observations you can share with the giver, the better, as this paints the clearest picture of your world so the asker can understand and empathize with you.

Receiving feedback is so much more than looking at a pile of surveys.  In fact, it starts before the giver says a word.  You have to establish trust with your givers by making it clear (1) why you want their feedback and (2) that honest, critical feedback will not affect their job security.  For leaders with a lot of fragile relationships at work, this trust will have to develop slowly by consistently upholding these promises with the smaller group that does trust you.  For other leaders, this will come easily due to prior relationship-building.
After establishing trust and asking for feedback, you need to give people your full attention while listening.  Face-to-face, this means looking them in the eye and maybe jotting down notes so you remember things.  It also means giving head nods to acknowledge things the giver says and restating what the giver said in your own words to make sure that you understand it.  With surveys or email, listening means carefully reading the responses for understanding and sometimes sending follow-up emails or surveys that restate the problem to ensure understanding.  Do NOT pass judgment on the giver as you listen.  Do NOT try to solve their problem.  Empathize with them by understanding what they see and feel.  Make sure you really get their situation.  Then stop.

Well, the feedback exercise as stated above doesn't really fix anything.  All it does is create clear, honest understanding from multiple perspectives for the person who is asking for feedback.  The next step is to pick a process to start designing solutions / refinements to the original implementation.  If it were me, I would write a clear email that highlights the key needs of all involved and send it out to my co-workers.  Then, I would invite anyone who is interested to come to a brainstorming session to help design solutions that will address most or all of the earlier needs.  In general, the team approach is best because it leads to buy-in and shared decision-making across the organization.  Regardless of how the decision is reached, make sure that you reach out to anyone whose feedback would not agree with the new solution and explain why you made the decision you did.  A good giver of feedback will accept a difference of opinion and appreciate that you took the time to understand his or her need before making your decision.

Expect every initiative to be a failure by planning for short feedback cycles and time for redesign.  The nice thing about these short cycles is that the problems will likely get ironed out quickly, better solutions will emerge, and people will buy into those solutions more wholeheartedly.  The time spent on these feedback and redesign cycles will be far less than the time co-workers spend complaining about your 3, 4, and 5-year plans and initiatives.

People won't naturally behave as I describe above.  This requires formal training and constant reinforcement from the top to the bottom of an organization.  In college, we spent 2 hours of freshman orientation practicing the giving and receiving of feedback with a formal trainer because the school believed it was that important.  The orientation leaders (the R2s, similar to RAs on each floor of a dorm) also received additional training with feedback so they could help to teach peers when they needed it.  I've been fortunate to receive related training multiple times from 4th grade (peer mediation training) through college, with the most effective training coming in the form of role-plays broken up with discussions.  I know that giving and receiving feedback can be taught and anyone can learn.

Warning: I write in a declarative style that makes me sound like an expert on the topic.  I'm not.  I have strong opinions on what I believe works, hence my writing style, but I am open to feedback on ways I can modify this to provide a better framework on feedback.  (I didn't notice the irony of this ending this post like this until after I wrote it.  I swear!)

Infinity and relativity

Math is a beautiful theoretical framework that helps us describe the messy world.  But I think that its lack of "real-world-ness" also gives us some insight beyond this world.  The Bible says that God is boundless, that he exists outside of time and space.  So lets say that God is infinity.

Infinity is interesting because you can't do a lot to mess with it.  What is infinity + 1?  Infinity.  What is infinity divided by 3?  Infinity.  The last problem is particularly interesting because of the Trinity.  God is three persons, and yet each is fully God.  At first glance this seems ridiculous, and yet God behaves just like the infinite being that He is.  Weird, huh?

Now think about Einstein's theory of relativity.  I can hardly pretend to know how to explain it, but I can say that one key consequence is that time does not always move forward at the same rate for all observers in the universe.  I always struggled with the idea of God living outside of time because such a concept is so far from our daily reality, but once I realized that experimental data has confirmed the non-uniformity of time, it became much more palatable to assume that God had a totally different reference frame.  I think this concept provides some explanation on how God can be all-knowing of what will happen in our lives and yet we are given free will with our choices.

Regardless of whether I turn out to be dead on or laughably far off, it helped me open my mind to the fact that scripture can be correct in what it teaches without waiting for humanity to figure out the scientific truths that explain how He did it.

Two-way failure, feedback, trust, and communication

With failure in the title of my blog, I'm going to inevitably come back to it a lot.  I view failure as trying something and falling short of the original intent.  By planning pilots, frequent reflection, and time for iteration into a new initiative, you can have many small failures that are frequently adjusted, eventually pointing you in the right direction.  I expect that my administrators give me the freedom to try things and have these small, planned failures so that I can eventually end up with something great.  Most teachers feel the same way about this freedom to fail, and many take it a step further and ask that administrators vow to support them in the face of adversity when their small failures make people (students, parents, the community) upset.

However, we don't treat our bosses with the same freedom.  We don't tolerate new initiatives that don't seem to have a clear point.  We flip out over changes that don't seem vital.  We don't want to be bothered with new missions and visions unless they fit with what we previously believed.  Is this fair?  Sort of.

More than our failures, our bosses' failures often lead to wasting our time.  There needs to be some kind of balance where we can allow our leaders to give us new things to do without tireless explanations, but a mechanism for us to give our leaders honest and unopinionated feedback so they can adjust their demands to fit the user needs.  I think the solution comes from two time-tested friends: trust and communication.

When my wife does something that frustrates me (don't worry, its not too frequent!), I tell her right away as objectively as possible.  She then either (1) adjusts her behavior to my liking or (2) explains why she did what she did so I can change my response to her liking.  Either way, our small issue is often quickly resolved as a result of a short conversation that I felt comfortable initiating based on our mutual trust.  I would never give the same feedback to a stranger who upset me because that trust to communicate feedback would not exist.

When I look at my students, I see a variety of trust levels present in the room.  I'm fortunate to have high levels of trust with many of my students.  I know I have this with some kids because of their brutal honesty on the feedback forms that they fill out with their names.  I know I have it with others because of the way they interact face to face with me.  They know that when I ask for criticism, I want the truth, and that I will respect them more for sharing it with me, even it I don't agree or don't like what they have to say.  There are still students who are skeptical of sharing their mind, but I'm hoping I can continue to provide evidence in my interactions with these kids and their peers that I am worthy of their trust and want to design a better classroom experience for them.

Administrators deal with the same challenge.  I feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts with some admin than with others.  Those who consistently ask for feedback, and more importantly, do something with my feedback, are the ones who continue to receive it.  It is important to distinguish between "doing something with" and "adhering to" feedback -- all I want is to be acknowledged and at least receive an explanation for why my observations and suggestions are not being incorporated.  People who ask for honest feedback, carefully listen to the giver, and then respond in some form create a bond of trust between the two parties.  It also leads to a lot of new ideas, well-iterated policies, and fewer upset teachers.  But in order for this to work, all of the steps need to be explicitly built into every decision that takes place until it becomes district culture: ASK, LISTEN, RESPOND.  As it becomes culture between admin and teachers, it will make its way into the teacher-student relationship.  Then it can truly empower the bottom of the organization's power structure -- the students -- to openly communicate their needs and observations to their teachers and school.

Observing out loud

Imagine for a moment that you're testing out a new website for local startup company.  The designer is sitting behind you and observing as you are given tasks to complete (such as "register for an upcoming event" or "find the address of our nearest location").  Since the design is a bit unusual, you struggle through the tasks.  The designer sees your struggle, but she has a hard time knowing why.  In design classes at Olin, we learned how to narrate our thoughts as we worked through these tasks, allowing the observing designer the ability to quickly see our assumptions as we interacted with the product.  The goal was not to pass judgment or opinions forward, but just to give the observer a deeper insight into your brain, allowing her (the expert) to go back and improve the design to better accommodate the users' assumptions.

Thinking back on this, I have two ideas:

  1. What if we started observing our students in a formal, rigorous way as they interact with our product (the course / curriculum)?  Every so often, I have a moment in class where nobody has a question and everyone is engaged in what they are working on (it's rare, but peaceful when it happens).  My favorite thing to do is just watch a couple kids closely.  Some are really in the zone and working incredibly hard.  Others will fidget, turn to their iPads / phones, flip between tabs on the computer, stare off into space, or find other ineffective ways to cope with boredom.  When I create new iterations of my courses, these are the kids I really want to reach and design for.  The problem is that I'm not completely sure what is going through their heads.
  2. What if we taught all kids to vocalize their thoughts like a good product tester?  This might make it a lot easier to peer into the minds of the disengaged kids if they can put words to the things they are doing as they start to do their work.  However, it might also provide me with a ton of insight into the mindset and assumptions of the engaged kids.  Perhaps there is a way of thinking or broader philosophy that I can explicitly introduce to my struggling kids.
I don't know what the best environment is for these kinds of observations.  Perhaps a flipped classroom or project-based classroom with lots of kids simultaneously engaged in different tasks could work.  Maybe a 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 after school session would be more private and thus make it easier for a student to speak his or her mind.  Either way, I think it would be a lot easier for teachers to design a better user experience for their students if they could collect such rich user observations.

Robotic dogs

I was thinking today about why God would create humans in the first place.  The Bible gives a lot of direction on how we should live, and in many ways it gives us some insight into God's character, but I struggle to see the motive behind our existence.  My thought: why not just create beings that would actually obey and love him instead of us flawed beasts that fight the Creator?

And then I thought about my happy dog Kaia.  We joyfully picked her up last July as we returned from our trip to Guatemala.  After forking out tons of money to buy her, our cute little pup stepped in a sewer drain grate and ran up twice her initial cost in just medical bills getting her leg repaired.  Over the following months, she pooped and peed on our carpets multiple times, and even got sick and had some disgusting accidents in her crate downstairs.  Throw in the lack of flexibility with traveling and the need to take her out to the bathroom / walks when the wind chill is -30 degrees, and suddenly you start to wonder what the heck you were thinking.  Why not just get a robotic dog that acts like a real dog?

I can't really put to words why a Sony Aibo just wouldn't satisfy me, but I think it mostly comes down to a lack of free will.  As the owner, I get to strongly influence Kaia's habits, activities, and behaviors, but in the end she does what she wants.  She might want to play when I'm super tired.  She might squat down in the middle of the living room and leave a present.  But she might also walk over to me when I'm feeling down and give me a loving lick (with the same tongue that eats deer feces) and completely change my day.  The moments like this make up for all of the difficult and annoying things in an instant.  Maybe God needs us to have free will for the same reason.

Mindset on failure

Any company needs to look at a variety of criteria to hire people who will succeed.  However, I think there is one that stands far beyond the others: mindset around failure.  People come into jobs with varying levels of experience and expertise, and these DO matter starting out, but they don't indicate anything about a person's ability to adapt and grow.  Mindset, on the other hand, determines how a person will react to challenges and changes, an inevitable part of any career.  In my opinion, this means dropping the ego.  If you are constantly worried about looking good in front of others, you become obsessed with outcomes over behaviors and develop an unhealthy view of failure.
  • Let's start with outcomes.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  It is important to look at and measure results objectively and not go with "how things felt".  This is especially important in teaching where a good-feeling lesson may have left kids no smarter than when they walked into the room.  However, if you look at initial data and say "this was awful, I'm hiding this and pretending it never happened", then you miss out on learning from what you just tried.  It is critical that you measure outcomes, but don't obsess over them.
  • Behaviors are the things you do and practices you engage in.  I think back to my baseball days where I spent a lot of time striking out.  If I got too wrapped up in the outcome of each at bat, I wasn't going to improve.  Instead, I had to make sure I came into every at bat keeping my head down on the ball, rotating my hips, and staying confident that I could hit the ball.  If I practiced and critiqued my behaviors, the results should eventually follow.  Thank my dad for this advice.
  • The way you define failure determines how you deal with it.  People who think in an iterative manner view everything they try as an experience that can teach them a lesson, regardless of whether or not the activity met its original goals (success) or not (failure).  These people know that they need to try things in small bursts and frequently stop, reflect, and make adjustments.  Small failures often lead to eventual success.  People who don't share this view often try to carry out a plan without a lot of feedback and refinement.  If the final result works out, it is a great success.  If it doesn't, it is a miserable failure.
Why does this matter for our schools?  It matters both for how we hire people and how we develop our kids.
  • If the people who teach our kids and administrate over our teachers are worried about looking good, they are unlikely to try new things.  In the rare event that they do, they are less likely to admit early failures and adapt, opting to keep with one strategy or revert to their old ways.  Administrators who think this way will also get wrapped up in their egos and be afraid to try new things, and they will be afraid to give their teachers flexibility to try new things.  Ego leads to a fear of failure which leads to a fear of innovation at all levels.
  • If we teach our kids that everything in life is a one-off performance without frequent iteration, we teach kids that they are either "smart" or "dumb".  Either way, neither category is well-prepared for adversity in their futures and is more likely to quit a tough problem sooner.  Read Carol Dweck's book "Mindset" for more on fixed vs. growth mindset in kids.
I'll probably write a lot more on mindset, attitude, and failure (I'm obsessed with them), but that's a start.

Why Blog?

I finally convinced myself that it would be worth it to start blogging.  It's not like I just learned about blogging and realized that this was for me -- I just never saw the point in posting my thoughts on random topics for the internet to (maybe) read.  The thing that finally pushed me over the edge?  Realizing that blogging meant participating in a global community of reflective people, the kind of people who care about what they do, push themselves to get better, and do their best to align what they say and what they do.  After attending the TIES conference in Minneapolis last week and meeting so many of these types of people in person, I finally connected the dots.

In the past, I almost started blogging.  Here are the motivations that got me close but never really moving:
  • Push a philosophy: I have a teaching philosophy that doesn't align with the "traditional" view of what a teacher is or what they should do.  Since I feel passionately about these beliefs, I want to share them with others.  I thought starting a blog would be a good way to pass these beliefs onto others.  The problem?  I didn't have a perfectly refined vision of what a teacher should be, so I never felt ready to publish a new post.
  • Get feedback on my ideas: This is a great benefit of being part of a community of bloggers.  However, I didn't think of being part of a community of bloggers -- I wanted feedback on my ideas.  If there isn't a community of reflective people who want to learn from and share with each other, there isn't going to be a lot of feedback or comments.
  • Blog on a topic: I have a bunch of empty blogs that I started in Blogger titled with specific themes.  What's wrong with that?  My brain doesn't think narrowed into a single topic.  My reading list is filled with a variety of topics, I'm passionate about lots of things, and I'm not an expert at anything (not yet at least!).  Like the first reason, I never felt like I had a good-enough post that I could make.
Okay, so I'm writing to become a closer part of this community of reflective people.  I believe reflection is the process of doing something, taking time to think about what I did, and evaluating my motivations and outcomes to find successes, failures, and lessons learned.  What I'm hoping blogging will do for me:
  • Since I have quite a few beliefs that I feel strongly about, reflection is also evaluating all of the things I do in the context of those beliefs to determine if I'm really accomplishing anything.  Since a blog is a public record of my philosophies at various snapshots in time, it becomes an accountability mechanism for others to help me reflect on whether the things I do mirror the things I say.
  • I hope blogging will balance how I present myself.  Thoughtout my life, I never fit well into social categories.  I'm a teacher, but I think like a designer, and I like to program (computers).  I'm obsessed with psychology, I'm obsessed with the Packers but a bad general sports fan, I'm a Christ follower, I'm a husband, and I'm a young save-the-world type that wants to make a meaningful difference without letting my ego get too involved.  Different social groups see me differently, so for the sake of my own identify, I'm excited about presenting all of me in the same place.  Perhaps this broader focus will draw away readers.  I'm not sure how this affects my goal of being part of a community (specifically of progressive educators), but I don't think I want to join a community that doesn't accept me for all that I am.
  • The act of blogging will push me to engage in the community of bloggers.  I stink at being passive -- I'm an all-in or all-out kind of guy.  By posting to my own blog, I am convinced that I will do more reading and commenting and Twitter-lurking in the community because I'll be more invested.
  • Writing my own blog can help me engage with my "normal" friends, family, and co-workers.  The people I'm most excited to see comments from are the people who actually see me do things and know me well.  Providing an online forum for critical comments from the people I trust opens up one more channel for the feedback that will make me a better person (whether I like it or not).
So here it goes -- I have a lot to say, but in the end, it will all be a waste of time if it is just a dump of thoughts.  I'm blogging so I can more fully engage in a community of reflective, awesome people!