“Let me tell you what I think.” Did that scare you? In many industries, and education is no exception, “feedback” is sometimes treated as the eight-letter “f-word.” But why is feedback so intimidating and is it worth taking the time to change our reaction to feedback? The simple reason feedback is so often feared, avoided, and dismissed is because, generally speaking, people don’t know how to give - or receive - feedback well.
In my estimation, there is no more important skill for an educator, or any professional for that matter, than his or her ability to seek, welcome, and use feedback. One helpful source of good feedback data is surveys, which if designed well can provide valuable information and insight. But we must be open to what we can learn. Much has been written about feedback, including in the 2014 book Thanks for the Feedback by the authors of the best selling book Difficult Conversations, that provides helpful perspectives on remaining receptive. So how can survey responses provide a useful source of actionable feedback for educators and how might we go about reframing feedback to decrease the anxiety it generates?
The Customer Service Business
I’ve been criticized by some for suggesting that educators are in the customer service business. Why might this idea be so hard to swallow? Mainly because customers can be pretty demanding. As authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen aptly point out, there lies a powerful tension at the center of receiving feedback. Most of us sincerely want to learn and grow and recognize the necessity of feedback in that process, but we also want to be liked and accepted as we are.
When we open ourselves to feedback in a space as personal and impactful as education, we become incredibly vulnerable. Teaching is not like most vocations. Teachers aren’t producing widgets, selling product, or running call centers. Teaching is fundamentally relational, multidisciplinary, and often misunderstood. Many of our “customers,” i.e. parents, feel they know better than the teacher what is best simply because they have gone to school themselves.
This idea puts some burden on the providers of the service, too. When we as educators look at our relationships with those we serve as a service, we want every interaction to be an opportunity for fostering goodwill and a happily anticipated repeat transaction. Parents and students may have to use our product, but we are all better off when they are delighted about doing so.
It wasn’t so long ago that parents had few choices when it came to where their child would attend school and how their children would be educated. And for most people, a lack of choice wasn’t an issue. However, today’s parents demand greater options and private as well as public entities have evolved to provide those options for a more demanding clientele. As options have increased, so too has the need to consider the quality of the product. This shift makes the quality of education a value proposition that public schools need to take seriously.
Whether it be pressure to attract and retain families for districts that are funded based on enrollment, or the need to pass local levies and taxes to supplement ever decreasing funding levels, schools are increasingly challenged to prove their value to their community and to ensure the service they are providing meets the expectations of their “customers.” It may be an uncomfortable reality for some, but it is a reality nonetheless. Regularly seeking meaningful feedback from parents, students, and communities is an obligation of schools today. When used well, this feedback can be the fuel that drives necessary change within our service organization, and ultimately serves our customers better.
Perception Data is Different
Educators, like many of us, feel comfortable with quantitative data that is discrete and measurable, like achievement data. However, feedback data is all together different. While it can be reported in measurable quantities like “percent favorable,” the basis for any feedback data involves perception that is wholly individual and contextual. There is no true reality; perception IS reality to the person that is perceiving it. The problem is that many people try to read feedback data as though it were discrete. It’s not. Perception data is often most helpful in the aggregate. Too often, we focus on the “outliers” of feedback data because it’s easy to be distracted by the really bad or really good reviews.
For example, a teacher could seek feedback regarding the quantity, quality, and mode of his or her “communication to parents” and discover that generally speaking, parents enjoy and appreciate the communication from the teacher, but wish he or she provided even more of it. This is a good example of how a teacher might understand and use feedback data. What can happen, however, is that one parent might respond to an open-ended question criticizing the teacher because the parent didn’t know about the field trip volunteer opportunity and the parent couldn’t join their child in this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the teacher’s lack of communication is to blame. What is the teacher likely to remember? Not that parents generally appreciate his or her communication and want even more of it, but that this one parent will never forgive him or her for missing out on the field trip that was in the newsletter, but the parent didn’t see it.
What’s the lesson? For me, it is two-fold. First, we shouldn’t give too much weight to open-ended responses when reviewing feedback data. We should expect open-ended responses to provide color and flavor to the aggregate results and nothing more. Second, if a response appears to be an outlier, either too positive or too negative, treat it as the outlier that it is. If several of the responses come back critical, then we probably have an issue that needs attention. If several of the responses come back exceedingly positive, then there’s reason to smile.
Empower the Receiver
The most important step to decreasing anxiety around feedback is empowering the receiver to determine how to use it. Micromanaging the analysis of survey data and determining what conclusions a person should draw as a result can lead to frustration, distrust, or disengagement. When school sites, teams, and individuals are given access to the data and encouraged to make meaning of it themselves is when the real magic can occur.
As receivers, when we realize that we have the power to use the data as we see fit, the fear of being vulnerable to judgement begins to subside. An important mindshift is in knowing that the person doing the judging doesn’t have the power simply by providing their feedback; the power is in how we choose to receive it. Feedback also leads to insightful “how might I/we” questions that allow the receivers to dig deeper into ways they can adjust their practice - maybe things they had thought of before and now have actionable results to spur on growth and change.
Practice Giving Good Feedback
I would venture to guess that most of us don’t take the time to provide feedback unless we are upset, often really upset, with the service or product that we receive. I would like to challenge all of us to commit to being better about providing feedback when asked. Few of us have time to respond to the litany of requests for our feedback. Does anyone really know anyone who has won $500 for filling out the survey on the bottom of a receipt?
I would like to challenge folks to think of giving feedback as offering a gift, rather than a sword. When we reframe the how and why we provide feedback, our feedback becomes more useful. If our intention in providing feedback is simply to throw a dagger, then we can’t expect that feedback to result in any meaningful change. And if feedback doesn’t result in change, why give it? When giving feedback, try to visualize an action the receiver could take based on your suggestion. Know that your experience is unique, and uniquely valued, and your perspective is genuinely sought by those asking for feedback; providing useful feedback takes some time and thought but is worth the effort. Think about what other factors are affecting your perception of the questions or the target of the questions. A receiver of your feedback can only change the things within their control; consider what you are asking the receiver to do and if it can reasonably be accomplished. Remember that we all have blind spots, so giving constructive criticism gently and with respect will set the tone for positive change instead of defensive retreat.
Feedback exists whether we ask for it or not. In my district we provide surveys for all stakeholders at a set time every year, as all organizations do, but in life we ask for and receive feedback all the time. How was your day? What do you want for dinner? Why did you hit your sister? When will you go to bed? Does this outfit look okay? Our lives are a constant feedback loop and we can make that a gentle and productive give and take that leads to growth on both sides, or we can dig in and fight to win every battle. I heartily suggest we take the first approach. Let’s learn to participate in the give and take of feedback with a spirit of collaboration - the giver and receiver are engaged in a symbiotic balance involving the constant trading of roles and both sides are necessary if we are to make the positive change desired.
And if you are a parent in the Menlo Park City School District, please take the time to respond to your survey by January 31. We value your feedback!
The holidays are upon us and those of us whose traditions call for gift giving and whose pocketbooks allow us to be generous are considering what to give our children that won’t result in an eye roll, a less than impressed “Really mom?,” or a long wait in the returns and exchanges line. It wouldn’t be the holidays in modern America if many parents weren’t considering the purchase of a new smartphone for their child. And what better time to make that purchase than when every major cell phone manufacturer is luring our children with the next best thing in mobile technology?
As an experienced middle and high school administrator and a semi-regular on the parent education circuit, I am often asked my opinion on when a child should get a cell phone. I usually demur and refuse to answer, choosing instead to avoid offending the vastly different sensibilities and values each family holds dear. I’ve recently decided, however, that it’s high time I put a stake in the ground and offer my opinion.
Why now? The truth is, I’m really concerned.
I am far from a luddite when it comes to technology. As a middle school principal, I led the first district-managed 1:1 device implementation at a comprehensive public school in all of Silicon Valley. I more than appreciate the promise mobile technology provides teaching and learning. However, when it comes to personal use of technology, I grow increasingly concerned about the insidious and damaging impacts smartphones are having on users...especially our youth.
So where do I stand?
Without judgement on any family who has or will make a decision different than my recommendation, I encourage all parents to consider holding off on the purchase of a smartphone for their child until at least 8th grade. I fully recognize the myriad of reasons a child younger than thirteen could benefit from and be responsible for a phone. But, it’s not a simple phone to which I am referring. I am referring to the pocket-sized supercomputer from which many of you are likely reading this blog. By all means, most children over the age of probably nine are fully capable of responsibly owning and operating a phone that can call home, text you when they need to be picked up, or dial 911 in case of emergency. Heck, they can even enjoy a quick game of spider solitaire. But, a supercomputer? The difference between the two could not be more pronounced and, as I see it, the risks of the latter are too great. Let me explain my thinking.
The Underdeveloped Prefrontal Cortex
The core of my, and really just about any, good parenting advice begins and ends with brain development. Our brains are not fully developed until about the age of 24. Between birth and 24 our brains experience rapid changes, no more so than the first three years of life and the adolescent years. The part of the brain that is responsible for judgement, risk management, prioritizing, and decision making--you know, the important stuff--is called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most underdeveloped parts of the brain and “under heavy construction” during the years that many of our children are being given their first smartphone. In the best of circumstances, with little external stimuli, our children often don’t have the ability to make good decisions. Add to that challenge a supercomputer with access to unlimited distractions (at best) and a virtual black hole of potential dangers (at worst) just a click away and we have reason to be concerned.
The brain challenges don’t end with mere distractions to the prefrontal cortex. Our children’s brains, especially as they enter adolescence, begin to seek out the dopamine “fix” that risky behaviors or new discoveries provide. Those fixes can easily become irresistible to the undisciplined brain. And when you consider that the accelerated brain development process occurring during adolescence is actively “pruning” away parts of the brain that aren’t being used and “hard wiring” parts of the brain that are used regularly, the dangers of reinforcing the wrong wiring are concerning. I trust our children; I just don’t trust their brains.
Access to a World For Which Our Kids are Not Ready
Let’s take a moment to address the “black hole” of the internet for a moment. When cell phones made the transition from being phones to being pocket-sized supercomputers is when the game changed. The dangers are two fold. The first is accessibility to a world that literally has no filter, no boundaries, no warnings, no accountability. The second is privacy. Unlike the PC that can sit in the family room or the iPad that is managed by a school district, unless parents are prepared to stay one step ahead of their child at every turn (a losing battle for even the most tech-savvy parent), smartphones simply provide a child too much unmitigated freedom. When you combine unfettered access with broad privacy what results is high risk.
Smartphones are simply more power than any child really requires. Did you know that your smartphone has more powerful technology in it than the rocket ships that sent astronauts to the moon? Let that sink in. That’s a powerful tool. When you consider the computing capability of that phone, it puts into perspective what we are handing our kids.
Phone Addiction is a Pervasive Problem
More than brain development and supercomputing, what really caused me to put a stake in the ground around recommending a minimum age for smartphone ownership is the growing concern of smartphone addiction. Smartphone makers and app developers are designing these phones and the tools within them to keep people on them, using them, needing them...and unfortunately, IT’S WORKING. Have you ever heard of a Snapchat streak? Your kids have. And many of them are obsessed with keeping their streaks alive. It’s just one of a number of examples that are keeping our kids hooked on their phones. And when you consider how our kids see us adults using our phones, who can blame them? My phone has me wrapped around its little charging cord. Most of the time, I’m just too busy being on it to notice. The truth is, my own phone has too much control over me...and I’m in my 40s. This level of control that a device can possess over a person, especially a developing child, frightens me a bit. And if our collective fear can cause us to do something about it, then I hope it frightens all of us.
Unmoderated Screen Use is Unhealthy
More research is being conducted, which is essential, that highlights possible health impacts of smartphone use. In a recent blog, I wrote about the rise of anxiety in youth and made the argument that social media is one of the causes. Smartphones are where the lion-share of that social media access occurs with teens and it is impacting their mental health. Penn State College of Medicine research draws a connection to screen time before bed with less sleep and higher BMIs (Body Mass Index). We know that the developing brain requires more sleep for optimal development. For me, I just don’t know if the risks are worth it. While research has increased, there is still so much we don’t know and short of better research over multiple generations, I’m really just conjecturing and being driven by my growing fear of the unknown and the little research we do have. So what’s a parent to do?
You Are NOT Alone
Our greatest resource as parents in the most important role we play is one another. I encourage ‘tribe parenting.’ Talk to your friends who are also parents, especially parents of your child’s friends. You will be amazed at how similar the challenges are from family to family and, together, you all can agree to norms that reinforce the narrative you want to create for your child and their development. Even when you disagree, you’ll find valuable information and a potential network of support. Your child will have you believe that “YOU are the only one who is making [this or that] draconian and old fashion decision.” “Get with the times, Dad,” they will say. “Every kid my age is getting an iPhone X for Christmas, Mom!” they will assert. It simply isn’t true. When we tribe parent, we increase our defenses, because let’s face it, kids can be relentless. I recently came upon one mother’s quest to tribe parent around smartphone use. It’s brilliant. Wait Until 8th is a national, grassroots campaign to convince parents to hold off and support one another in waiting until 8th grade to buy a child a smartphone. Their mantra: childhood is too short to waste on a smartphone. Amen.
If Smartphones are SO Scary, Is Even 8th Grade Too Early?
Every child is different. Every family is different. No blog, no parent education, no interview on a morning news show will ever substitute for your good judgement contextualized by your family’s culture. The problem with any recommendation of this kind is that it’s too general. Again, there’s no judgement here. Thinking about these issues and talking openly with your parenting partner and your child can help frame the step toward independence that a smartphone will catalyze.
The counterbalance to the fear of what could result with a too-young-child having his/her own smartphone is the realization that personal digital technology is a near unavoidable reality in today’s culture. Eighth grade, when a child in the US is 13 or 14, is about the age when the social and developmental benchmarks of an adolescent require the opportunity for trust and release of responsibility in a somewhat controlled and accountable environment. And there actually are some positive trends associated with smartphone/social media use in today’s adolescents:
Once In Their Hands, What’s a Parent To Do?
Regardless of when you choose to give your child a smartphone, there are steps you can take to help keep them safe and hold them accountable. In addition to your efforts to avoid technology obsession, I offer these recommendations whenever it is that you do provide a smartphone to your child:
Where does all this leave us?
I’ve planted my stake, laid out my reasoning, and given you many resources to consider; however, I recognize there are no easy answers. Even the most savvy and experienced educators struggle with the push and pull between technology and its place in our world, and the desire to preserve some childhood innocence as long as possible. One thing I know to be true, is that it’s always, always easier to release some control or loosen your rules as children prove themselves capable and mature enough to handle increased independence. But, it is nearly impossible to regain the narrative and expectations with your kids once you’ve lost them.
Again, if you take only one piece of advice, no matter which age your child gets his/her own smartphone, establish a common family device charging area outside of the bedrooms. Remember, when they ask for a phone, you hold the decision making power by virtue of paying the bills. You can set up healthier smartphone use in your home by making the thing they want so badly come with a few restrictions on when, how much, and where they can use their device.
Whatever we decide, we are in this parenting journey together. Our children’s health is just too important to leave up to tech company marketing and adolescent peer pressure. I’d love to hear your thoughts and be part of a community conversation.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.