Feedforward and the role of assessment data

This post is a response to The Feedback Fix; Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change by J. Hirsch (2017), Kindle edition from Amazon. I picked it up for the weekend after the engaging MYPChat (6-13 May) wherein Alison Yang @alisonkis provoked thinking on feedback systems in classrooms and schools.

The MYPChat around feedback and formative experiences as resources for learning got me thinking about the cultural value of feedback in school systems. Alison shared her school’s pilot of a feedback model with three layers of feedback (see illustration below).

Pilot to transform use of assessment data by Alison Yang.

What struck me about the model is the pyramid of school values framed within the inquiry cycle.

The role of assessment framed as a school inquiry. Pilot by KIS International School. by Alison Yang.

For the purpose of this commentary, I’m going to substitute ‘feedback’ with ‘assessment’ to distinguish it from ‘feedforward’ which is Hirsch’s term for the alternative to feedback.

Hirsch highlights the role of taking an inquiry stance in an effective assessment culture (Location 1338). The connection to the model that Alison’s school is piloting this year is the iterative nature of assessment, the cyclical uses of its process to impact the school’s improvement pyramid: school development, intentionality and craftsmanship, and the support function of collaboration. In the KIS model, assessment as inquiry becomes an energy source for collaborative development, intentionality and craftsmanship. These last three concepts are ways a school spends time in the future.

Margaret Wheatley, in her book Who Do We Choose to Be? challenges leaders in the VUCA world to think forward: to spend time in the future as part of their leadership. “How many leaders spend time in the future? How many decisions are made using information from both present realities and future scenarios? How many organizations are willing to open their boundaries and absorb as much information as they can, knowing that it is only these exchanges that prevent deterioration?” (Location 714).

Hirsch’s concept of feedforward presents us with the force of time orientation as a mindshift for assessment to become part of how our schools self-organise and lead toward transformation. Recognising that the traditional evaluation feedback system is “broken. With its lack of frequency, judgmental tone, endless documentation and uncompromising emphasis on past performance” (location 216-217).

The concept of feedforward (Hirsch, 2017). See a closeup of the illustration here.

Feedback, with its past orientation:

  • Is more useful for reflection
  • Concerns a performance over which the receiver has no control
  • Presumes that the giver is the judge of performance
  • Can feel threatening
  • Feels like something ‘done to’ a learner
    (Hirsch, 2017)

Feedforward, with a future orientation, is more aspirational. Hirsch names these facets of feedforward:

  • Regenerates
  • Expands
  • Particular
  • Authentic
  • Impact
  • Refines
Facets of feedforward and the cultural forces interacting with the use of assessment. See a closeup of the illustration here.

Hirsch loops back to organizational culture a lot in the book, getting me thinking about the role that assessment plays in school culture.

The strand of assessment and how schools value it creates a fractal of the school’s DNA. Consider the three forces of time-space, language and relational trust present in schools and comments or attitudes, which express these in the school’s narrative.

Embedded assessment loops in a school’s DNA. Based on Hirsch’s feedforward concept. See a closeup of the illustration here.

Time orientation: future

The ways we orient to time is a ‘beating heart, something that informs [our organization’s] beliefs, values and practices” (Hirsch, 2017, Location 1750). Orientation to the past is inherent in feedback, when we give a judgment at the end of a process. Like grades.

Studies instruct our thinking that grades have a detrimental effect on learning. They signal an end-point, and if schools value feedback in the form of grades, students learn that these end-points are most valuable. This is a past orientation, and this feedback is no longer within the individual’s control. Yes, summative assessments allow for reflection and goal-setting, but if these become the source of an assessment philosophy, we have a cultural force which creates stress responses in people.

We know that fear and negative perceptions flood the brain with cortisol, and cortisol inhibits the problem-solving capacities of human brains. Creating a culture which values grades over learning may manifest in situations like time-pressured academic malpractice, shutdown, perhaps even apathy. Hirsch calls evaluation in traditional feedback systems a silencer, a ‘mental restraint’ on growth.

Language of learning: clear and shared

Hirsch tells the story of a teacher who noticed that his very bright students tended to go through the motions of problem-solving to finish tasks, rather than to engage in learning. When the teacher changed how he approached the instructions for one task with three different groups of students, he observed that students who were ‘unencumbered by rote tasks or restrictive language felt free to dream up creative possibilities’ (Location 1166).

The stories of how the teacher’s language changed the students’ responses underscore the importance of intentionality. In the MYP we have the intentional use of learning language when we create task-specific clarifications. This aspect of a clear and shared language to deconstruct and understand learning – if we are to use assessment for growth and improvement – asks us to ‘describe, not prescribe’ (Hirsch, 2017, Location 1667).

Descriptive assessment of learning allows for amplification of aspiration, strengths, goals. The language is used to reveal learning. In coaching thinking around personal learning, we might also pose questions for the purpose of clarifying thinking, illuminating barriers, highlighting strengths, defining goals and next steps. The language becomes an evolving narrative of growth for the learner.

Cultural foundation: Trust

For feedforward to work, trust has to be a foundational force of the organizational culture.

Without relational trust, which is the presupposition that someone has positive personal regard for us, assessment data suffers from negative bias and perceptions tend to get in the way of data becoming a source of improvement.

In my work with accreditation teams, I once read a self-study, which explicitly rejected data-driven decision making systems because it was perceived as threatening to the community.

A hunch is that relational trust (Bryk and Schneider, 2002), those positive presuppositions with which our endeavour for clear, authentic assessment is clearing pathways toward growth, is an agency we owe ourselves. And, if we are unable to come and look in a mirror with intellectual humility, we might be barring ourselves from becoming what we so loudly proclaim in our mission statements. We might be preventing ourselves from learning out of implementation dips and from entering the territory of transformational change.

The ripples of a foundational presence of trust in Hirsch’s book is captured as ‘consciousness,’ an attentive awareness of self and others. This consciousness in the Cognitive CoachingSM language manifests when individuals respond with ‘deliberate rather than automatic control’ and ‘are necessary transit zones in which to unlearn old patterns and learn new ones’ (Costa and Garmston, 2016, p. 119) to others, themselves and situations.

A school culture, which insists to ignore data seems poised to become entrenched in old patterns and unable to learn new ones.

Without positive presuppositions and trust, systems opt out of adaptive growth in a time of great change in education.

The feedforward loops for layers in schools give us a glimpse into how one thing – assessment data and practices around it – when done with intentionality, craftsmanship with a future orientation to development can create a culture around learning.

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. L., Garmston, R. J., Hayes, C., & Ellison, J. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hirsch, J. (2017). The Feedback Fix; Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change. S.l.: ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.

Wheatley, M.J. (2017). Who do we choose to be? Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity (1). San Francisco: BERRETT-KOEHLER.

Yang, Alison. Personal correspondence, 13 May 2018.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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