Don’t be afraid to provide some feedback!

This seems to be a very common Asian trait. Although the problem does exist in the Western world, it is less widespread, and takes different forms. In France, for instance, we speak a lot about self-esteem at school, but we tend to be much more critical in our daily life, which has its own issues. Here in Cambodia, after visiting more than ten teachers in their classes, I could observe that the teachers are quite reluctant to correct the mistakes of the students. I think it’s related to a fear of humiliating the students and making them loose their face. Of course it’s essential not to hurt people, but it should not be avoided at the expense of the truth. It is essential to tell people when they are wrong. If you don’t, how will they make any improvement? You can get them into very serious troubles, if you don’t tell them about the dangers to come, just because you want to preserve their self-esteem. So, the question is: how do you improve the quality of the students’ work without hurting them too much?

Never judge the person, but evaluate the performance. Hate the sin, not the sinner. There is no forgiveness without truth. And there is no forgiveness without the possibility of a punishment. In practice, the final test is not good for providing the feedback. It’s some kind of judgement. It comes too late and the marks are usually definitive. During the learning process, the students need to make many attempts without the fear of being definitively judged. We should evaluate them kindly and provide good advices on a regular basis. They need to know what to expect before putting themselves at risk. Ideally we should do the official exams only when the students are ready to pass them. It’s generally too difficult to organize, because there are too many students, but when it’s possible, it’s far better than the common practice. We can find this method in some professional formations, or for the driving licence.

Your yes must be a yes, your no a no. What would you prefer? A kind man or a reliable friend? Never lie to the students. If their work isn’t good, don’t pretend. They will figure it out, if you’re lying. And they won’t be grateful for your lies. On the contrary! They will despise you for being untrustworthy or dumb.

But be fair, accept some critics in return, providing that the students are still respectuous and polite. It’s true for me too. Tell me when I’m wrong.

And always give hope. It must be very clear: if you correct the students, it’s because you believe that they can improve. If you do it properly, the students will be grateful, because you take care of them. And you believe in their abilities. “Not yet, but you can do it.” Let’s be very explicit about it! Of course you love your children! Or I hope so… Of course, you want the best for your students! Or I hope so… In any case, how will they know, if you never tell them? There is nothing worse than indifference. In most cases, the feedback can be provided without an ounce of reproach, or even without speaking at all. When a student is writting, you can just point to the mistake with your finger or a pen, and he will correct it by himself, most of the time. A little smile to reward him, and that’s it! During oral activities, a simple gesture can mean “not exactly”. You can wave a finger to say “please, try again”, as if the student was able to improve his speech himself. In general, you should give him the opportunity to succeed after you’ve pinpointed the mistake. After an oral answer, give the student a second chance before you question his classmate. If you do it, he will never hate you for having said he was wrong. On the contrary, he will be grateful, in the long run. The same goes for more important projects. If the pupils have to make a poster about a historical figure, correct their draft to avoid silly things such as anachronisms, spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. So, you will put on the wall only the posters they can be proud of. When they have written a short story, it’s very good to make them write a second draft. So, they will take your comments into consideration, which they rarely do after you’ve given them a mark. I, myself, give up to 4 bonus points (over 20) just for improving the story. Let’s be honnest, it’s time-consuming to make a dual correction, but it’s definitively worth it.

“Try again and again until success.” This is common Internet wisdom, but the injunction happens to be tremendously hard sometimes. Be careful! Not every goal is reasonable for every student. It is reasonable to ask for improvements. It’s reasonable to request several attempts before giving up. It’s not reasonable to compare anyone or anything to an ideal. It’s not reasonable to compare teenagers to the richest entrepreneurs or to the first league champions. “Never give up” puts people between the hammer and the anvil. Set reachable goals.

Don’t be nasty on details. Let the students make a complete try before you give your feedback. Let them finish their presentation before you make any comment. When they’re performing a role-playing game, just write on the board any comment you want to make and remain silent. You’ll explain the rule after they are finished.

Praise before you criticize, or at least say “thank you” for the effort, if you cannot praise. Congratulate for the small improvements, even if they are not really impressive from an external point of view. Sometimes, those small improvements require a huge amount of effort. When a student makes 40 spelling mistakes in just one paragraph, it can be very despairing. If the next time he makes only 20 mistakes, it’s still far from enough, and you have no choice but to give him a bad mark. However, you can praise the progress and the efforts. It’s obvious that nobody can correct everything at the same time. Acknowledge the small improvements. The students desperately need it.

When there are too many mistakes, it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect work the next time, and it can discourage the child you’re trying to help. Don’t lie about the number of mistakes. It would be ridiculous. But summarize the 4 or 5 main issues. So, the student know what he should pay attention to. Be careful, no more than 4 or 5 objectives for the next time. Whith some students, even 1 or 2 are enough. Choose well. Besides, if you take enough time to analyze their mistakes seriously, you will find out that just a handful of rules make up the vast majority of the mistakes. And most of the time, the students already know the rules, but they just fail to apply them. Generally, they lack training. It means that they don’t have enough habits to deal with trivial issues, and they have to think about everything. They have dozens and dozens of rules to take into account. It’s too much. When they need to review their work, they don’t know where to start. The teacher can help them focus their attention on the most important spot. For instance: “There are 40 spelling mistakes in your story. You know it’s a lot. But if you look well, you’ve made the same mistake 15 times: you forgot the s for the plural. And the second most important mistake is you forgot some of the articles: 10 times. So, if you focus on those two rules, you can reduce your mistakes by more than a half.” 2 rules, 50%. That’s a reason to be confident!

In the very same way, as a teacher, if you just focus on providing more feedback, you will improve the quality of your work tremendously. The second rule is to have a calm class, so that the students can listen to the lesson. I’d say that those two questions make up more than half the quality of teaching.

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