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January 7, 2008

Wise feedback

Geoffrey Cohen and Claude Steel have written an interesting chapter about specific challenges which educators face who work across ethnical or gender lines. Examples may be a white teacher teaching to black students or a male math teacher teaching female students. Research has shown that in these kinds of situations two kinds of stereotypes potentially undermine performance of both teacher and student:
  1. Student performance may be undermined by the fear of student of being stereotyped by the teacher. Students who see their teacher as prejudiced may self-handicap by for instance withdrawing or responding defensively to critical feedback. This response undermines learning.
  2. Teacher performance may be undermined by the fear of the teacher of not being viewed as unprejudiced. Teachers who fear there are viewed as prejudiced may respond by avoiding to give any critical feedback and only giving praise, even when the performance of the student is low. This response undermines student learning because they miss important critical feedback (which they could have used to their advantage) and the praise for low performance may send the message that little more is expected from that particular student. Further, overpraise may be viewed as patronizing and even insulting.
What can be done about this? Cohen and Steele recommend an approach they call wise feedback. (They borrowed the term ‘wise’ from Erving Goffman (1963). Wise feedback is a way of giving feedback that ensures students that they will not be viewed or treated in light of a negative stereotype and that their abilities and belonging are assumed rather than doubted. Wise feedback conveys faith in the potential of the student while the gap between the current level of the student and the level they could achieve with effort is clearly communicated. While delivering critical feedback the ‘wise’ educator adds two specific elements to his or her feedback:
  1. An explicit invocation of high standards. This helps the student understand that his or her mistakes are not necessarily a sign of his (perceived) lack of capability but rather as a sign of the high demands of the education program
  2. A personal assurance that they will be able to improve with effort.