Assessment For Learning · Education and Politics · OFSTED · Policy and Practice · Teaching and Learning

On feedback in education: norm circles and evidence proxies

feedbackI’ve been thinking about feedback. More specifically how do you know whether it is any good or not? Despite the research I’m not convinced that feedback is a good thing per se. Good feedback is a good thing, bad feedback isn’t. Unfortunately, feedback has become a virtue as a “thing in itself”.

I’m not convinced by research that uses effect sizes and meta analysis anyway. The kind of research that suggests feedback is 3 months better than origami, cucumbers or whatever. I wonder why researchers do not expose the failings of these  methodologies. The simple answer, I suppose,  is twofold; they do but nobody listens and …well..nobody listens. Many research fields simply engage with their own discourse and are not the least bit interested in what anyone else is saying. Research fields are a kind of norm circle. The interests of the field become paramount. The battle for recognition more important than whatever it is the outside world thinks.

Politicians are the same. The constructors of policy have their own agendas. Policies have to sound plausible. Fit in with the big plan; whatever that happens to be. Educational policies are not always about education. They are often about politics. Something has to be seen to be being done.

The phenomenologist, Schutz, stated that practice is a unique kind of experience. It exists in the moment. Humans construct experience by imposing time and space onto it. Reflection creates the reality of practice but it is not practice itself. In other words, we find it hard to differentiate between what we think about something and the something as a “thing in itself”.

Educational ideas, therefore, are constructed on the premise of normed discourses far removed from the classroom. High powered individuals compete to sell ideas, write the book, “tweet the tweet” and so on and so forth. What emerges is often something that sounds more plausible than it actually is. The key to selling an educational idea is to make the complex unproblematic.

Once we have the educational idea it has to be transmitted, by the likes of OFSTED, and re-contextualised by Quality departments, within institutions, into something tangible, quantifiable and most importantly measurable. Then, and only then, is it ready for the classroom.

I think many educational policy ideas become proxies for good teaching and learning. So feedback, in this case, becomes an evidence proxy. The notion of good and bad feedback goes out of the window to be replaced by frequency and quantity. Variables that are quantifiable. Far easier to weigh the evidence than read it.

Stephen Ball (2001) put it in more stark terms:

…….schools may pay some attention to a policy and ‘fabricate’ a response that is incorporated into school documentation for purposes of accountability and audit, rather than to effect pedagogic or organisational change.


I’ve borrowed the term norm circle from the The Reality of Social Construction by Dave Elder-Vass



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