We’ve been revisiting the assumptions and research on feedback recently – more to come on that.

In a nutshell, faith in the power of feedback has fueled my work for almost 10 years. And clearly the “feedback” that students receive is impoverished.

My wife volunteers to teach yoga through a Philadelphia initiative. A student returned to the class, after a year’s absence, and told her that he remembered that “he was a natural.”

Positive feedback is certainly nice. And all kinds of schools and educators focus too much on correction. Students equate “feedback” with “telling them what they did wrong.”

Jonah Lehrer has a great piece in the January 30th The New Yorker titled, “Groupthink.” It takes apart the assumptions around brainstorming, which originated with a 1948 book by a Madison Avenue advertising executive. The heart of brainstorming is the requirement that a group of people get together to create – without any criticism. The goal is to create as many ideas as possible.

But research quickly showed that, while brainstorming might be a feel-good exercise, and better than unstructured group meetings, people create more effectively alone. And groups do better if they debate ideas, not just list them. A UC Berkeley professor, Charlan Nemeth, has done some of the most recent work in the area. He writes,

Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.

Lehrer summarizes, “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.”

But too much academic (and workplace) feedback is focused on minutiae: incorrect formatting, timeliness. Engaging with people’s ideas is challenging, especially on the one to one hundred (and more) scale that many teachers face. But investing in detailed criticism, on meaningful work, is worth far more than much of the busy-work that is often the focus of educators.