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Smart Ways to Give Stupid Feedback: An iPad Manifesto


I recently presented at the NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) Convention in Tampa, and had the opportunity to talk to many people about using the iPad as a principal.

Because of the topic of my presentation, I was contacted before, during, and after the conference by several developers of iPad apps that are designed to allow administrators to compile walkthrough feedback and share it with teachers.

A quick look at several of these apps reveals a glaring flaw: They are all smartly designed to do something stupid.

We've been taught, by great minds such as Charlotte Danielson (one of the keynote speakers at the conference), that the best feedback for teachers relates to specific criteria for performance. Danielson's Framework for Effective Teaching is the basis of evaluation systems around the country, including the one we use in my district. It's a great framework, one that encourages reflection and growth while also providing clear descriptors of different domains and levels of practice.

Danielson's framework is now wildly popular (and increasingly, written into state laws), but it's clear that principals are not quite ready to properly use such a robust and reflection-oriented framework. The recent popularity of the "walkthrough" has left administrators with deep misconceptions about how to prompt reflection and professional growth. Compliance-oriented walkthroughs, which are meant to police teachers and enforce the rollout of new policies, are not a way to prompt professional growth.

iPad fever has further distracted us from a focus on reflection and feedback. At worst, observations are little more than exercises in filling out checklists. Checklists are binary—either you did the thing on the checklist, or you didn't. Feedback based on a robust instructional framework is dumbed down into "look-fors."

There's been an explosion of iPad apps for converting such checklist data into "feedback," usually in the form of an emailed report that lists what the observer saw and did not see during the lesson. For example "Develops lessons based on knowledge of students." CHECK!

Does anyone really think teachers appreciate and grow from this kind of feedback? Do we think we can provide feedback without writing a single thoughtful sentence? Does anyone's practice evolve as a result of reading a list of look-fors, presented without any evidence, context, or nuance?

There is a killer app for giving feedback on the iPad. It's called email. If you want to comment on someone's teaching, send her an email describing what you saw and what you think it means for student learning and professional practice. Ask how she thinks it went, and what she's working on as a professional. Better yet, use the terrific calendar app to make time to actually sit down and talk.

I am a huge fan of the iPad, and an advocate for productivity and efficiency in school leadership. But we must make sure that our quest to do the work more efficiently does not gut instructional leadership of its most important elements—namely, clear, evidence-based, person-to-person communication.

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