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Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback: What Sports and Snakes Can Teach Us About Supporting All Students

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By Meg Riordan, Project Director, EL Education Teacher Potential Project

Walk into a basketball practice and it's not uncommon to hear a coach giving specific feedback to the players: "Eyes up when you're dribbling, Jasmine! Look at your teammates instead of the ball! "Get into position, Tyler. Plant both feet when you set the pick!" "Okay, team, huddle up here and I'll show you how it's done. Now, let's run the play again..." Among teammates, the exchange of feedback is also routine, a part of supporting the team’s progress.

The ongoing feedback and practice to hone performance is simply a part of the culture of sports; it is expected, welcome, and supports players in improving their skills - not in isolation, but as an integrated whole. From the basketball court to the classroom, the question of what it takes to build expertise, confidence, and self-efficacy is important; unpacking it can help provide teachers with instructional ‘moves’ to support students’ achievement.

So, what can sports (or music, dance, or theater, for that matter) teach educators about how to incorporate feedback and other difference-making strategies into classroom practice?

In EL Education and beyond, Ron Berger’s video of Austin's Butterfly stands as a vivid illustration of the power of using models, peer critique, and descriptive feedback to support students not only in creating high quality products, but in developing skills that help that picture of quality to stick. As with sports, these are the skills learned through practice that transfer to other contexts, whether the big game or the final paper. In this video, the process of inviting students into what an expert intimately knows is made transparent: identifying what a strong product looks like (based on modeling); describing the attributes or characteristics that comprise its quality (critique), and building skills and knowledge that promote ownership and confidence (ongoing descriptive feedback).

Then how might a teacher actually incorporate this powerful trio of instructional strategies into practice to support all students in creating meaningful work and developing self-direction? What could it look like for Austin’s Butterfly to live in a classroom?

We get a glimpse from the 2nd graders at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, whose teacher Jenna Gampel invites her students to look at models of scientific drawings created in previous years. Students analyze the illustrations aligned to a rubric, lifting up ‘stars and stairs’ - complementary feedback and areas for improvement. Gampel indicates that over time, as students’ understanding of quality sharpens and they gain skills and knowledge, their peer feedback becomes more specific and useful. Research suggests that this ongoing process of giving and receiving timely, descriptive feedback from teacher and peers is a strong influence on students’ learning and achievement. And Gampel agrees, explaining, “...getting really high quality work from every student means they have to go through a process of critique and revision.”

Back to the basketball court for a moment: practicing - with a clear vision of quality, coach and peer feedback, and multiple opportunities to try - helps players to develop ‘muscle memory’ meaning the body begins to perform skills adeptly. With students like Gampel’s, the goal is to build different muscles - scientific vocabulary, content about snakes, language of critique, and ownership - but the strategies are similar. Models, critique, and feedback are instructional practices that support, engage, and promote students as leaders of their learning.

We invite you to join EL Education’s Teacher Potential Project for a free interactive webinar, Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback. Educators will explore the critical moves that teachers can make to help their students create work of the highest quality and learn practical, yet inspirational, strategies for motivating, supporting, and holding students accountable for high-quality work.

The webinar will take place on Monday, March 5th, 2018 3:30 pm to 4:30 ET; 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm CT; 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm MT; and 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm PT)  Please register here.