Strictly Come Teaching: Giving feedback to novices

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Watching Strictly Come Dancing this past weekend I was struck by the way the judges gave feedback to the contestants in week 1 of the competition.  Unsurprisingly my mind turned to the beginning teachers just starting out on their own journey from novice to competent over the course of their initial teacher education (ITE) year(s).

The Strictly Feedback Model

No one can deny that at this early stage of Strictly, all the contestants are novices – even those with prior dancing experience have never trained specifically with this kind of dance performance in mind.  In many ways the idea that these novice dancers at the very start of their journey are ‘judged’ in week 1 feels unrealistic and perhaps even a little bit cruel (although they do  stop short of knocking someone out of the competition in week 1).  It was clear that some contestants will take to their new endeavour like they were born for the dance floor whilst for others it will be an uphill climb of hard-won progression week on week.  What was also clear, as the judges gave their verdicts on the performances, was that not all the feedback was equally useful.

It seems that the new series of Strictly will be typified by 3 ‘mentoring’ approaches: 

  • Anton (and sometimes Motsi) is the generous, encouraging mentor, who hopes that through positivity and an empathetic ‘I was in your shoes once’ approach the contestants will be given the space to make ‘natural’ progress through exposure to their training.  
  • In contrast Craig is the mentor who ‘speaks truth’, identifying exactly what he feels contestants did wrong without any softening of his message, rarely with specific guidance around how to improve those areas.  His approach seems intended to urge the contestants to prove him wrong by redoubling their training efforts to concentrate on those areas upon which he is most likely to comment.
  • Finally, Shirley (and occasionally Motsi) seems to tread a middle line.  Quick to find even the smallest aspect of the performance to praise, she often does this authentically by naming specific features of the dance.  She then goes on to identify aspects of technique through which the contestant improve their ongoing grasp of ‘the fundamentals’ which will feed-forward and benefit other future dances.  Shirley is a master at this – she frequently homes in on one specific area of practice, giving examples and visually demonstrating what needs to change.    

Content of Lesson Feedback

Giving feedback to beginning teachers making their first attempts in the classroom is a real skill.  As Shulman (1987) described, developing beginning teachers’ expert pedagogical content knowledge requires awareness of the discipline’s underlying concepts and the steps by which a secure conceptual framework and increasingly powerful knowledge can be built.  This is a complex process, intimately tied to subject specific disciplinary understanding and can be a real learning curve for mentors who have not previously needed to articulate their understanding of their subject or decision making when planning or teaching.  It can also be really difficult for mentors to focus on subject specific targets when wrestling the inevitable desire to concentrate on the immediate pressures of classroom logistics and behaviour and provide generic ‘quick fix targets’. 

Providing focused feedback on specific areas of emerging practice is vital for beginning teachers’ development.  ‘Shirley’ style feedback recognises that targets appropriate in week 9 are not always appropriate in week 1.  It gives a healthy dose of both immediately actionable targets, focused on practising a specific skill, alongside important contextualization of how this aspect of practice fits into their wider development.  Puttick and Warren-Lee (2021) looked at Geography mentors’ written lesson observation and feedback and concluded that effective feedback does something ‘beyond’ simple naming, evaluative judgements, or practical suggestions, and explicitly prompts ‘reflection’’.  Beginning teachers need their mentors to engage in such reflective discussions around their written lesson plans and teaching practice.  There is incredible value in ‘rendering visible’ curricular thinking (Healy, Walshe and Dunphy, 2020) to allow the subject specific dialogue to take place and ensure the mentee is enabled to develop beyond their short-term considerations which often simply just need more exposure and practise time in the classroom.

Style of Lesson Feedback

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Effective mentoring is also in the way we deliver our feedback and offer those targets.  Craig’s feedback embodies a judgementoring approach (Hobson & Malderez, 2013); these uncompromising verdicts, even subject specific ones, are revealed quickly and uncompromisingly, frequently resulting in a defensive rather than reflective response from the contestants. Anton’s approach similarly disempowers the contestants and distances them from the critical evaluative process they need to undertake to improve.  Both approaches remove opportunities for the mentee to become reflective practitioners.  Mentors need to be mindful at all times of our ultimate goal of developing independent practitioners capable of adopting this own subject specific lens of reflection for themselves as they develop their practice beyond their ITE year. 

Keep Teaching

Mentoring requires an understanding of effective classroom practice, subject specific knowledge and subject/ phase specific pedagogies, whole-school roles and professionalism.  It also requires diplomacy and a pastoral awareness that is focused upon the potential the beginning teacher might hold within them – even if that potential doesn’t look quite like the teachers encountered before.  As I explored before in ‘Matey Mentor‘, being the critical ‘friend’ who challenges by developing their mentee’s self-reflection in an environment of support and encouragement is key to unlocking their potential.  If there is one lesson, I took away from Strictly this weekend, it’s that we need to be ‘more Shirley’ to ensure our beginning teachers make progress and keep teaching. 

References

Healy, G., Walshe, N., & Dunphy, A., (2020). How is geography rendered visible as an object of concern in written lesson observation feedback? Curriculum Journal, 31(1), 7–26. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.1

Hobson, A. & Malderez, A. (2013). Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school‐based mentoring in teacher education. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education. 2. 89-108. 10.1108/IJMCE-03-2013-0019.

Puttick, S. & Warren-Lee, N. (2021) Geography mentors’ written lesson observation feedback during initial teacher education, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 30:2, 95-111

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: foundations of the new reform in Harvard Educational Review, Vol.57, No.1, pp 1-22

Winch, C., Oancea, A., & Orchard, J. (2015) The contribution of education research to teachers’ professional learning: philosophical understandings, Oxford Review of Education, 4.1:2, 202-216

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