The value of great feedback

We had the fun of a parents evening a few days ago. Daughter number 2 – the brilliantly creative, but sometimes challenging one.

A few days before the event we had a progress report from school. And it didn’t make for pretty reading. School has adopted a traffic light and data reporting system. My child’s progress, performance and well being is now reduced to a single red, amber, green coding.

She’s a bright kid, and despite her fair share of self-doubt has always done well at school. But the report did not make for pretty reading – several teachers gave her a red report and marked it cause for concern. Alongside that we got one or two words of comment – revision techniques, skills development, commitment were the explanations given to diagnose the teachers cause for concern.

So we went to the parents evening with a fair amount of trepidation. Our daughter was desperately upset. “I’m trying hard, so I don’t know why they say I’m not committed.” And then the worrying bit. “If I try and I get a bad result what’s the point in trying?”

She took a negative report as a massive demotivator. And because of the absence of feedback she had no idea what she could do about it. Neither did we.

Parents evening was the total opposite. Glowing reports about her commitment, her contribution and her performance in class. And reports of very high expectations from all her teachers. It couldn’t be more different to the report.

The report measures progress against expectations. And at this point in her academic cycle it draws on very limited data points. Just one under par test result and they raise the red flag.

It was a powerful demonstration of the difference between just reporting the data as opposed to understanding it. The difference between individual outcomes and underlying performance. The difference between data points and real, meaningful feedback.

One data point said she was failing. But that was a single data point not a trend, and it was a mark of underperformance against a very high target. Not a failure.

The outcomes said she had performed below expectations. But the underlying indicators – understanding, effort, commitment, intelligence, contribution in class – were all positive.

The data said “cause for concern.” But the teachers expressed only positive sentiment and encouragement.

Don’t get me wrong – she needs to work on improving a number of areas if she wants to get good grades. But whilst the report was demotivating, the direct feedback was hugely motivating. And with some coaching from the teachers she was able to identify strategies to help her make those improvements. 

It reminded me of so many of my own experiences. Reporting, in detail, on key indicators. And red flags certainly get attention. But whilst I see lots of organisations investing time and effort in reporting I can’t say, hand on heart, that I see the same effort from them on coaching their teams to improve. Red flag reports can be hugely demotivating – are you responding in the right way to keep your teams motivated. When your team flag a red issue they don’t want a roasting from you. They want help to make it right.

And maybe we need to think again about the nature of what we report – outcomes and performance tests are important. But so are the fundamental drivers of performance. We had a bad school report because of a couple of bad test results, not because our daughter isn’t trying. Take another look at your reports. Are you really measuring the right things?

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