Saturday, May 8, 2010

Feedback, nondirectiveness, and learners' autonomy

At the very enjoyable clinical teachers’ conference in Baltimore this past week, an education theorist named Grant Wiggins spoke about design by understanding, a theory of teaching that calls for identification of objectives, and then “backward design” to shape the actual class plans so as to demonstrably meet those objectives. He and the other panelists applied this general approach to clinical supervision, and along the way surfaced a real difference in what Wiggins sees as educationally essential and the nondirective approach that clinicians have often endorsed.

He said (among other startling and interesting points) that “feedback” was important to effective supervision. Now everyone would agree with that, but not so many would agree with his definition of feedback. For Wiggins, feedback is like what a baseball coach does, when he tells a player, “You’re pulling your head back when you swing.” Notably, the coach does not say, “So what do you think led to your missing the ball?” The idea seems to be that there are aspects of performance which the performer/actor/law student cannot perceive for himself or herself. The coach sees them and names them.

Moreover, in the baseball example, there’s no doubt that what the coach has named is a mistake; batters shouldn’t move their heads when they swing, presumably because doing so makes it harder to connect with the ball. The supervision analogy would be something like, “Your client was very upset, and your response didn’t show empathy.”

Wiggins is, I think, ultimately committed to learners’ autonomy – but not to the idea that they can exercise it on their own. To enable them to be autonomous, Wiggins wants feedback that is, pretty unmistakably, instruction. He may well be correct. Certainly he's right to say, in effect, that our commitment to learners' autonomy doesn't automatically translate into an effacing of the teacher's expertise and responsibility to convey it. One more thing for teachers to think about!

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