Feedback Fatigue

Bowen-knot-in-rope

There is something I don’t know
that I am supposed to know.
I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
     and I am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid 
     if I seem both not to know it
          and not know what it is I don’t know.

—Psychologist R.D. Liang, Knots

At the educational conference I attended this past weekend, we received lots of feedback. We gave feedback. There were handouts about how to do so in our binders. There was written daily feedback, oral feedback sessions, feedback on the feedback, and an online survey I still have to complete.

Well, here’s my feedback: I’ve got feedback fatigue.

Although my formal student days are in the past, I know I was a good student, and reasonably compliant in class. I have an Ivy League degree and a PhD. But I also know that underneath the placid exterior, I was not the happy little learning sponge that seems to be how good students are conceptualized these days. And I know I was never asked for this much feedback back then.

I think a renewed appreciation for feedback is mostly a good thing. As an educator, I don’t want to go along, blithely repeating errors or poor practices class after class, harming student learning without even realizing it. I think this happened too frequently in the past. For example, my science teacher in 7th grade spent most of his time sitting at his desk, while we students struggled alone through an incomprehensible student-directed learning workbook. Where was the feedback then? I think we all could have used some.

But these days it goes too far the other way. I can’t even get an oil change without being asked whether the cleanliness of the dealership where I took my car “exceeded my expectations.”

And, for me, there’s the rub: the expectation that I will have expectations.

Therefore I pretend to know it.
     This is nerve-wracking
     since I don’t know what I must pretend to know.
Therefore I pretend to know everything.

The last day of the conference involved the attendees dividing into groups and each group facilitating a shortened practice lesson for 30 minutes. I felt more nervous than everyone else looked, or acted, except for one other person (out of about 25 total), who was the only one who admitted out loud to being nervous. And the fact that we had to not only give each other feedback on our facilitations but also be self-reflective, aloud, about our own performance in the exercise, just increased that nervousness.

When we were not presenting, we sat in the audience, pretending to be the adolescents who will be our students when we go back home to teach the course on our own. Like my real adolescent self, I didn’t do anything very inspired to test the other facilitators’ classroom management skills. I just took out my phone once or twice and played a game on it until the facilitator asked me to put it away. But it was remarkable how quickly I slipped back into my old student mindset anyway. Back then I was a little anxious, usually, about how classes were going to go. I could almost always follow the teacher, and the main lesson, but the student social behavior tended to move too fast for me. Other students would be giggling or laughing or interacting behind the teacher’s back and I wouldn’t understand what was going on. This happened again, even in the present. I started to disengage a bit, as the words started to wash by and around me, too fast, and I had to bring myself back. To my delight, in this time and this place, I could.

I feel you know what I am supposed to know
          but you can’t tell me what it is
          because you don’t know that I don’t know what it is.
You may know what I don’t know, but not
          that I don’t know it,
and I can’t tell you. So you will have to tell me everything.

As a student, I was much like Liang’s narrator, insisting that someone “tell me everything.” But at this point in my life, much of my learning process involves trying to untie one or another of Liang’s knots. Rather than expectations, what I usually have are questions. What am I supposed to know here? Do I know it? Can I know it? If not, can I cope anyway?

The hard truth is that I will never know everything I don’t know. And you won’t either. I’m glad I did this workshop, because it helped me embrace this discomfort.

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