Building Youth-Adult Partnerships Through Feedback

Written by Tevye Kelman of Randolph Union High School, this post originally appeared in UP for Learning’s Winter Newsletter and is being reposted here with permission. You can learn more about Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning (UP for Learning) at their website linked here.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” — Paulo Freire

When Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST) surveys at Harwood Union and Williamstown High Schools revealed students and teachers had diverging perspectives on key issues, teams at both schools drew the same conclusion: strengthening the student-adult feedback loop was crucial.

Helen Beattie, UP for Learning’s Executive Director, says these discrepancies fit a trend she’s observed in the nine years she’s been supporting student-faculty teams to conduct research about student engagement: “Teachers believe they are providing ongoing feedback to students about learning and adjusting instruction, and students do not report the same perceptions. There is a ‘puzzling gap’ between student and teacher viewpoints of this critical aspect of the classroom experience.”

To close this gap, Harwood and Williamstown YATST teams have been working on tools for students to give constructive mid-semester feedback to their teachers. In order to maximize input and buy-in from their student and faculty peers, teams at both schools conducted more surveys, and presented data and design proposals for further input, before piloting the new feedback systems.

Mary Schell Whalen, Director of UP for Learning and YATST mentor, led a faculty meeting at Williamstown last year connecting John Hattie’s research with the the school’s effort to increase student achievement through the student-teacher feedback system. At Harwood, “students have taken the lead in rolling this out to the faculty,” according to language teacher and YATST co-advisor Marcus Grace. When Williamstown piloted its new mid-semester student-teacher feedback system last year, the response was largely positive. Kate Mascetti, a junior who chairs the school’s YATST group, thinks most students “took the feedback forms seriously because this was their opportunity to get their voice out there.” She also cites faculty support as key to the success of the pilot.

Even before the rollout, when Kate and other YATSTers presented a draft of the feedback form at a faculty meeting, teachers were “really on board. They backed us up.” Colleen Sheridan, a junior and veteran YATST member, reports that teachers are incorporating the feedback but acknowledges that there may be “limits to how far they can adjust their classes.” As faculty co-advisor Brooke Nadzam reminds them, though, it’s only the first year. “The more feedback cycles the school goes through, the more it will become more a part of the culture, and the more the dialogue will effect change.” Harwood’s four-year experience with student-teacher feedback systems suggests Brooke is right.

After two pilot years when administering the surveys was voluntary, the YATST-designed mid-semester feedback process was adopted as official school policy last year. YATST co-advisor Ellen Berrings says that although most teachers opted into the process, “student government felt it should be more than voluntary, so they took up the cause as the governing body for students and took it through the process of becoming law at our school.”

All teachers are now expected to administer the surveys, reflect on the data, and take action based on the feedback. The survey also includes a student self-assessment section which reinforces the sense of partnership among students and teachers in improving the learning. One thing is clear from the work of these two YATST teams: strong youth-adult partnerships in school are built on a foundation of healthy dialogue and robust data.