Monday, October 6, 2014

Chunking & Feedback Save the Bloody Red Shrimp

This past weekend, my son had to finish a research project on an invasive species. At first glance at what had already been done, I thought that this was going to take a lot of work and was not going to be a pleasant experience for anyone involved. When my son and I sat down together at the dining room table, he was extremely unhappy. He felt like I was going to tell him about how terrible his project was and how he was going to have to re-do it all.

I don't know what caused it. I don't know if it was because of all the "growth mindset / fixed mindset" tweets I've been reading, or the sight of my precious son's absolutely miserable face, but we had to do something different.

Instead of launching into an action plan of my own creation or making a long list of the perceived flaws, I talked about what I liked about the project. I liked the colour of the poster board, because it suited the subject matter. I liked the title and the placement of the title on the poster board.

"Yeah, but it could be bigger", he said.

So we talked about the title. When he or I were tempted to talk about other parts that could be fixed, we stopped ourselves.

"Let's just talk about the title", I suggested. "Otherwise, we are going to get depressed and overwhelmed by the job."

We talked about how we could change the title to make it even better, and decided that it would help if the title were bigger and clearer. I pulled out my Cricut machine and it cut out the letters he wanted, in the style, colour, and size that he wanted.

Chunking the job into manageable tasks, we went through each section. We also used descriptive feedback, always starting with the positive and focused on his opinions before my own, to keep the best parts of the project and make small improvements. I realized that my son has a very creative and artistic flair and just occasionally needs help with the implementation of his ideas. For instance, he had created bubbles that encapsulated each required paragraph - a great organizational tool and layout strategy. It was just that the bubbles were drawn in freehand and were hard to see. We used my scrapbook tools to make the bubbles out of light blue paper and placed them on top of the poster board, and we noticed right away how attractive it became.

This method worked even when we had to go to the computer to retype his paragraphs. He had used a school computer to compose his original sentences and we didn't have access to the file. As he typed, he added more detail and rephrased things for clarity (not because I said so, but because he himself realized it would be better). His paragraphs tripled in size.

I got permission from him to share a photo of the original and revised project, side by side. (To be fair, we peeled off the main photo from the original and reused it on the revised version.)

What made me so happy was seeing my son realize that he had the power to improve his work. He'd exclaim out of the blue comments like:

"Wow, this looks really good!"
"Hey, we're almost done!"
"I like how this is turning out!"

I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that these not-so-new teaching strategies (chunking and descriptive feedback) would work so well with my boy - after all, it was Joanie Proske's patient advice that helped me complete my Masters of Education capping paper back in 2010, and what inspired me to continue doing research, even though I find academic writing very challenging. This weekend, my Readers Choice Awards research project received funding from the Ontario Library Association. I'm excited, and nervous, but like my boy, I have renewed hope that I have the skills to complete this project. With a positive attitude and great support mechanisms, I may just yet have some work published in a peer-reviewed journal. (Big thanks to Bozena White and Francis Ngo for helping me along the process.)


One last note on the positive part: descriptive feedback can be positive if the recipient is ready and willing to hear recommendations and not perceive them as personal criticisms. I was so impressed with Julie Millan for sharing some of her workshop feedback (notice she didn't call it "evaluation forms") to her followers on Twitter.

Julie didn't take those comments as an insult or a suggestion that she is not a great presenter. (I've heard Julie speak - she's wonderful.) However, she used this as an opportunity to go from great to FANTASTIC, and at the same time, modeled for us how we as teachers and students should accept feedback

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