Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Widening the Feedback Channel

Let's talk about feedback.  Without question, Business English Trainers are dedicated to feedback.  We understand it as a valuable part of the communication process.  We attempt to instill it in our learners by giving then useful phrases for obtaining/giving feedback as well as the benefits.  In many cases, our lessons are largely feedback driven.  We observe the language and interject to provide linguistic input for clarity, style, and meaning.  Giving effective feedback is one of the crucial elements of being an English Teacher.

Sometimes we distill this skill to 'error correction', but any trainer can tell you that feedback is much more than simply 'mistake hunting'.  I see that I have not blogged about the '4 Levels of Listening'; perhaps I can do it soon.  In the meantime, you can look at a professional development workshop I ran last year which mentions the topic.

Surprisingly, what I see is that trainers are quick to preach feedback and reluctant to take it.  This is understandable.  Easy to say, harder to do.  Negative feedback hurts.  After all, we have worked for hours to do our best only to find out that our effort was wasted.  What an insult!

But I follow the words, "Feedback is a gift."  As I move forward with a few long-term projects, widening the feedback channel is vital for helping me design and refine engaging and productive lessons.  I have learned to crave negative feedback and integrate it every step of the way.  Honestly, positive feedback is less important to me because I walk into most lessons thinking that the agenda is truly engaging, helpful, and worthwhile.

Here are a few methods for obtaining valuable feedback.

Feedback Trading

At the end of a lesson, say that you will give feedback on their performance if they give you the same.  Typically this is written and often involves a structure.  For example:

I will give you three focus areas for you to work on in English communication.  You give me three things I should do as a trainer to meet your expectations.

This takes about 15 minutes and with larger classes some preparation may be needed.

Flip chart - keep/change

Draw a t-line on the flip chart.  On the left side write "keep" and on the right "change".  Ask the learners to tell you what elements of the training we should keep and what elements we should change.

For example, in my recent classes I have found that they want to keep the variety of the lessons and the feedback-based instruction.  However, they would like to read more articles and play Taboo.  No problem... I introduced more reading/internet searching into the class and we play Taboo for 30 minutes once a month (I bought the real UK version on Amazon).  Attendance is higher than before.

Meet one-to-one

To be honest, this is most difficult method of feedback.  First, learners do not like to tell the trainer bad things.  Maybe they do not have the learning experience to even make a comment.  Second, it lacks the anonymity of written feedback.  Third, they are unaware of their peers' expectations of the course and hesitant to impose their demands on the group.

However, when handled properly, individual meetings can provide key insights into what is going right and wrong with a course.  These are particularly valuable after an extensive time with the group (when they know the group dynamics).  The key for the trainer is implementation with confidentiality.  In other words, when you change something, make it look like a pedagogical idea.

-  Learner desires a traditional and structured approach to learning
-  Trainer: "I know we don't normally do gap-fills, but research show that they are useful for remembering vocabulary.  Here is a gap-fill I created, you have five minutes to complete it."

Important:  When you receive negative feedback, do not attempt to justify your actions... just take it.  Stand there, nod your head, and take it.  It hurts sometimes.  You can direct the conversation to another person, "Jim, what do you think?" but you should not answer.  Write it down and think about it.

Colleague status

This is clearly limited to certain courses and special environments.  But this is the goal of every group I teach whether in one department or from diverse groups.  I want to build trust to the point that we can talk openly about every element of the training (and the business).  The colleague status is developed by combining the three in-class methods mentioned above plus regular communication, dedication, and common goals.

The hardest part of my job is convincing them that my satisfaction comes from watching them succeed (in fact, the most student I lose are those without goals).  I truly believe that if your inspiration is entirely self-serving, then you will never be able to deliver the service needed to maximize value added.  But this convincing takes time.  It is not an approach they are used to.

This means regular engagement with the learners to find out their problems, help them through them within the business constraints, provide accurate input at the time of need, etc.  In essence, value comes from being an integral part of their work life.  Running off copies and preaching about the Present Perfect Continuous does not normally do it.

Once feedback is constant in both directions, you will find the the glass doors to the person/business open wide and lead to immense value added.


While I have discussed three feedback techniques, the final element of colleague status is truly the pinnacle of excellent training and customer service.  The first step is that we seek, accept, and finally crave feedback from our learners in the same way they desire it from us.  It can change the entire dynamic of a class or project and considerably impact contract renewal and wages.

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