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I still remember a moment in my fifth year of teaching when I invited my colleague, Javier, to observe a lesson I was teaching. “Colleague” doesn’t quite describe it. Javi and I ran a project-based service learning together. We developed a fully tech-integrated curriculum together that we used with old computers we had converted to Linux machines. Each week, we geeked out on our craft over a pint at a local craft brewpub. I trusted his expertise. So, when I invited him to observe the lesson, I welcomed his feedback . . . or so I thought.

I had created a simulation activity to learn a key concept in social studies. From my perspective, nearly every student was fully engaged in the lesson. Classroom management was seamless. Students shared deep and profound answers in our debrief. This lesson had been a slam dunk. However, when I met with Javi at lunchtime, his feedback surprised me.

“What’d you think of the lesson?” I asked.

“It was pretty good,” he answered. Not amazing. Not spectacular. Not “Hey John, that was one of the best lessons I’ve seen you teach.” Just “pretty good.”

“What do you mean by pretty good?” I asked.

“The core of it was solid. But you talked too much at the end.”

“We had a class discussion.”

He then explained how I had paraphrased every single answer students had given me. In a true discussion, you could draw a line between each person and see a web. What we had was more like a spoke and wheel. Plus, I hadn’t done any pair-share activities to ensure every student processed the information and had a chance to talk. Moreover, the activity itself didn’t include the usual sentence stems or front-loaded vocabulary I typically used for ELL students.

“So, if you’re an extroverted native English speaker, the lesson was great. But it didn’t work well for all of your students.”

I’d love to say that I smiled and took the criticism well. Instead, I got defensive. I rationalized away the point about a pair-share activity.

Even though I trusted Javi as a friend and as an expert teacher, I was unable to listen to his feedback during those brief 23 minutes we had to scarf down a meal. I changed the subject to The Office and eventually went back to teach the same lesson to the next group of students. This time, though, I noticed that my ELL students were struggling. My introverted students were overwhelmed. Some of the louder students were dominating the discussion. For the most part, the boys were talking over the girls.

Finally, it sunk in. Javi had been right. I had failed to create a truly inclusive lesson. As much as I cared about equity, I had marginalized my ELL students and I couldn’t even see that I was doing it. Furthermore, even though I was an introvert (I still am), I had failed to create individual processing time for students. I began to make modifications on the fly, writing out sentence frames, and creating short think-pair-share moments.

This is a reminder that we all need critical feedback. If you think about the Johari Window, there is a section of things that are known to others but not known to self. Some of these things are inherently positive. Others see gifts and talents that your own insecurities make you unable to see. But other times, there are character flaws, biases, and negative behaviors that you are unable to see. If we’re going to grow, we need feedback in this area so that we can be more self-aware and do the hard work of self-improvement.

In the last few years, I have had a co-teacher I work with offer critical feedback on how to tighten up my lesson directions so that I am more efficient. A few times, I reacted defensively to her feedback. After all, I can be pretty thin-skinned. However, her feedback has helped me grow as a professor. I’ve had blog readers offer pushback on ideas that ultimately led to deeper nuance. I had a workshop attendee offer some critical feedback that helped me address race and inequities in the idea of the “maze versus the ladder.” All of these moments led to deeper learning and growth; even when they felt unpleasant in the moment.

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The Types of Feedback

I mention this because peer feedback is critical to collaborative work. If students are using project-based learning, they need peer feedback in their group dynamics and in the products they are creating.

When we think of feedback, it helps to delineate between the source of the feedback. In other words, what exactly are we asking people to critique? Here are a few ideas.

  • Your character: this feedback cuts to the core of who you are. It includes elements of identity, beliefs, values, and behaviors.
  • Your actions: these are the concrete behaviors that your peers have observed. They might include things like your communication style, your interactions with others, and the specific things you have done during a project.
  • Your ideas: here I’m thinking less about things like core convictions or beliefs and more about the specific ideas you have regarding the processes you are using or the product you are creating within a collaborative project.
  • Your creative work: this often means the specific products you have created but it also includes any kind of work that you are doing on a project (i.e. the research you do, the questions you are asking, etc.).

Note that there’s a lot of overlap in these categories. For example, if you’re brainstorming, you might have peers offering feedback on your actions (whether you’re interrupting others), your character (your empathy), the ideas you share. And the ideas and work seem to blend together. However, it can help to ask clarifying questions about the type of feedback you’re receiving. In the case of Javi, I didn’t receive his feedback well, because I viewed it as an attack on my character when it was actually a critique of my work – in this case, my lesson design. Javi knew that I valued equity and diversity and his critique came from a place of trust. However, my own insecurities got in the way of interpreting it correctly.

The Critical Role of Trust

We live in a world full of unsolicited feedback. Whether it’s a snarky comment on a YouTube video or a honking horn from a fellow driver. Incidentally, I learned that folks use their horns way more often in the east coast than they do here in Oregon. I also learned that “bless your heart” is the southern middle finger. Sometimes, the feedback we receive is downright toxic. Sometimes it’s misinformed; especially when someone doesn’t know the whole story. However, sometimes it’s the very thing we need in order to grow.

This is why feedback requires trust. If we go back to the somewhat arbitrary categories above, certain types of feedback require more trust. I pay close attention to what strangers have to say about my work. I regularly analyze workshop feedback, read blog comments, and examine GoodReads and Amazon reviews on my books. If I’m going to share my work publicly, I want audience feedback.

On the other hand, I rarely seek out feedback from strangers regarding my character. Instead, I value the feedback of my wife, my family, my close friends, my colleagues, and my students. Here, trust is much more important. This, by the way, is why I struggle with our university’s Teacher Dispositions requirement. The act of providing character feedback early on (especially on a rubric) actually reduces trust and gets in the way of some of the hard conversations we sometimes need to have.

It can help to think about trust and types of feedback on a spectrum:

A quick note on trust. Sometimes trust is relational. I trust my wife because of our love, intimacy, and shared vulnerability. There’s no one I trust more relationally. Often, when we seek out and listen to feedback on character issues, we look toward those who we trust on a relational level. However, sometimes trust is about expertise. When a stranger critiqued my workshop, I listened to her because of her lived experience and her expertise on equity issues. There are times when people you love and trust provide feedback on your work and you might not listen to them (a parent who doesn’t understand your artwork, for example) but instead you listen to the feedback of an expert (a fellow artist, a fellow art teacher).

As we think of students in PBL units, I think it’s important that we focus our initial feedback on their work and their ideas. As trust develops, they can begin to provide critical feedback on actions and group dynamics. Only in situations with close friends and hard conflict will I facilitate feedback on issues related to character.

The Trust-Feedback Grid

When I taught middle school, students often struggled to distinguish between critical feedback and insults. For all the stereotypes of middle school mean kid behavior, I actually found that most of my students struggled to provide critical feedback. They worried about insulting their friends and classmates.

About ten years ago, I created a grid to help students with the feedback process:

On one hand, there is the continuum of trust, ranging from negative to positive. On the vertical axis, there is a continuum of feedback, ranging from negative to positive. These work to create four separate quadrants. When the feedback is positive but there is negative trust (you don’t trust the person), you end up with flattery. This feels great but it’s potentially toxic and often manipulative. When there are distrust and negative feedback, it’s just hating. And the haters are going to hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. When the feedback is negative but there’s a high level of trust, you actually have critical feedback. It doesn’t feel good but it’s often where growth happens. Finally, when the feedback is positive and there’s a high level of trust, you have affirmation – and we all need more affirmation in our lives. These are the words that can pull you through even when you stop believing in yourself.

We used this grid to explore the types of feedback students provided on both the process and products of PBL.

A quick note: when I shared this grid a few years ago on Twitter, someone pointed out that it was similar to the Radical Candor protocol. While I love that protocol, there are a few distinctions I want to make. First, this is about a peer relationship rather than a “boss” relationship (as Kim Scott defines it). Also, radical candor is about whether you care (rather than trust) and about silence versus challenge. The use of a grid with quadrants here is entirely unrelated and is in no way associated with Radical Candor. In fact, I had developed the trust-feedback grid well before I ever learned about the Radical Candor protocols.

Here’s a video version of this grid as well:

Doing a “Pulse Check” for Trust

Even now as a professor, I sometimes do a simple survey as a “pulse check” to see how well students trust the members of their group. Here, students fill out an anonymous Google Form. Often, it’s an exit slip with 3-5 questions. Here’s a sample of the questions I might ask:

On a scale of 1-5, how well does your group trust each other?

On a scale of 1-5, how well do you trust your group members to complete tasks?

Do you feel like you can speak freely and share ideas with your group?

In this case, I’m looking for trust in general and for whether or not they trust each other with tasks and with communication. Other times, questions might connect to conflict resolution or risk-taking.

Structures for Peer Feedback

The following are specific structures you can use as students provide peer feedback:

  • The 20-Minute Feedback System: This approach begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It has some elements that are similar to critical friends.
  • Structured Feedback with Sentence Stems: Here, you as a teacher provide specific sentence stems that your students can use to provide diagnostic, clarifying, or critical feedback.
  • 3-2-1 Structure: This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have.
  • Feedback Carousel: Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group.
  • Peer Coaching: Students interview each other about the process, using the coaching questions from the student-teacher conferences to guide them if they struggle to come up with reflection questions.
  • Mastermind: this is a longer peer feedback structure. I’m actually a member of two different mastermind groups for blogging and one mastermind group for research and dissertation writing.

For a deeper dive at the 20-minute peer feedback structure, check this out:

If you’d like to download the 20-minute feedback system, please fill out the form below:

Ultimately, peer feedback requires trust. However, when students provide meaningful peer feedback to one another, it builds deeper trust in an ongoing reciprocal relationship.

Get Started with Peer Feedback

If you’re interested in using these structures, feel free to download the free assessment toolkit. It includes handouts, visuals, and other resources for peer assessment, self-assessment, and student-teacher conferences.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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