Written Feedback as a Relational Practice: Revealing Mediating Factors

November, 2020

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 16:3, 324-344

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper the authors represent internal and external factors that mediated their written feedback practice.
Factors were derived from an analysis of transcripts from a series of conversations and narratives about written feedback from 2015 viewed through a relational lens (Kitchen, 2005a) and dialogues clarifying representations of the identified factors.

Methodology and Methods
From their contexts and experiences giving written feedback, the authors worked to improve their feedback practice in mathematics methods courses (Kastberg et al., 2020).
They chose self-study methodology to explore the question:
What factors inform their written feedback as a relational practice?

Self-study as a Methodology
The authors engage in self-study as characterized by openness, collaboration, and reframing (Samaras & Freese, 2009) with the goal of improving their practice (Mena & Russell, 2017).
Aligned with the Arizona Group (1995) approach, their inquiry has a shared focus, draws from differences in perspective and institutional context, and uses collaborative dialogue to build knowledge from data and as a source of data.

Central to the authors’ self-study work is critical friendship (Schuck & Russell, 2005) through which they both support and critique each other’s work.
Since 2013 they have shared personal and professional happenings and efforts to improve their practice during weekly conference calls.
During the first two years of their critical friendship they constructed instructional activities that provided PTs’ opportunities to give feedback on student learning.
They became comfortable opening one another’s practice for discussion, establishing norms of questioning their practice and assuming the co-constructed space was safe for dissecting instructional challenges.
The goal of their dialogue was to become conscious of the nature of their practices.
As receivers of friendship, they talked to their practice and their thoughts.
They expected that their dialogues would explore alternative perspectives and that they were all willing to change.

Inquiry into the authors’ written feedback practice involved three phases identified by using the year each began (2015, 2017, 2019). Each phase involved data and critical friend dialogues to gain perspective from their three contexts.
The aim of the 2019 phase was to represent the factors as vignettes situating them in their 2015 work as mathematics teacher educators (MTEs).

Each of them took up one of the three factors, and then constructed a written feedback vignette from their 2019 vantage point (Ham & Kane, 2004), evidenced by findings from their 2015 data and the 2017 data analysis and findings.
Dialogues about drafts of the vignettes focused on the influence of the factors in their 2015 written feedback practices.
This process resulted in seeing ways these factors mediated their written feedback practice.
Their dialogues unearthed ways of knowing about their written feedback practice through ‘convergence,’ where they listened to each other and supported the talker, and through ‘divergence,’ when they raised questions or disagreed; each of them experienced resonance with the talker through their dialogue.
Through the dialogues they built vignettes as representations of factors from the unique experiences of the author, but also informed by the feedback experiences that emerged from the 2015 and 2017 research.

Findings and discussion
Beyond providing information to preservice teachers (PTs) PT about performances, written feedback practice in teacher education contributes to ‘relations of care and trust’ (Noddings, 2003, p. 250) with PTs.
In teacher education such relations provide opportunities for MTEs and PTs to learn about becoming teachers, each seeing the other in the action of becoming.
Analysis of their 2015 data revealed factors mediating their written feedback practice.
This finding coupled with those in self-study literature on written feedback contribute to Evans' (2013) call for research into ‘the dynamics involved in both the giving and receiving of feedback’ (p. 107).
The authors argue that underlying factors mediate written feedback practice in support of the informational purposes while displacing time and space for relational purposes.
Self-studies of teacher educators’ feedback and feedback practices (Dismuke et al., 2018; Kastberg et al., 2020; Ritter et al., 2011) have identified challenges inherent in this practice. These analyses have outlined ways written feedback to PTs fell short of some of the goals teacher educators have for feedback.
The authors’ findings illustrate how underlying factors of mathematical identity, assignment structures, and accreditation mediate feedback practices, lay bare teacher educators’ struggles to provide information for and develop relationships through such practices.
They assert that even consciousness of such factors may not ameliorate the potential threat they posed to the relational purpose of written feedback practice.
Each identified factor is woven through teacher educator practice.
The authors’ findings and those of Ritter et al. (2011) illustrate teacher educator’s content specific identities inform their written feedback. In particular, they drew from their mathematical identities to create feedback focusing PTs’ attention on learner’s mathematics.
Their mathematical identities also informed assignment structure that directed PTs’ attention toward learners’ mathematics.
Alyson’s mathematical identity, that included her value of learners’ mathematics, was a source of insight as she created the letter writing assignment and as she provided feedback on the assignment.
She created the assignment for her geometry course to encourage PTs’ attention to learners’ mathematics.
Language and goals of program level accreditation also informed their assignments.
Susan’s adjustments to assignment structures and rubrics were motivated by information she gathered at CAEP conferences.
A goal for Susan became preparing PTs to represent their emerging practices for external evaluation.
The authors felt the need to insure PTs could implement and discuss research-based, high-leverage (TeachingWorks: High-leverage practices, 2019) mathematics teaching practices (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2014).
Looking back, they accepted national views of teaching as scientific.
Their written feedback practices attended to PTs’ journeys through accreditation processes and proficiency with sanctioned mathematics teaching practices.
They wonder if PTs experienced feelings reminiscent of being labeled as poor or exceptional in mathematics.
The most significant finding of this study is the additional factors that mediated teacher educator’s practices.
Factors such as content identities and accreditation are not always in the forefront of teacher educator thinking as they prepare feedback.
The authors assert that when underlying factors that inform written feedback are left unexplored, improving written feedback practice is difficult.
Dismuke et al. (2018) identified tensions teacher educators experience in giving feedback.
For example, the time it takes to attend to PTs’ unique characteristics is in tension with the rewarded activities of the professorate at many universities.
This tension requires teacher educators to choose between spending time giving written feedback that meets informational and relational purposes or attending to other efforts, such as accreditation work.
The authors’ findings suggest that consciousness of the aims of teacher educator practice is necessary but not sufficient in improving written feedback.
Although goals for written feedback may be informational, as in the case of Hattie and Timperley's (2007) description, they may also be growth oriented (Pittaway & Dowden, 2014) or relational (Dismuke et al., 2018).
Analysis of the content of written feedback makes teacher educators cognizant of the misalignments between content and purposes.
Beyond this finding lies a lifetime of written feedback practice with ongoing internal and external factors that mediate the practice.
Collegial conversations about such factors within one’s discipline and program area could inform faculty understanding of the landscape of PTs’ feedback (Evans, 2013) experiences and faculty perspectives.
Raising such issues with colleagues could highlight information faculty value in written feedback but also focus on other purposes written feedback serves in teacher education development such as the development of relationships.

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Updated: Jul. 01, 2021