Feedback vs. feed-forward: A field guide for education leaders

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd

“Never take feedback from someone you wouldn’t seek out for advice.” I cannot remember the first time I heard this phrase and I tried to source who originally made this statement, but it seems to be lost to time.

Regardless, I am sure many of you have heard or read this statement before and it nearly always gets a chuckle, followed by a glean of recognition that there might be some truth to the statement. The question becomes, is this the right counsel?

Understanding the significance and nuances of feedback

Feedback, at its core, is a mechanism for conveying information about one’s performance or understanding. It could come from peers, instructors, mentors, standardized tests or even self-assessment. In the context of education, feedback is intended to provide insights into the current state of knowledge or skills, paving the way for improvement and refinement. This ongoing communication loop aids in the calibration of instruction and facilitates learning and growth, ensuring that we remain dynamic and responsive.

The importance of feedback for education leaders cannot be overstated. It can help assist in understanding the effectiveness of pedagogical strategies, the climate of the learning environment, or the broader needs of the school community. In this evolving landscape of education, where the focus is increasingly shifting, feedback becomes the lynchpin ensuring that strategies are both impactful and relevant.

For an education leader, feedback can be both helpful and unhelpful, depending largely on its delivery and content. Helpful feedback might take the form of structured surveys after professional development sessions, constructive comments from faculty meetings or data-driven reports on student performance. These provide actionable insights, allowing for data-informed decision-making.

On the other hand, unhelpful feedback can be vague, lack specificity, or be overly based on personal biases rather than objective observations. For instance, an administrator might receive a comment like “I don’t like the new schedule” without any explanation as to why or suggestions for improvement. Such feedback, without context or actionable insight, can be challenging to address.

Administrators must then discern and prioritize feedback, ensuring that they remain proactive in their quest for continuous improvement while also recognizing the inherent subjectivity in some responses. How does a savvy administrator differentiate between helpful and unhelpful feedback? Keep reading.

Feedback vs. feed-forward

In the nuanced world of educational leadership, the language we employ matters immensely, and the distinction between “feedback” and “feed-forward” offers a prime example.

At its essence, feedback is reflective, serving as a mirror that tells individuals “who you are.” It analyzes past actions, behaviors, or results, allowing individuals to understand their performance or the effects of their decisions. It is backward-looking, rooted in the realities of what has already transpired.

In contrast, feed-forward projects future potential, painting a picture of “who you are becoming.” This forward-looking approach emphasizes guidance for future actions and development, offering suggestions and pathways to growth and improvement.

For education leaders, it’s paramount to recognize the distinction between these two concepts, especially when communicating with staff, students or stakeholders. Mislabeling one as the other can result in confusion and missed opportunities for advancement.

For instance, when a leader asks for “feedback” on a new initiative, but what they genuinely seek are recommendations for its future evolution, they are in essence looking for feed-forward. Mixing these terminologies not only dilutes the intended message but may also restrict the kind of insights received.

Clear communication is vital; when we specify whether we’re seeking reflections on the past or guidance for the future, we pave the way for richer, more targeted insights. I believe this is at the heart of the quote that led this article, as advice is forward-looking and feedback is backward-looking. You might have hesitation taking feedback from someone you wouldn’t seek out for feed-forward… why is that? I’ll address this in the next section.

To ensure clarity and efficacy in the information loop, education leaders must be explicit in their requests: Asking for feedback when reflecting on past strategies or seeking input on decisions already made, and requesting feed-forward when exploring future possibilities or plotting the course ahead. By distinguishing between these terms, administrators not only sharpen their leadership toolkit but also foster environments where communication is clear, constructive and oriented towards continuous growth.

Givers, takers and the human element

In Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant delves into the dichotomy of “givers” and “takers” within the realm of feedback. This differentiation is of paramount importance for anyone on the receiving end of critique.

When a “giver” provides feedback, their core motivation is the well-being and growth of the individual or the betterment of the organization. Their comments, however piercing they might seem at times, are aimed at facilitating improvement. Conversely, “takers” offer feedback with a subtly different motivation: the advancement of their own interests, even if it’s at the expense of others. Their critiques, while occasionally valuable, might be skewed by personal gains or biases.

This distinction, however, should not be taken as a stringent categorization of individuals into the binary of “good” or “bad.” Instead, it underscores the complex spectrum of human motivations and interactions. We all, in different situations and phases of our lives, can oscillate between giver and taker tendencies. Recognizing this not only fosters a deeper understanding of the feedback’s source but also cultivates empathy towards the various motivations behind it.

For education leaders, this knowledge is particularly illuminating. Understanding the origins and motivations behind feedback can dramatically influence how one perceives and acts upon it. If advice is perceived as coming from a “taker”, it might make leaders more apprehensive about seeking feedback or feed-forward in the future, wary of the underlying intentions.

Meanwhile, advice from a “giver” can reinforce trust and openness, encouraging leaders to actively solicit insights to inform their decisions. Yet, the crux is not to dismiss feedback based on its source, but rather to critically evaluate its content and potential utility.

The essence is clear: not all feedback is created equal, and understanding its genesis is as crucial as its content. By navigating these nuances, education leaders can extract the utmost value from the insights they receive, all while fostering an environment of mutual growth and understanding.

Summing it up

The realm of feedback in educational leadership is as intricate as it is invaluable. Drawing a line between the reflective nature of feedback and the prospective insights of feed-forward is paramount for effective communication and growth. But equally important is recognizing the intentions behind these insights, as delineated by the giver-taker dichotomy introduced by Adam Grant.

As education leaders, our ability to embrace, interpret and act on feedback rests significantly on our understanding of its source and purpose. Our call to action is two-fold: First, let us approach feedback with discernment, seeking clarity in its direction and authenticity in its delivery. Let’s cultivate spaces where feedback and feed-forward are not just tools but integral to shaping futures, both for educators and the students they serve. Second, let’s choose to be givers to our colleagues always and in all ways.

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd
Dr. Quintin “Q” Shepherd is a seasoned public-school superintendent with 18 years of experience serving in three states. He began his career in education as a school custodian, became a PreK-12 music teacher, and served as an elementary principal before serving as a high school principal. Q has made significant contributions to the education sector and is recognized for his exceptional leadership skills. In addition to his professional achievements, Q is also an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston- Victoria, imparting his knowledge and expertise to the next generation of educational leaders. He is the author of the highly acclaimed and best-selling book "The Secret to Transformational Leadership", which has been widely celebrated for its insights into effective leadership and is considered a must-read for anyone seeking to make a difference in the world of education.