Feedback – the single most powerful mechanism to improve leading/learning?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: January 25th 2012

John Hattie’s (2003) research paper titled “Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence?” has been referenced many times when I’ve been present to talk about what we know about learning. His research explored the factors that have an impact on learning and which factors make the biggest difference.

One of Hattie’s first findings was that “it is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable.” This background knowledge and ability account for about 50% of the variance of achievement. After this opening finding, he goes on to look at several other factors including home, the principal, the school, peer effects, and finally teachers. Not surprisingly, next to the background that the student brings to the classroom, the overwhelming determinant on learning is the teacher.

When you continue into Hattie’s study and what makes exceptional teachers, he finds that effective feedback has the single highest impact on learning. Once he goes in depth into discrete factors in all areas, effective feedback is seen to have even more impact on learning than prior cognitive ability. This is an astounding finding in that effective feedback as an indicator of achievement even surpasses what students already know and are able to do.

I am always curious about what research tells us about learning and how this knowledge not only applies to students, but applies to adults. When you move into a position of leadership – it is a learning journey. If you are to be an effective leader, you must prove to be a powerful learner. This learning, as so many people know, occurs on the job and is situational. You learn from your experiences and (hopefully) become a better leader with each year. If effective feedback is the greatest determinant of learning, then how do you as a leader gather such feedback? Sometimes this is difficult in a role that has power-over relationships.

In earlier posts, I wrote about:

  • Critical friends;
  • The importance of perception;
  • The power of apology and accepting responsibility; and
  • The importance of learning to listen.

The link that I’m trying to make in this post is that the above items are all feedback mechanisms. If you choose to use them and to pay attention to “the song beneath the words” as Heifetz would say, you not only are responding to the feedback you are getting, but you are probably learning a great deal along the way.

If it’s good for young people, it’s probably good for all of us. Effective feedback is more than just words. When people give you feedback, they are helping make you better. It’s your choice to listen or not but the reality is that we all need great teachers in our lives. The best teacher you have may be that critical friend, colleague or peer who simply tells you in a kind and gentle way about how you are doing. So Hattie would suggest that you do pay attention. After all, it may be the single most powerful thing to help you in your leadership/learning journey.