Monday, October 15, 2012

Power of Positive Feedback

                Last week my seventh-grade son had a very exciting volleyball match, and his team won after having lost to these opponents twice previously. The two schools are fierce rivals. As I left the gym, I saw another father and his son , who was from the other team. The dad was chewing him out about a series of mistakes the boy and his teammates had made. Once he finished ripping into the boy, dad snarled, “Let’s go so that I can get you to tennis.” An important bit of background is that all these boys just took up the sport this year.
                Having coached for over thirty years and having two children who have played sports, I have seen more scenes like this than I can remember. Unfortunately, as a coach I’ve sometimes lapsed into similar behavior. I don’t think I’ve done it as a parent, at least not too badly. (Maybe that is selective memory…) Something about athletics seems to bring out some of the more unsavory aspects in people. Maybe it’s our innate competitiveness; perhaps it’s because it’s so public. Of course, simplified psychology suggests we dream of our kids fulfilling our own thwarted athletic fantasies. It suggests a value system. I don’t know. I have wondered if the same sort of thing happens in the art world. You do hear stories about the archetypal stage mom, so I expect it does. With my sophomore daughter becoming involved in theater, I guess I’ll find out.
                I started thinking about classrooms and the desire to have students take risks. Let’s consider an English class. Perhaps the teacher has encouraged students to use more sophisticated diction or to craft more elaborate sentence structures. When a student does so, he or she may make mistakes. At that moment, the feedback is crucial. Does the teacher praise the attempt and give credit for that, or does the teacher take off points because it’s wrong? Most students’ response to either approach is obvious. I wonder which one occurs more often. Both must happen to some degree, and striking the right balance for any individual is tricky.
                In the example just cited, at least the feedback often is private. In athletics and arts, students perform in public. I recall a response I once gave to someone complaining about coaches being too serious about their sports and demanding too much practice time. I asked her to imagine if her students had to take their tests in front of their peers and families, with people yelling at them, a running grade being kept on a scoreboard.
                Contrast any instance of negative feedback to the following anecdote. Last week I published a post titled “Heed the Dodo” in which I linked recent works by Howard Rheingold and Will Richardson. These men are true leaders in their fields. Rheingold, who has taught at Stanford and UC-Berkeley, explores the relationship between technology and human intelligence. Richardson is one of the most important voices in the education debate and the desperate need for reform. As usual, after putting up a post, I tweeted an announcement. Then, something inspired me to tweet Rheingold and Richardson about the post. After all, I follow both of them. I didn’t know what to expect. One time I tried replying to a tweet by Tom Peters and heard nothing. But within a couple of hours both Rheingold and Richardson replied with some very nice words. Even more, they re-tweeted my original message to their combined 70,000 or so followers.
                Now, bear in mind that I am 51 years old, and I have been fairly successful in my field. But when this happened, I did a literal and metaphorical jig while letting out a whoop of joy. I bragged about it at dinner that night. A few days later, it still makes me smile. In time the nice memory will linger, but the emotions will fade.
                Four points strike me as significant reminders from this. One, these gentlemen could have simply ignored my tweet or dismissed my reaching out. Instead, they responded with a generous spirit and simple act of kindness. Two, little things matter, particularly in how they can make one feel. Indeed, how you make someone feel may matter more than any particular action. Three, this is particularly important when working with young people, who are developing the cognitive strength to put things into perspective. Four, the closer the source, the more impactful the feedback.
                My son’s volleyball team plays that other school again soon. After the game, win or lose, as I always do, I’ll wrap my arm around my boy, give him a high five, and tell him I’m proud of him.

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