I’m not an especially good driver, but I’m a truly terrible navigator. This used to mean that I would get lost. A lot. When I first moved to Bristol in 2001 I bought an A-Z of the city and when driving somewhere new I would have to stop the car periodically and try to align the map to the streets around me. Needless to say, I found this pretty stressful. Luckily, I’m a lot better at recognising landmarks than I am at reading maps. Slowly, through a process of trial and error, I started to learn how to find my way around. I’ve got to the point where I know the city fairly well.

Then, a few years ago I bought a SatNav. It was a boon. For the first time in my life I could set out on a journey with a fair degree of confidence that I would be able to make it to a new destination without getting horribly lost. I felt so happy following my arrow-shaped avatar along the purple path unfolding before me.

garmin_satnavAs you know, SatNavs are not perfect. Sometimes they suggest bizarre routes and sometimes they seem to freeze just when you need them most. I hate those moments of uncertainty; that helplessness as I flounder without the feedback I have become so accustomed to. The relief when the arrow pops back is palpable. Even when I make a mistake I can stay calm; the SatNav simply reroutes or points me back the way I came. I can safely say that my experience of driving has been revolutionised. SatNavs are just about perfect at giving feedback.

But I don’t learn any new routes. Why is that?

John Hattie says the following:

Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?) These questions correspond to notions of feed up, feed back, and feed forward. How effectively answers to these questions serve to reduce the gap is partly dependent on the level at which the feedback operates.

Well, my SatNav answers these questions very effectively;  the gap has been reduced, but I still don’t learn. The problem is I get too much feedback. I know where I am, where I’m going and what I need to do next all the time. I never have to struggle. And because I never struggle, I never learn. My contention is that this is a situation enacted all too often in schools. In our well-intentioned efforts to let pupils know exactly what they should be doing next we might be short-circuiting learning.

The ‘gap’ between where I am and what I should do next might be important. If someone fills the gap, I don’t have to think. And if I don’t have to think, I won’t learn.So maybe reducing the gap isn’t so overwhelmingly important? Hattie acknowledges this:

Simply providing more feedback is not the answer, because it is necessary to consider the nature of the feedback, the timing, and how the student ‘receives’ this feedback (or, better, actively seeks the feedback.)

As you may be aware, reducing feedback is also one of the ‘desirable difficulties’ advocated by Robert Bjork:

Empirical evidence suggests that delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback… Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.

Maybe this doesn’t sound quite so counter-intuitive when we think about the SatNav problem? The next time you’re considering giving a pupil feedback, maybe it’s worth letting struggle for just a little bit longer? It could be that immediate feedback negates the need for memorisation. Just as we outsource our memory of phone numbers and appointments to diaries and gadgets, we might be allowing pupils to outsource their knowledge of ‘what to do next’ to their teachers.

Of course the type of feedback also has a major effect. Giving pupils answers or complete solutions might be efficient, but it means they won’t have to think. It could be a lot more useful to offer hints or partial solutions – a nudge in the right direction rather than an arrow on a purple road.

But even the best feedback comes with baggage:

  • Providing feedback of success is a waste of effort
  • Students can become dependent
  • Slows down pace of learning

It is always worth considering the opportunity cost. What else could teachers do with all that time devoted to fetishising feedback?

Or maybe it’s all about practice? Maybe the reason I’ve stopped learning new routes is back I don’t practise them enough? Maybe if I moved to another new town I would, eventually, start to learn my way around? Maybe not. I suspect the problem is that the constant feedback I get from my SatNav means that all I would be practising is following the SatNav. The kind of practice I’d need to be engaged in would have to be deliberate; it would have to get progressively harder; at some point I’d have to try driving all on my own.

And here the metaphor breaks down. I don’t care about being an independent driver and am very happy relying on the wonders of technology. But this, surely, is not the fate we want for our pupils. We want them to flourish independently in the world. Of course we do. And just as we can never ride a bike until the stabilisers are taken off, maybe pupils will never learn to be independent until teachers stop giving them so much damn feedback?


I’ve tracked down Hattie’s use of the SatNav metaphor for feedback to a paper called “Using Feedback to Promote Learning” written with Gregory yates and published in this fabulous journal.

Related posts

Force-fed feedback: is less more?
Why AfL might be wrong
Getting feedback right