Brené Brown on Building a Culture of Engaged Feedback in Education, Work, and Family

 

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Image by Samuel Zeller. Via: (Unsplash)

 

A few month ago NPR covers an intriguing story of Robo Grader— an automated grading machine that can grade essays within minutes. This machine has received a numerous responses, positive and negative, from educators across the United States. Some teachers think that this computer will make their work becomes more efficient than before. When they spend less time to grade, they have more time to invest for teaching. On the other hand, some educators are skeptical of its benefits, questioning its ability to detect students’ creativity of expression. One teacher even says that writing, as an art form, should not be judged by algorithm.

As I thought about this article, a question came to mind: Will this machine be able to provide students with feedback for their growth? We should be aware of the distinction between grading and giving feedback to improve. Grading is always done by scribbling numbers on the top of a page. It’s passive and it doesn’t give somebody a chance to reflect and grow. Meanwhile, giving feedback is an act of creating a safe and honest conversation about what to improve and how to improve. The process of giving feedback is more rewarding than grading, and it cannot be automated by machine.

If we want to blossom and learn, we have to be less metric-focused in our evaluation in performance, and choose to create and nurture a culture of engaged feedback in our organizations. This is what Dr. Brené Brown, an eminent story teller and vulnerability researcher, explained in her indispensable 2012 book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transform the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”

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Image taken from: (Myhighershelf.com)

 

Under the chapter 6 of the book, titled “Disruptive Engagement: Daring to Re-humanize Education and Work,” she writes:

“Today’s organizations are so metric-focused in their evaluation of performance that giving, receiving, and soliciting valuable feedback ironically has become rare. It’s even a rarity in schools where learning depends on feedback, which is infinitely more effective than grades scribbled on the top of a page or computer-generated, standardized test scores.
The problem is straightforward: Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.”
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Image by Raw Pixel. Via: (Unsplash)

 

From her extensive research data about this topic that she has gathered for more than a decade, Dr. Brown finds two major reasons behind a lack of feedback in any organizations:

“When I asked people why there was such a lack of feedback in their organizations and schools, they used different language, but the two major issues were the same:
1. We’re not comfortable with hard conversations.
2. We don’t know how to give and receive feedback in a way that moves people and processes forward.”

Fostering a culture of engaged feedback is crucial because this is where learning happens. Organizations will not thrive in this is fast-paced age if they are unwilling to construct a culture of an engaged feedback. Dr. Brown suggests that the best way to foster a culture of feedback in our organizations is by normalizing discomfort:

“Right off the bet, I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not ‘getting comfortable with hard conversations’ but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: ‘We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here — you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it. ‘ This is true at all levels and in all organizations, schools, faith communities, and even families.
The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame. Periods of discomfort become an expectation and a norm. In fact, most semesters I have students who approach me after class and say, ‘I haven’t been uncomfortable yet. I’m concerned.’ These exchanges often lead to critically important conversations and feedback about their engagement and my teaching. The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth.”

Then what’s the most actionable and effective method of giving a constructive feedback? Dr. Brown encourages people to focus on finding people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses. Though this method seems to dismiss the serious nature of their struggles, shining a light on people’s positive qualities gives us a way to find their potentials. When they are aware of their potentials, they can utilize them to overcome their challenges. As a professor, Dr. Brown has applied this practice to her students:

“I want to emphasize that the strengths perspective is not a tool to simply allow us to put a positive spin on a problem and consider it solved. But by first enabling us to inventory our strengths, it suggests ways we can use those strengths to address the related challenges. One way I teach this perspective to students is by requiring them to give and receive feedback on their classroom presentations. When a student presents, s/he receives feedback from every one of his or her classmates. The students in the audience have to identify three observable strengths and one opportunity for growth. The trick is that they have to use their assessment of the strengths to make a suggestion on how the individual might address the specified opportunity. For example:
Strengths:
a. You captured my interest right away with your emotional personal story.
b. You used examples that are relevant to my life.
c. You concluded with actionable strategies that tied in with our learning in the class.
Opportunity:
Your stories and examples made me feel connected to you and what you were saying, but I sometimes struggled to read the PowerPoint and listen to you at the same time. I didn’t want to miss anything you were saying, but I worried about not following the slides. You might experiment with fewer words on the slides – or maybe even no slides. You had me without them.”
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Image by Nicola Tolin. Via: (Unsplash)

 

As a shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brown implicates that vulnerability is at the heart of the engaged feedback process. People who give and receive feedback have to be willing to feel vulnerable during the process. The common mistake people make in the feedback process, according to Dr. Brown, is we protect ourselves from the vulnerability of receiving and giving feedback. As a result, we are more comfortable with anger than vulnerability. It’s easier to scream at someone who has done a mistake than to sit with him and give valuable feedback on how to improve what needs to be improved. It’s easier to be angry, to think fast on our feet, than to lean into the pain and to locate the origin of the pain. Though anger can be a sign of our deepest hunger for radical change, it’s an useless response mechanism. Anger blocks our chances for growth, and most importantly, it blinds us to the fact that we, humans, are always in connection with each other.

Helen Keller on the Shape of Healthy Optimism

 

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Helen Keller. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

A few days ago, as I was taking an afternoon walk around my house, I struck up a conversation with a young man of magnetic warmth. He was busy cleaning the swimming pool at the community center of my housing complex. His shirt was white with tiny holes around his neck, his skin was brown, and his shiny black hair was unkempt. I did not remember how we began the conversation, but I remember he said that he has to pay for his own college tuition with the money he gets from this cleaning job and other jobs he has. Since his father died of cancer years ago, he becomes the sole financial supporter of the family. He has bills to pay, a little brother and a sick mother to care for, and of course, dreams to pursue.

These unforgiving circumstances don’t make him jaded or scared. That’s what he told me as he scrubbed the edges of the pool. He sees all of these as adventures. He acknowledges the harsh reality he inhabits and he chooses to be hopeful. This is a man who has steadied his nerves, and knows he has a lot of work to do and would bear anything to get it done.

I like hearing story like this because it shows me that hope has the power to propel ourselves forward in life. Hope can get us out of the grim days of living. His story instantly reminds me of a book of essays titled Optimism by Helen Keller. She’s one of the most hopeful humans I have ever known. This book is her personal reflection on how to be hopeful and undefeated by hardship.

Keller was born a healthy child in 1880, but then a mysterious illness (perhaps rubella or scarlet fever) made the nineteen months old Keller deaf and blind. This strange illness made her a rebel and unruly, until a young woman named Anne Mansfield Sullivan, the 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, came into her life as her teacher. Sullivan was Keller’s champion and the reason why Keller becomes the woman we admire today, even decades after she died. Without the unconditional love and support of Sullivan, Keller would have lived and died miserably in a small town in Alabama. With her, Keller was able to taste the sweetness of hope and experience moments of joy and meaning. 

My favorite part of this book is when Keller writes about “the rash optimism.” This rash optimism, according to Keller, is false optimism because it blinds us from seeing the reality at every turn. It doesn’t want to acknowledge the messiness of life, and is more like wishing that everything will turn out just fine without doing ‘the work.’ This kind of optimism is very passive and won’t solve any problem we have.

What Keller suggests is optimism that reveres truth and hard work. This is the healthiest kind of optimism that she can think of. This optimism uses darkness as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase strength and perseverance.

She writes:

“It’s a mistake always to contemplate the good and ignore the evil, because by making people neglectful it lets in disaster. There is a dangerous optimism of ignorance and indifference. It’s not enough to say that the twentieth century is the best age in the history of mankind, and to take refuge from the evils of the world in skyey dreams of good. How many good men, prosperous and contented, looked around and saw naught but good, while millions of their fellowmen were bartered and sold like cattle! No doubt, there were comfortable optimists who thought Wilberforce a meddle some fanatic when he was working with might and main to free the slaves.
I distrust the rash optimism in this country that cries, “Hurrah, we’re all right! This is the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call loudly for redress. That’s false optimism. Optimism that doesn’t count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.”
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Miss Keller at Work in Her Study. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Keller achieves this lush and firm perspective on optimism not from her ignorance of the existence of evil, but from her supreme awareness of its existence. From this awareness, she decides to take what pains the world and uses the pain to grow her sense of optimism.

She writes:

“I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, doesn’t rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, make the Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good, but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.”

To live with a sincere hope in this age of constant cynicism is not only rewarding, but it is the best kind of life we have to pursue. May Keller’s spirit of optimism help us get through the dark days of living.

Kartini and The Question of “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”

 

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Kartini, in the middle, with her younge sister Kardinah, and half sister Roekmini, 
in Semarang, Indonesia, 1900. ©KITLV. Via: (Dereisnaar)

 

One of the most interesting people that I know is R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879- September 17, 1904), a young ambitious and brilliant Javanese woman who contributed and shaped Indonesian history, especially in the early twentieth century, because of her relentless dedication to elevate the status of women in her society.

Kartini was born into a high-class family in a small town on the north coast of Java island. Despite the immense privilege that her family possessed, her time was hard and challenging. It was the time when women’s status was reduced to a fertile uterus and kitchen. The effects of Dutch colonization were deeply inhuman and evoking a sense of opposition in her spirit. Moreover, Kartini was uneasy with the way the Javanese behaved. They were lazy and only glorified prayers and spirit offerings to improve their conditions of life. Perhaps, the most devastating thing that happened to her life was when she had to be withdrawn from her school by her family to obey to her Javanese tradition. Around this time, girls of high nobility family, were excluded from outsiders to prepare them for an early arranged marriage.

These things made her heart broken. She turned to reading as an escape from her bleak reality and a way to stimulate her curiosity. Not only was she a voracious reader, but she’s also a prolific letter writer. Kartini wrote letters to unpack everything she observed, both in her internal and external life, mostly to her Dutch friends, in Dutch. After she died, her letters were posthumously compiled and published in a book titled “Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light)” in 1911, and then later translated in English by Agnes Louise Symmers as “Letters of a Javanese Princess.”

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My left hand holding “Letters of a Javanese Princess”

 

In the book, there is one letter that was written to her friend, Mevrouw Abendanon Mandiri, in 1900, that has left a profound mark on my mind.

The letter begins with a story of Kartini who asked her Dutch friend named Letsy to play with her at recess. Letsy, who at the time was reading a book, politely declined the invitation because she had to study the book in preparation for an exam. She did not want to fail the exam, and she said that she had to be smart because one day she’d like to be a teacher. When Letsy curiously asked Kartini what she would like to be in the future, Kartini innocently replied, “I don’t know.” The question startled her. Kartini stood in disbelief, unable to articulate her answer. It was a strange question for her because nobody had asked her this question before. And perhaps, devastatingly, she lived in an era when her society did not believe that women were capable of thinking and dreaming big.

Right after Kartini was asked the question, she sprinted to her house, still haunted by Letsy’s question. When her brother frankly told her that she’d naturally be a Raden Ayu in the future (a Javanese married woman of high rank), Kartini realized that her fate was already shaped by her society without her will. Being a Raden Ayu would mean that she had to marry, must belong to a man, without her consent.

Though she eventually married to a man that was carefully chosen for her, Kartini refused to live her life like most of Javanese married women who were submissive and expressionless. The older she got, the more passionate she became with the issues of women’s rights. Even, she erected a small school for young girls with her sisters. She was not only a teacher who taught them writing, reading, handiwork, cooking, and art, but also, she became their mother who taught them about love and life.

A century after she died, even when Indonesia has become more modernized than her time, some of us still think that this question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is challenging. It’s a big question, but at its core, it invites us to define our own dreams vividly.

Defining our dreams means refusing our parents, lovers, neighbors, and even politicians to shape them. Defining our own dreams means avoiding shallow work and embracing any future obstacles as a learning process. This also means planting ourselves in the soil of optimism and solid work.

James Baldwin, an American writer once said, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”  Just like Baldwin, Kartini refused to let her world to define and dictate her dreams. She told her world how she and other women would like to be treated. She didn’t live in somebody else’s dreams. She made her own dreams.