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.

2012 MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz on Reclaiming Our Education

 

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Junot Díaz. Photography by Nina Subin. Via: (UVA)

 

I am writing this as a senior in college who has been pondering heavily about the value of education. I’m a little bit troubled when people say that an education is the key to change the world. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe it can change the world, but, what kind of education are we talking about here that can change the world? This is a common scene of our education that I have been slowly observing: someone goes to his class and then he is being taught by a professor who reads off his presentation slides. Then he sends him home to memorize facts from his presentation in preparation for the upcoming standardized examination. Sadly, this exam only assesses his rote memorization of facts rather than his ability to understand why it matters and transmute facts into knowledge, or even wisdom. If this is the kind of education that people talk about, what are the chances that he is going to be an agent of change in this world? I’d say zero.

Standing before the graduating women at Douglass College in September of 1977, Adrianne Rich (May 16 1929 – March 27 2012), one of the most insightful poets and thinkers of the twentieth century, says in her commencement speech that she believes that in order to reap the juicy rewards of education, students should think that they are claiming their education, instead of going to school to receive an education. The distinction between “to receive” and “to claim” is immensely striking. “To claim” an education is to utilize anything that can enhance our intellectual freedom, whereas “to receive” is to let others do our own thinking and chose the most convenient ways to avoid contentious problems of learning. The former is about leaning to do a solid work and the latter is being satisfied with a shallow work.

Between my opinion on the fragility of our education system and Rich’s powerful commencement speech, there’s Junot Díaz, a 2012 MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner, who is not only someone who believes that radical hope is the best kind of hope, but also he shares Rich’s belief on claiming our education. On April 30 2013, in an intelligent conversation with Paul Holdengraber on NYPL Live podcast about his career as a fiction writer, Díaz, who is also a working professor of creative writing at MIT, was asked by Holdengraber about his thoughts on education. According to him, students need to take a full ownership of their education. When an education is taken seriously, it has a chance to transform people’s lives.

If we subscribe to Rich and Díaz’s shared belief of taking ownership of our education, we can expect to see more people to be an agent of change in this world.

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Junot Díaz at Strand Bookstore. Via: (Flickr)

 

Note: PH= Paul Holdengraber and JD= Junot Díaz

The transcript of the podcast is below:

PH: I’m curious about your teaching career. What do you have your students do? What are your classes? What do you expect from them? Do you think that writing can be taught?

JD: […]

I guess my thing with me and my students is that part of what I want from my students is sort of utopian. You know, we want our students to take ownership of the class. The problem is that we live in a society where we’ve basically told most people that being passive is the best way to get your education. So most students don’t really take ownership of the class because they haven’t been taught that. And they usually don’t have the space to actually take ownership because most students are over fucking worked, they’ve got way too many classes, they’ve got way too many pressures. Most students are sitting on huge fucking loans and how do you sit in a class and take ownership of an art class when you are thinking about $ 120,000 loan that is sitting over your head.

We ask our students to, as a professor, I ask my students, to participate in a class pretending that the society did not break their legs before they showed up.

[…]

The point of any class is an opportunity to receive an education. And an education is an opportunity for you in contact with your material, in contact with your peers, in contact with the modeling of your instructors. An education is an opportunity to be transformed. And I think that’s what I want.

PH: That’s what you want to transmit?

JD: I want to use the sort of the critical lens of what we are doing in class to open them up to what education does best, which is to transform them. That the person walks into the class is not the same person leaves. And 99% of the time it doesn’t work but every now and then it works. And it’s worth everything. It’s worth everything to have a student who ten years later down the line says the opportunity that you offered me, that the other professors offered me to transform myself was foundational to who I am. That’s why we do this crap all of us.

We’ve been taught that you’re supposed to be in college because instrumental reasons.

PH: When you said instrumental , you mean in order to achieve a purpose?

JD: Basically college is just preparation for a job which means that when college is just preparation for a job, transformation is not on the table. Because to be transformed, you gotta take risks, but when it’s like college is just instrumental and it’s like, this is for a job, why would you take any risks? But when an education is education is good for education’s sake, you’re far more likely to take risks.

The full podcast:

 

 

Related reads:

  1. Some Thoughts on Knowledge Acquisition
  2. A Forgotten 1932 Book on Education and Recreation