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Feedback cultures: Learning, Listening, and Growing

Christopher Sling
|
Dan Hasan

What's in this episode?

Looking more closely at the personal experiences of students, today’s episode features two very different stories about the encounter with feedback in school, work, and in wider society. We touch again on the link between feedback and democratic society; explore the spaces and places where communication happens; and consider the relationship between social media and learning, and course design. How can we be aware of and responsive to cultural differences, and still maximise the sense of a learning community in teaching and instructional design? Here, we start that conversation.

Transcript

Note: interview transcripts are AI-generated and may contain errors.

Hello and welcome to the second episode of the EdTech Tangent. I'm Dan, your host, and this week I've had the pleasure of talking to several students about their experiences with feedback cultures, both in a general sense, and also peculiar to higher educational settings. I was joined by Roan Poppe, graduate philosophy student and freelance translator, and Christopher Sling, social media student and breakdance instructor.
My aim this past fortnight has been exploring the credos of and the contrast between different forms of feedback, and how they're situated in wider society. Educators and instructional designers around the world are currently challenged with delivering high-quality lessons in a new and unexpected format, which has shaken up any traditional classroom dynamics, face-to-face interactions, and learning communities. There are definitely, powerful ways to teach and to learn in this format, but without question, we need to pay attention to the different needs of students, and teachers, to make the best of this changed situation. Today on the podcast we'll be exploring the former, the experiences and insights of two students, both living, working, and studying in the Netherlands. Roan is Dutch, and grew up in the more rural southern half of the country, before moving north to study and work. And Chris is Carribean, growing up in Curacao and moving to the Netherlands at the end of his teens. I asked them both how they'd encountered feedback in school growing up, in general society, and in higher education in the Netherlands.

First off, I asked Roan about how he saw the role of feedback in development in general, and the following discussion took off from there.

[Roan] I see it as facilitating because if you if you Yeah, exactly. Basically, generally what happens if you just say, well, I'll have at it, you know, there will always be a couple of students that that will be Yeah, very forthcoming with that feedback and also critical or not, but if you don't, if you don't set some parameters for how much feedback they should be and what it should look like, I think it's going to be less effective. Because what you see in and that's also what you mean, for example, what I learned in professional life much more than academic life, I learned how to give good feedback. And that's because generally, when you're going to work at a profit making company, right, for example, when I worked at the bank, it was expected that you could give proper feedback in a concise and effective manner. Right. So what sort of feedback? So there's the hamburger model, for example. Right? So so you, they thought they thought us is sort of in the middle of a hamburger, same thing? Kind of, yeah, you have you have you start, you've been at the top and been at the bottom, and in the middle, you got to meet this guy, right. And a meat is the actual content of what you want to say, Now, you're always going to have to frame this in a positive and constructive manner. Right. But you package it into, yeah, something that that was good, so so that someone doesn't feel attacked, but that you can you can say something...

[Dan] Is this something been picked up in the professional world?

[Roan] Yeah, and this is something that that I learned in my soft skills course in CalCo. And then they were very adamant about that, like, yeah, make sure that you. Yeah, for one construct issue that you actually give someone something to work with. But make sure that you that you frame it, right. And that's something that I think that is slightly less important, and in academic settings, because they're, first and foremost, expected to be critical. And in work settings. Critical is great. But result results are the thing you're after, right? And yet everyone just works a little better if everyone is very nice to each other, right? Because then as a happy culture, there's a positive culture and you feel like you can say things to each other. And it just takes everyone being a little mindful of what they say and how they say, to bring it about. And that's, I think as an academic doesn't matter that much. You know, if you if you hate your fellow students guts, yeah, it's a bit but that's at the end of the day. That's that's not a problem in a company to work as a team. And a teams have to work as a team basically. Right? So you want people to get along. So that's why I think the hamburger model was pretty useful.

I mean, it's this. It's this thing about individual knowledge and shared knowledge, right? Like, isn't it the Emperor's clothes story where where, you know, everyone knows that he's walking around naked but only when a little boy goes but he's not wearing any clothes. Suddenly, you know, the jig is up. Even though nothing really changed, everyone knew the exact same thing they knew before. But now because everyone knows that everyone knows it's a different thing. And I think that's that's a bit of this the same with with directness and brutal honesty, so to say,

[Dan] I really see that now with how you just put it about in tyranny in a dictatorship, people can agree about something. But if there's no communication and no feedback with each other, they don't know. Whereas in a democracy, we vote, we give feedback. Do you like this person?
Do you like this party? Do you like this law? Yeah, well, of course, the options are limited, and I might not have entire freedom to voice my opinion to cast my vote. But at least it's more towards being able to express that opinion.

Skipping ahead in our conversation a little bit, I later asked Roan about Dutch directness - a stereotype of Dutch culture that people aren't afraid to tell you what they think, whether it's your friends or family, or a total stranger on the train or in the street. Here's how he responded.

[Roan] Like my my Yeah, my personal opinion about Dutch directness. I like it. Like, I think, I think there's no there's nothing to gain from keeping things to yourself. I mean, this anti true and always of course, but like what I'm trying to say is there's there's nothing to gain by creating to booze and by making it weird for people to say things and making communication. harder for no good reasoning it through layers and filters.
Yeah, exactly. Like you're gonna sugarcoat things and you're, you're gonna
be polite, and,
I mean, it's this. It's this thing about individual knowledge and shared knowledge, right? Like, isn't it the Emperor's clothes story where where, you know, everyone knows that he's walking around naked but only when a little boy goes but he's not wearing any clothes. Suddenly, you know, the jig is up. Even though nothing really changed, everyone knew the exact same thing they knew before. But now because everyone knows that everyone knows it's a different thing. And I think that's that's a bit of this the same with with directness and brutal honesty, so to say, Yeah, like,
some cultures will experience it differently. Because the idea of respect and honor and face keeping face is more important to Britain, we have manners and politeness are very important. Not just your please, and thank you, but how you respond to how you introduce how you end conversations, and how you frame these kind of comments.
But I wanted to say one more thing, while you said about that, yeah, the Emperor's New Clothes, nothing to be ashamed of. I really see this with the Dutch architectural style of having very big windows at the front of your house staring out onto the street. And very few people. And a lot of areas I've seen anywhere, close their blinds or their curtains, and you can walk along the street and see into everyone's house because they have nothing to be afraid of. They're not ashamed. This is us. And you, are you. And why should we hide things about it? Why not be directors now? Here we are.
It's funny, Elena has told me that a bunch of times as well as she thinks as weird, but I just yeah. I don't know.
That's just something you grew up with. Yeah, big windows. No shame.
But I think, no shame. Sure. No, but I think I think it's, again, the difference between individual and communal collective knowledge. Right. And I think it is important, you know, feedback, ties into that, of course, because that's how you go from individual to communal knowledge. And I think that it's a very important thing. The argument also goes, for example, that this is how dictatorships and tyrannies are maintained, right? Because if I know, I know that you don't like the Emperor, and you don't know that I don't like the Emperor, we're both going to tell each other how awesome it is, you know, and everyone within their own little walls behind their curtains, burned his burns his portrait, but on the street, everyone praises him. And at the end of the day, you have a society that's that's completely crippled in its ability to do something about the situation or is a very extreme example.

---

So, Roan's hamburger model. We talked about dutch open-ness, directness etc. but in a learning situation, structured feedback seems a really good idea. We were having a discussion afterwards where Roan was telling me about his new class in philosophy of language. He went into detail about the content and, despite being interested in both philosophy and language, quite a lot of what was being said went over my head. I think it was when I heard a phrase like, "the hermeneutics of metaphysics" where I had to say, hold up, just a minute. I proceeded to voice my concerns, and went straight in, saying something like "I've got no idea what you're talking about now. I think if you want to inform anyone about this stuff you have to ask more questions and break it down. But it does sound interesting though." Now, we weren't in a lesson, we weren't at work, but regardless, i felt in the body language, the temperature drop in the room, that even though he responded positively and engaged with my comment, he might've felt a bit - well, not hurt, but maybe taken aback? If some of the cognitive load is going on deciphering the emotional reaction due to the feeling of being criticised, rather than focusing on the content of the feedback itself, I really think it makes for a less effective process. In other words, I think effective communication is well-packaged - in a way the recipient of a message can digest easily, and not something that needs filtering through layers of, what did that person mean by that? how did they mean it? after all, we can all be sensitive creatures, and its often easier to see the negative than the positive. so with this in mind, in the future if i'm trying to give advice to someone, i'm going to try to make sure to wrap it between some complimentary comments.

A few days after that conversation, I called up Chris on zoom to ask him about his experiences with feedback in school and wider culture growing up, and any similarities or differences with how it was here in higher education in the netherlands.

---

[Dan] So I think you've had a couple of different experiences, and lived in a couple of different feedback cultures, which is why I'm interested in your opinion, on your views.

[Chris] Let me say like this, I'm in the like, also back home, something I always hear about Dutch people is that they're very direct. And that's very much true on what Rohan said, like that. If you think something you should say it, it's very much the case. But back home, we kind of consider these things to be disrespectful. As a norm, and I, I've experienced the more traditional cultures, let's say like this, like African cultures, Asian cultures, these kinds of cultures. I feel Yeah, they oftentimes consider this this type of backtalk, or this type of openness of opinion. To be it has have its place and say like this. Yeah, sometimes I do question like, the purpose behind this, this freedom of speech, vibes, I get it, I get it. But I also see like, you know, who stereotypically how they show like, white kids being loud in the supermarket and not being I don't know, not hearing listening to the parents. And I've always been shocked at these images. But this is also due to this. I know this independence that you give this child very early. And then my question is, how much opinion can a child have so early?

[Dan] So I already want to jump in. This is something with the digital the remote settings, you don't have this instant feedback, there's a little bit of delay. So you need to get used to like there. Some some conversations, interrupt each other some conversations, like let each other talk for a bit. I'm going to jump in now, because I'm already starting to forget what I want to say. You asked what is the place of this? Like more respectful, looser, traditional ways of communicating and feedback? What because the Dutch place value on directness and openness and honesty with how you feel about other people, I think in in contrast that it's now about respect, honor face. And I think what you you said, What's the place of that? Were in watch which spaces I thought, well, when you're in a superior position, and you're higher up in the in the hierarchy chain, like if you're a teacher talking to students, you can give feedback, you can say, criticize, you can make suggestions, but you can't do it upwards, you can only do it downwards. So I wondered, is part of the reason this is here? Is it to maintain social hierarchy? Is it to illustrate that there is a top down projection of power, and that you shouldn't speak back to your elders? But you can and you're encouraged to speak down to those below you. Do you see where I'm coming from?

[Chris] I see it exactly. Well, honestly, I'm not one to be in favor of hierarchies. But I must say, yeah, this is not something I naturally gravitate to. But I must admit that we do live in our case, we do live in systems within systems. And if we can recognize that, you there's always like a system that's within or smaller than you and there's always a system that's larger than you and I think if you can resist But yeah, if you can acknowledge this is good. And I feel, yeah, this is where I have to return to the Dutch culture. This is why oftentimes on my island, at least we consider Dutch culture or the way they express themselves to be rude. Because not only in the way that they communicate their thoughts, but also in terms of you might be having a conversation and those people have a tendency to jump into your conversation, because it's a conversation that's being had openly, but to my culture is like a weird word. Although it's like Word, you can hear the conversation you're supposed to, like, ignore it. Like there's some some unspoken rules that, like, I know, and hear certain things I get it is like a conversation starter. People want to talk to each other. But I'm also like, ain't nobody talkin to you...

[Dan] So now I'm starting to wonder how your, excuse me, your traditional upbringing and encounter with this feedback culture as I wouldn't use the word reclusive, because it has negative connotations. But a more kept inside of a circle kind of culture, how that then transplanted into the Dutch school system, where you found yourself needing to do group projects, communicate with your teammates, and tell them what they're doing well, whether you did or didn't, I don't know. But suddenly, you need to give feedback and you need to be responsible. And now we're talking about within your circle within your group. But there's also this thing of like the course evaluation carousel. I don't know if you ever did anything like that. But after you finished course, you get you fill in a form and give anonymous feedback to your teacher about how they performed. I mean, that's a thing. Now, I wonder what the encounter is like, for you?

[Chris] Hmm, well, I have to be very honest. The last one, of course evaluation. If I'm not obligated to do it, I often skip it. When that's me maybe has to do with culture. Maybe it doesn't. But sometimes there is an initiative to do it. Like you have to do it in order to complete the whole course. And in a scenario like that, I do it. I do my utmost to really give good feedback. But I don't know. I don't know. It's not. Yeah, I, my desire to give feedback on that level is not really there for some reason, maybe it does have to do with my, my way of seeing feedback is like, Is it my place? Okay, maybe there's added value for an our generation, maybe there's added value there. But because there's no added value for me in the moment, I can easily pass that opportunity up to give feedback. And before that you had mentioned something else as well. Well, last semester, while my course right now is in English. And because of that, I encounter a lot of international. So it's not necessarily a Dutch culture, let's say like this in class. Yeah. But last semester, I had a course that was a Dutch bachelor. I did it for a minor, and I had to interact with some Dutch people. Luckily, I can speak Dutch, but I immediately realized the Yeah, the communication setting. Yeah, the whole vibe was different.

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I'd really like to thank both Chris and Roan for their time and insights here - I certainly learned something new about just how different the encounter with feedback can be.

So a little note on social media and learning. We're definitely going to explore this in depth in a future episode but a quick note here while its fresh in my head. I was talking with a friend about viral social media videos, the sort rampant on apps like instagram and tiktok. She said something which definitely triggered me, "you can learn more in 7 seconds than from a whole hour-long lecture in class" After recoiling in horror on behalf of the hard-working classroom teachers whose livelihoods was just swept away, I started to realise there were enough examples where this was indeed entirely possible. From practical skills like gardening, cooking, arts and crafts, to more theoretical subjects in the humanities, more and more examples began to pop into my head convincing me that, maybe, considering the technological advances the last generation has grown up with, the long-form classroom lecture isn't actually as effective as it used to be, once upon a time. The transformation of educational infrastructures to accommodate these new learning styles is another conversation entirely, but the coronavirus certainly played a big role in fast-tracking that process. And how we can best make use of technology in both formal and informal learning environments is also a question which will receive a very thorough treatment in the coming months.

One more quick note about a personal experience concerning social media and learning. I just finished my last class for my science communication and education degree program, and it was a masterpiece. The teacher admitted at the start of the course that he'd had a hiatus from teaching and this represented his return, and so he welcomed feedback about the lessons and course outline. This was already off to a good start in my books. Looking at the course manual, two things stuck out. One was the type of weekly reading assignment - we were to read several tests and instead of writing a summary or having to hand in responses to questions, we were asked to make a meme about the text. Never mind the logistics of distilling a 50 page manuscript into one catchy joke juxtaposed over a funny image - i was taken aback because i'd never seen this sort of assignment before. It required us to scour social media, image galleries, the news, meme sites, and create something original, in a rather unexpected format. And then every week we would sit down and discuss these memes together. Strange but effective.
The second thing was that each week's reading's had a dedicated page in the course manual, and most of that page was filled up with a big box which situated those readings alongside... film suggestions. From obscure foreign-language anthropology excursions to the classic jurassic park, the professor had provided for us each week, a "fun" activity to do, not assessed or graded, but potentially beneficial to our wider understanding of the subject matter.

Why were these two things so important? Well, they were both grounded in popular culture, requiring that we interacted not just with the texts, but with the world, of film, graphics, news, and greater society. These things both REALLY helped me feel more connected to my fellow students, or as we sometimes put it, helped to build a learning community. On top of this, we had our weekly lectures and discussions in the now-standard MS teams video chat. During luls in conversation, people would post memes about the lecture content in the chat, we would laugh at these together, including the teacher, and that was an incredible feeling of connection despite the distance. And personally, I have to say, being in an online university lecture and posting a meme in the chatbox only to have the teacher leave a 'heart' emoji, is a very encouraging feeling and does wonders for the self-esteem. There are no blanket solutions in pedagogy, but I was seriously impressed with this course design and the attitude of the teacher towards the student community. I got the sense that he cared, not just about the lessons, but about us students, our wellbeing as well as our learning trajectories.

That's enough of a tangent and a teaser for now so I'll implore you to tune in next time where the digging will go even deeper. We will continue the discussion on feedback cultures, in particular looking at the South-East Asian experience. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Edtech Tangent, which was made possible by FeedbackFruits. And remember you can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Please don't hesitate to get in touch with any comments, questions, or queries you might have. And feel free to email me at 'podcast@feedbackfruits.com' - as i'm sure you know by now, I'd love to hear your feedback.
'til next time!

Further readings and references:

Read more on feedback culture and how to cultivate a fruitful feedback cultures: 

Christopher Sling

Online culture student

Chris is a third-year student at Tilburg University, specialising in digital and social media. He is passionate about writing, media, culture, and humanitarian affairs.

Roan Poppe

Roan is a graduate philosophy student at Utrecht University, and also runs his own translation company. He has also completed an MA degree in applied ethics, also at Utrecht.

Got any questions or feedback?
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Dan Hasan
Content Creator, FeedbackFruits