Three Problems with Directive Feedback and One Powerful Solution

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feedbackMuch has been written about the power of criteria-specific feedback, and I’ve witnessed what happens when teachers take the emphasis off of grades and devote more time and energy to improving the quality of the feedback that they provide to students. All great writing teachers know that grades don’t perpetuate learning. In fact, they compromise it. The same can be said of directive feedback; while it may be intended to help learners, directive feedback can, in fact, stifle conversations about learning.

Consider how this small shift changes the way a creator might hear and respond. . .
When students have the opportunity to share their works in progress with savvy readers who know how to speak with them about their specific strengths and needs–rather than give them directives–students’ thinking and their work changes. This is learning.

Teachers who are eager to improve their feedback practices often appreciate protocols like Mark Barnes’s SE2R approach. When we embrace structured methods like these, providing quality feedback becomes habitual and eventually, intuitive. Teacher-parents often tell me they find themselves sliding into protocol when they’re helping their own children at home. They don’t mind it, either.

It’s not about school, after all. It’s about seeing into someone’s work, noticing it and speaking to what matters. It’s about helping people who are eager to get better at something.

It’s been my experience that the culture of our classrooms is directly influenced by the quality of feedback that teachers and peers provide one another. It’s important to get this right, then. It’s important to keep improving as well.

A few years ago, long after I learned the basics of providing quality feedback to learners, I was introduced to a very powerful peer review protocol through my work with Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change. I spent a portion of my first summer with that learning community steeped in the protocol and engaged in conversations about what powerful feedback looks like. We spoke about some of the unintended consequences of directive feedback that summer as well, and I learned a great deal, especially about using directive feedback to frame recommendations for improvement.

Three Problems with Directive Feedback

1. One problem with directive feedback is that it positions the creator as a listener who is supposed to follow the expert’s recommendations. This can create an imbalance of power that leaves creators feeling subordinate to reviewers.

2. Directive feedback also perpetuates delusions about experts and expertise. The fact is that there are very few experts in this world. Each of us has diverse and rich expertise to share, and this is a gift. It’s also something that creators need to be sensitive to. No single reviewer can provide the ultimate feedback on anyone’s work. Creators need to be critical consumers of the feedback they receive. In the end, they own their work and the power to choose which feedback they are responsive to.

When “experts” tell creators how to change their thinking or their work, creators often walk away and apply their recommendations. They’re relieved of problem solving, deeper reflection, and self-directed investigation.

3. Finally, directive feedback often stifles learning. When “experts” tell creators how to change their thinking or their work, creators often walk away and apply their recommendations. They’re relieved of problem solving, deeper reflection, and self-directed investigation.

One Powerful Solution

Changing the expert/creator dynamic is as easy as flipping tight directives into questions. Consider how this small shift changes the way a creator might hear and respond to the following bits of feedback. Which examples insure greater equity in the relationship and greater opportunities for continued learning: those that are directive or those that are inquisitive?

Directive: I’m not sure why you introduce this character in the first paragraph. This isn’t the main character. The reader needs to know more about the main character first. Please go back and add some details that help us get to know her.

Inquisitive: Who is your main character? I’m really curious about her, and I’m wondering if other reviewers might be as well. How could you help us get to know her sooner?

Directive: These paragraphs are way too long. This makes it hard to follow your logic, and readers will lose stamina quickly. Please go back into your writing and break your paragraphs in the places I’ve indicated.

Inquisitive: This work is incredibly rich and complex. I’m wondering how you can structure it in a way that will keep your readers engaged. How could you revise this piece to create eye rests for your readers or give them time to pause and process?

Using questions rather than directives is an inspiring way to perpetuate learning. This small change transforms feedback into a catalyst that furthers investigation, invention, and growth.

One final note: there are times when directive feedback is necessary and acceptable, and how creators need to respond is very different. When standards are explicit and a superior has hired creators to replicate well-defined products, then directives can make sense. Projects like these have little to do with design. Typically, the prototype has been developed and tested and creators are expected to meet standards and replicate that work with a high level of consistency.

As a teacher, this should inspire you to ask yourself: are you looking for replication or for invention? The result you hope to achieve can inspire your feedback approach. It’s also worth thinking about how your current feedback approach is inspiring your results, too.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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