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On Feedback

“In the perspective of every person lies a lens through which we can better understand ourselves” [1]

"Don't come to me, unless when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased" - FM Alexander [2]

One vital ingredient of any teaching and learning process is the giving and receiving of feedback. In Alexander lessons, teachers give their pupils manual (kinesthetic) feedback and guidance and provide verbal (aural) instruction and feedback as pupils refine their understanding of direction and inhibition. Teachers also use visual feedback – using the mirror, often so that pupils can observe that what they are sensing is different from what is actually happening. One commonly quoted principle of education is that it is most effective to use all three types of information - kinaesthetic, verbal and visual – in any teaching situation. Verbal feedback may take the form of observation, suggestion, hypothesis or judgement. Feedback gives the pupil information that may be out of their awareness or may put what they are aware of into a different and useful context. Feedback helps the student to see what they couldn’t see before ("The things that don't exist are the most difficult to get rid of" FMA) [3] and helps them to develop the ability to think in activity. And of course in the process of giving instructions and feedback the teacher is from moment to moment responding to the feedback he is getting from his students kinaesthetically, visually and verbally.

Good use requires an efficient process of internal feedback When our internal sensing of what we are doing with ourselves becomes inaccurate then our responses to all the activities of living become distorted and a vicious cycle is set up where faulty sensory perception leads to faulty responses which then over time further distort sensory awareness. In lessons the Alexander teacher provides external feedback to the pupil in a way which replaces the normal faulty feedback with the aim of gradually establishing a virtuous cycle of improved sensory awareness leading to improved responses leading in turn to improved sensory awareness.

I want to look at feedback from the perspective of the pupil and the teacher and also in relation to feedback in the context of our teacher training course.

As a teacher, what is useful and what is not useful in giving feedback?

As in most teaching situations a lot of the answer to the first question depends on the pupil and the situation. Here are some guidelines about giving feedback at the school and in general.

  1. Feedback should be able to be responded to, or able to give the pupil useful information about how to respond. For example many statements which a teacher may make will simply cause the pupil to try to "do" something to create a change, when what they need to do is simply to inhibit and direct. For example to tell a pupil that one shoulder is higher than another may cause them to try to even them up by distorting the whole of their body. To tell them to open their mouth more in singing or speaking may activate even more strongly the pattern of holding that is stopping their mouth opening more in the first place. [4] The most useful feedback is that which allows pupils to catch themselves in their thinking process and which gives them information about their faulty sensory perception which is what they rely on in moving into an activity.

  2. Effective feedback comes from a place of accepting the person's being - feedback is on their doing, not their being.

  3. Effective feedback is not given out of frustration on the part of the teacher (self evident) – such feedback tends to arouse strong emotions in a pupil, usually of anger or hopelessness

  4. Effective feedback is balanced – that is we give feedback when a pupils thinking process goes awry and we also let the pupil know when it works and when the pupil is able to make a change for the better. This is important not only for the pupils "self esteem" but more importantly it lets them know that they are on the right track. Also pupils do need to know that they are making some progress.

  5. Feedback should be accurate. Feedback like "That’s good" or "That’s better" in some circumstances gives the pupil very little information. What the pupil needs to know was how exactly it was good or better – or worse for that matter. Studies have shown that if children are given only positive feedback from teachers in order to boost or protect their self-esteem, they see through this & do not trust the feedback. In my experience of papers which my children have brought home marked by school teachers it is clear that there is reluctance on the part of some teachers to give full, honest and useful feedback. Honest feedback of pupils’ strengths and weaknesses in the learning process is far more trusted and therefore useful for them to act upon. – see "The Power of Mindful Learning"

  6. Effective feedback is timely - there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent.

  7. Effective feedback takes account of the personality and reactivity of the pupil. At a very deep gut level it is never pleasant to know that we are "wrong". If we set up the lesson as a joint exploration we can set up the situation where a pupil can rejoice that they have learned something new, rather than that they have been "wrong". Pupils come to us with a whole range of predetermined dispositions to be able to examine themselves objectively. They may want to please the teacher by being "right" and suffer anxiety in trying to be right. They may have been brought up in a hypercritical environment where whatever they did & however well they did it, it wasn’t good enough – so they have no hope that they will ever measure up to what they understand is being asked of them. They may have little interest in hard work on themselves, having come to lessons to be "straightened out" by the teacher as some pupils have described to me.

As pupils we process feedback in a number of different ways.

Feedback in the context of the training course at The School for F.M. Alexander Studies

Feedback is obviously part of any training course. Trainees receive feedback from teachers many times every training day in the process of turns and of group work. At this school in the group work trainees are also frequently asked to observe and make their observations to the individual and the group. We attempt to set up an open and questioning environment where trainees and teachers can explore and develop the work together. We are asking trainees to say "let’s look at this", "lets experiment with this", let’s question this". Also in some observation exercises teachers do ask trainees to observe and give feedback on the teacher’s own use. On this training you will be asked to learn to tolerate "being wrong" and "not knowing." - developing "Don't Know Mind" as one Zen master has described it.

These are the sorts of questions that Alexander’s early trainees dealt with. In reading accounts of his early trainees it is clear that after two or three years they worked out that he wasn’t going to teach them how to teach the technique – or at least not as they understood he should be doing. Trainees therefore got together themselves in the afternoon, and based on what they understood from their own developing use and what they had observed Alexander doing, they began to explore how to teach the work and to discuss their sometimes disparate understandings of the work. They were also required to undergo the rather arduous ordeal of rehearsing and then performing a Shakespeare play in a professional theatre.

Some contexts of giving feedback at the school are more fraught than others. For most trainees it is not a big deal if someone notices that they have pulled their head back in getting out of the chair. But when it gets to voice and performance groups we are working with an activity which may be much more "emotional" and with which it may appear we have less control. As Alexander found in his own exploration (see Chapter 1, The Use of the Self) the voice does not lie. For some trainees the voice day may be something of an ordeal (probably in an order of magnitude several times less that Alexander’s trainees experienced in their adventures with Shakespeare!) Our training school is not for everybody!

What are the reasons we ask trainees, right from their first week of school to give feedback?

  1. Being asked to observe and verbalise that observation is a way of sharpening the observational skills of the trainee

  2. Trainees sometimes make observations that the teacher may have missed

  3. Trainees gradually develop the skill of giving efficient feedback. This will be developed significantly by their own observation of the usefulness of their feedback in aiding their fellow trainees in making a change in an observed activity. It may also be developed by getting feedback about the usefulness, quality or accuracy of their feedback by teachers or fellow trainees.

Experiencing and observing how teachers and other trainees give feedback, and observing the strengths and weaknesses of that process will also provide vital information. Indeed my observation of much Alexander training is that these skills (apart from the manual skills) are picked up at a sub-conscious level, from trainees’ observation and experience of the director and other teachers working. As Alexander points out in his chapter on Imitation in CCCI, it is much preferable to consciously copy, because in that case we are able to pick and choose rather than to swallow as a whole a way of teaching which inevitably includes its shortcomings. The larger and more conscious our experience of different ways of working the more chance we have of creating options in the moment of teaching.

Whilst teachers at the school will endeavor to provide informed feedback, it is inevitable that trainees will at times observe inaccurately and therefore give inaccurate feedback. Both trainees and teachers may, at times, give feedback that is not useful in terms of being able to do anything to make a change, or may misread the situation and give feedback in a way that may create anxiety, offence or other negative emotions. The fact that our course puts trainees into challenging situations such as performance groups on voice day makes this possibility higher than if we looked only at “safe” activities.

In this course it is fine to give people feedback on their feedback – in a useful and respectful manner. Of course it is axiomatic in the Alexander technique that we take responsibility for our own reactions.

Trainees are engaged in a professional training course – aiming at producing teachers who can work effectively on themselves, and are observant, self-reliant problem solvers who are skilled and effective in helping their pupils and in marketing their skills. In order to achieve this trainees enter an intensive process of self awareness and change where all habits and reactions are up for questioning. These habits and reactions naturally include our preferred ways of giving and receiving feedback. If we are pretty robust in dealing with feedback or tend to be very reactive we need to understand that others are not like us and that quite different approaches to what is "natural" to us may work very effectively with other people. We need to be able to monitor the response of our pupils to what we say just as sensitively as we monitor their response to our hands.

At the school feedback is not a one-way street. The culture is one which encourages feedback from trainees to the director and staff and procedures are in place to facilitate such feedback. Staff also work with each other – opportunities to meet, exchange, discuss and refine the work are provided weekly. Teachers meet once a term to review together the feedback from the trainees and to discuss their success in delivering the best possible training and to work out ways in which the training can be improved.

[1] Ellen J Langer Power of Mindful Learning Persus Books 1997 p 135

[2] FM Alexander - Teaching Aphorisms from Articles and Lectures Mouritz, London 1995 p204

[3] ibid p. 194

[4] FM Alexander Universal Constant in Living Centreline Press p29 – Alexander writes regarding his voice problem “Obviously for me to be told by a teacher to DO something new as a remedy for my trouble, practically amounted to my being told to continue using myself in the old way in order to do the new thing he suggested.”

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