In Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators, Eleanor Drago-Severson and Jessica Blum-DeStefano wrestle with the challenges of designing and implementing feedback interactions that advance learning and growth. It is widely acknowledged that authentic feedback is crucial for individual and organizational learning and performance. At the same time, actionable, meaningful feedback often tends to feel threatening to those receiving it and poses its own challenges. The authors note that the “impact of the growing emphasis on professional feedback seems mixed at best,” and “there remains a growing sense that we need to do something different in terms of feedback, not just something more” (p. 4). In particular, as the authors suggest, organizations and individuals are struggling to advance the transformational learning required to solve today’s complex education issues. Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano respond to this call to revitalize feedback’s potential by proposing that educators and school systems explicitly orient feedback interactions toward individual growth and development. As they state early on in the book, “Our hope, ultimately, is to raise up the power of developmentally-oriented feedback as a tool for helping people grow, and for building instructional and leadership capacity throughout schools and school systems” (p. 12).
The book is organized into ten chapters, progressing from the theory underlying this developmental approach to feedback to the practical implications of realizing such feedback interactions in schools and education districts. In chapter 1, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano introduce the “feedback for growth” approach. This is based on the enduring and foundational idea drawn from Robert Kegan’s (1982) constructive-developmental theory that adults—teachers, educators, and administrators—“make sense of their work, lives, and relationships” (p. 2) in fundamentally different ways. As the authors poignantly argue, “adults are not ‘done’ learning and growing simply because they have reached an age of maturity” (p. 2), a premise that is also at the core of Drago-Severson’s previous five books and her scholarship in general. A key implication of this theoretical perspective is the idea that the capacity to give or receive feedback effectively—that is, to give feedback in an honest, authentic way and to receive it without automatic defensiveness—might not just be a technical skill that can be learned with persistence or by participating in workshops. The authors propose that engaging in effective feedback makes demands on the individual’s internal, psychological capacity for perspective taking and requires transformational learning.
In chapter 2, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano situate their feedback for growth approach within the broader terrain of feedback efforts and research. The highlight of this chapter is the list of the ten most widely acknowledged feedback strategies drawn from business and education literatures. The list is reassuringly familiar, with, for example, such often-heard advice as keeping feedback objective and nonjudgmental or offering specific and focused feedback. What make this list of feedback strategies distinctive are the “developmental extensions” (p. 31) the authors provide, previews of how these popular suggestions can be reconsidered through a developmental lens.
In chapters 3 through 5, the authors develop and illustrate the central idea that school systems represent developmental diversity in their adults, and this diversity in meaning making is a hidden dimension shaping the effectiveness and impact of the feedback interactions. Chapter 3 is dedicated to describing the capacities and limitations of the four developmental stages during which adults are most likely to be making meaning: instrumental, socialized, self-authoring, and self-transforming. At each of these stages, individuals have a fundamentally different psychological pre-occupation, and at each subsequent stage there is increasing capacity to take a more expansive perspective on one’s self and one’s relationships. For the instrumental knower, for instance, meeting his concrete needs and not getting into trouble if rules are broken is the primary concern. In contrast, at the next stage, the socialized knower learns to take the perspective of others but is now defined by important relationships in her life and how others perceive her. The theoretical descriptions of these developmental stages should sound familiar to returning readers of Drago-Severson; as in her previous work, the emphasis is not simply on a static description of the stages but how further development can be encouraged by providing individuals with a balance of support and challenge that is developmentally optimal (Drago-Severson, 2004, 2009).
“At this developmental stage, individuals are not only likely to orient to the content of the feedback they are getting, but also they are anxious about what it means for their relationship with the person giving the feedback.”
Popular literature on feedback and strategies for effective feedback interactions tends to be framed from the perspective of those giving the feedback, typically those in leadership roles, with less attention paid to the experience of those at the receiving end of the interaction (Stone & Heen, 2014). Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators presents a welcome departure. In chapter 4, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano explicitly consider ways in which an individual’s developmental orientation modulates the psychological experience of and response to feedback. As an illustration, they propose that those with the socializing orientation are likely to feel most supported when critical feedback is combined with affirmation and positive acknowledgment. At this developmental stage, individuals are not only likely to orient to the content of the feedback they are getting, but also they are anxious about what it means for their relationship with the person giving the feedback. Through real-life vignettes, the authors bring to life the very unique concerns and experiences of receiving feedback at each of the four developmental orientations. Importantly, the authors suggest that adopting a developmental lens on what is commonly experienced as “resistance to feedback” can be reframed as a “developmental dissonance” (p. 74). What feedback givers perceive as defensiveness might just be a response to feedback that is out of tune with the developmental stage of the person receiving the feedback.
This idea that developmental fit might be an important, but hidden, dimension in productive feedback interactions is extended in chapter 5, which directs the reader’s attention back to those in leadership roles tasked with giving feedback. The authors continue their gentle but persistent reminding that, in a world of developmental diversity, one size does not fit all. They encourage leaders to reflect on how they give feedback and how they feel about giving feedback as data points that provide insight into their own developmental tendencies. The story of Dora, a state-level administrator supporting professional development who felt distraught at having to disappoint the expectations of one of her teachers, illuminates the challenge and emotional difficulty that socializing leaders might face in giving critical feedback, since individuals of this orientation are psychologically embedded in the important relationships in their lives and the perceptions of important others. As Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano remind us, the question here is less about a preferred style than whether the content and manner of communicating the feedback is meeting the receiver where they are developmentally. Does the feedback interaction serve as a “holding environment” (p. 52) by providing those receiving it both affirmation and challenge for developmental growth?
In the next section, chapters 6 to 10, the authors suggest concrete institutional strategies and processes to leverage the potential of developmentally oriented feedback interactions. This part of the book is aimed more deliberately toward school leaders and administrators at the district and state levels who have the authority to design and shape the institutional culture in their schools or district offices. The authors begin chapter 6 by acknowledging that a developmental approach to feedback might feel risky to educators, especially in the current context of teacher evaluation systems and mounting accountability demands. Trust, safety, and respect are offered as the foundational pillars on which leaders might refashion a culture conducive to engaging in such interactions.
“Trust, safety, and respect are offered as the foundational pillars on which leaders might refashion a culture conducive to engaging in such interactions.”
Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano go on to recommend six strategies to build a culture of trust and respect: (1) learning from mistakes and failures; (2) acknowledging and modeling the vulnerability that is inherent in such transformative learning experiences; (3) paying deliberate attention to the interpersonal aspects of feedback interactions; (4) making transparent the typically hidden expectations underlying the feedback interactions; (5) openly sharing ideas from the developmental theory to build a shared orientation to the purpose and nature of feedback interactions; and, finally, (6) putting in place routines, practices, and systems for greater collaboration. Several of these recommendations echo ongoing conversations and research (Edmondson, 2002; Edmondson & Moingeon, 1998; Kegan & Lahey, 2016) about the importance of “psychological safety” (Edmondson, 1999) in order for individuals and teams to engage in learning-oriented behaviors, such as providing feedback. The significance of these action points, the authors remind us, lies not in their novelty but in the possibility of recognizing them, or understanding them anew from a perspective that acknowledges developmental diversity.
It is important to note, however, that not all feedback is geared toward the same purpose, and those giving feedback need to be aware of and explicit about the scope and intention of the feedback interaction. Thus, in chapter 7 the authors present at least two distinct kinds of feedback: constructive and inquiry-oriented. Constructive feedback refers to the most typical feedback interactions where party A has a positional authority over party B and “points out . . . something that may feel problematic, did not go as hoped, or may need to change in support to ongoing improve-ment” (p. 119). In contrast, in an inquiry-oriented feedback interaction, party A does not enter the feedback conversation with clear, directive answers or suggestions to offer party B. The fundamental assumption here is that “a deeper, collaborative exploration of the challenge itself and the potential paths forward” (p. 123) is essential to making progress on the problem at hand. As Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano acknowledge, such feedback interactions are likely to developmentally stretch most individuals, especially since they challenge feedback givers to suspend judgment and instead opt for a joint approach. This mode of feedback interaction resonates most closely with the transformational potential of feedback in the context of the sticky, adaptive educational challenges laid out early in the book. However, as the authors remind us, constructive and inquiry-oriented feedback should be seen less as dichotomous typologies and more as lying on a continuum of possible feedback approaches.
In chapters 8 and 9, the authors shift to providing strategies for operationalizing a culture conducive to engaging in feedback for growth. A central takeaway for chapter 8 is that seemingly trivial logistical choices about the timing and location of the feedback interaction can have a significant influence on its effectiveness. Thinking about the space where the feedback interaction takes place, for example, they highlight the opportunities and risks inherent in “public feedback” (p. 132). They go on to offer seven largely self-evident strategies—such as preparing carefully, asking permission, checking in, or really listening—for “even more effective feedback” (p. 132). This list might strike some readers as either mildly repetitive at this point in the book or as nothing new, as it echoes widely accepted best practices in professional development. What distinguishes the list, however, is its deliberate attention to the ways in which each of the recommendations will be experienced and responded to differently based on the individual’s developmental orientation.
Chapter 9 begins with the important reminder that the best feedback interactions are situated within a “larger constellation of ongoing supports and challenges, rather than an end in and of itself” (p. 150). As the authors note, feedback that is offered in the spirit of supporting an individual’s development needs to be followed up to enhance the chances that it can be applied. For Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano, such follow-up has two key parts. The first involves paying particular attention to the emotional aspects and consequences of the feedback interaction. In addition, they also recommend that feedback givers and receivers work together to devise actionable next steps. As with the rest of the book, the authors draw on real life, including rich vignettes of teachers, administrators, and coaches to illuminate what these action steps might look like depending on the individual’s developmental trajectory. For example, self-authoring individuals will be best supported when they are invited to reflect on their own performance and “self-select goals and next steps” (p. 155), in contrast to the regular check-ins and offers of guidance and support that someone making meaning from the socializing way of knowing might require.
“… Feedback that is offered in the spirit of supporting an individual’s development needs to be followed up to enhance the chances that it can be applied”
The authors intend the final chapter to bring the reader “full circle” (p. 14) with its emphasis on the potential of feedback to advance individual learning and growth. Here the authors introduce the importance of seeking out feedback consistently and from a variety of sources (colleagues, supervisor, subordinates) as a catalyst for personal growth. This advice is deeply resonant with the work of eminent organizational theorists Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1974), which notes that transformative learning is not possible if individuals and organizations remain caught in a web of “self-sealing processes” (p. 76) where they buffer against and bounce off any corrective feedback. In a similar vein, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano offer three distinct kinds of strategies for seeking developmental feedback. First, informal surveys of one’s colleagues and team members can help surface feedback that can be missed in formal evaluations. Second, they recommend gathering colleagues to explore a “problematic or puzzling dilemma of practice” (p. 169). Such “mini-convenings” (p. 169) can help participants take broader perspectives on complex issues. Finally, they propose an exercise to examine personal assumptions that may be limiting one’s growth. Borrowed from Kegan & Lahey’s (2009) Immunity to Change framework, one exercise, a metaphorical “developmental dinner party” (p. 173), has individuals asking their close friends, family, and colleagues about the one major aspect on which they need to improve.
In most educational institutions today, feedback has become entangled and conflated with performance evaluation systems meant primarily for determining compensation and promotion. In the process, feedback is losing its potential as a vehicle for advancing learning and growth for the adults in our school systems. With this book, Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano have taken on the formidable challenge of reframing feedback interactions as the threads that weave together the tapestry of everyday life in schools. They persuade the reader to attend to the wholeness of the individuals they interact with and, in doing so, learn to comprehend the developmental diversity of the adults in an organization. Alongside emphasizing the importance of developing leaders who can think in more complex ways, the authors signal an important caution against (mis)using the theory as a way of pushing everyone to progress toward the “highest rung on the meaning making ladder” (p. 111), referring to a genuine tension in stage theories of development where “higher” can be misconstrued as “better.” This caveat aside, the book can serve as a call to humanize and restore the deeply personal and life-enhancing act of one individual offering deep attention to another.
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