follow up on the #waronsuggestions

I was extremely pleased  with the responses to my previous post, “Thank you for not suggesting.” I enjoyed the comments and they gave me a lot of food for thought. Thanks to those who commented! [I will surely respond to all the comments in the next 18 hours!] A few people mentioned the Mars and Venus and gender roles thing, which reminded me of a scene in “White Men Can’t Jump” (link is for the transcript–worth reading–because I couldn’t find a youtube clip) and also reminded me of something I wrote a while back about gender and language. and encouraged me to locate and post it. I also enjoyed the responses to the post I got on Twitter and Facebook. One friend wrote that the post gave her a lot to think about, because as an educator she is often in the position to give suggestions and so it is something to be aware of. A frenemy wrote that I may or may not have saved his marriage with the post. Those were some nice pieces of feedback to get. So, coupled with the comments I was very happy with the responses. I wasn’t sure if I accurately hit on everything I wanted to regarding suggestions so here I am with Part II.

I have had quite an interesting year with this #word, suggestion. In a training course  (maybe best described as trainer-training light) suggestions were a key issue. In the course we focus a lot on observation and feedback. This was my fourth year working on the course and one thing we do in the beginning of the course is to have participants do very short lesson on a non-English related skill and then participants have a feedback session on this micro-teaching/mini-lesson. Somehow I am always surprised at the sheer volume of suggestions than come out in the early feedback sessions of the course. It seems as though the belief is that feedback and suggestions are just two different ways of saying the same thing. It seems like the idea is that the best feedback giver is the one who can fire off as many suggestions as possible in the allotted time. This is not a belief I share. I have written a fair amount on observation and feedback  and observation and feedback so I won’t get into this here.

Returning to the course for a minute, in the early stages I think I was clear to highlight when I heard suggestions and when “suggestion flavored questions” (sounds like a question but is actually a suggestion deep down inside). I think participants became more aware of when they were making suggestions and they started to give more descriptive (and in my opinion more helpful) feedback. Sounds good, right? Well the problem, as I saw it, was that by me highlighting the suggestions as suggestions and trying to encourage people to be aware of their suggestions I gave off the idea and impression “Mike things all suggestions are wrong and all the time and they should be banned and burned with fire.” Or something similar. This was not my intention. So, instead of rapidly firing off suggestions participants were much more careful with their words and struggled to focus on what happened. To my mind there are no problems with that.

I think the problem is that there was a massive overcorrection and a huge pendulum swing. Some participants seemed to think that they should never under any circumstances offer suggestions. For me, this is a step too far. I didn’t think the early stage of (what I saw as) over-suggesting was any better than this gun shy stage but at times I also regretted coming off as though I was leading a witch hunt on suggestions and those who (over) share them. It took a bit of clarifying and restating and experimentation but I think by the end of course participants had made decisions about how and when they think it would be appropriate to give suggestions.

That leads to a key question, I think. When are suggestions most appropriate? For me it is when the listener wants one, as a start. In my previous post, me just talking casually about teaching at a coffee shop does not at all qualify. Maybe also when the listener agrees that there is room for change. I think this might be particularly relevant for post observation feedback sessions (either done by a peer or supervisor) If the listener doesn’t think there is a problem or an issue to be resolved I can’t see why they would want to follow a suggestion otherwise. I suppose another issue to think about here is the power dynamic involved. Maybe if the boss gives a suggestion we will just follow it because she is the boss, which makes a lot of sense. Or maybe a new teacher would welcome suggestions from more experienced teachers, which also sounds reasonable. Yes, I guess I just can’t get past the idea that we have to be ready for the suggestion by agreeing that something needs to be changed. I am not trying to come across as a zealot, conducting a #waronsuggestions but I am struggling a bit to think of situations related to teaching where they are appropriate and likely to be well received. Any ideas welcome.

I suppose that is all for now. I hope it makes some degree of sense. Thanks for reading.

Random additions: 

  • There is a chance that some of the course participants from the course mentioned above have recently been introduced to this space. Hello and welcome and I hope my perception on what I wrote above matches yours! And, hello and welcome.
  • It is not 100% related to this topic but I strongly recommend Andy Hockley’s piece on setting up peer observations. 
  • Another excellent comment on the KELTchat Facebook group was “If we didn’t make suggestions how would we ever get enough practice using modals and the subjunctive mood?”
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