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On Feedback

Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Caleb Gattegno


vol. VII no. 4

April 1978

First published in 1978. Reprinted in 2009. Copyright Š 1978-2009 Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc. Author: Caleb Gattegno All rights reserved ISBN 978-0-87825-293-0 Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc. 2nd Floor 99 University Place, New York, N.Y. 10003-4555

Since cyberneticists extended the engineering notion of feedback to human situations, its meaning has been enriched. Originally, feedback only meant that in order to govern a process a certain amount of energy from the process should be diverted to inform the source so that the input of energy that went into the process could be regulated. In human transactions, it means attention to the existence of others, but also giving others the right and the means to alter the course of a process in which they are involved. In the thirty years since feedback has been popularized — mainly by Norbert Wiener and his associates from 1948 on — feedback has become an instrument of great significance in human affairs. It has allowed those who use it to remain in contact with what was going on in all sorts of transactions. It has made possible a vastly improved way of relating. In education, in particular, it has made it possible to change altogether the one-way traffic of imparting knowledge into a constant two-way traffic between educator and students, incomparably more effective. This Newsletter contributes to the explicitation of the uses of feedback as it works in the hands of the writers who are teachers-investigators working in the fields of reading, mathematics and foreign languages. The news items include a report on the Mexico City TESOL ‘78 Conference of a few days ago and a system-diagram of which readers will see more examples in the future.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 .............................................................................. 1 Chapter 2 .............................................................................. 5 Chapter 3 ............................................................................. 11 Chapter 4.............................................................................17 Chapter 5 ............................................................................ 21 Chapter 6............................................................................ 25 News Items ......................................................................... 27

Chapter 1

A few years ago, at one of my one-day workshops in England, there were two hundred and fifty people in the audience sitting in rows in a large university amphitheater. After an introductory talk of twenty minutes or so. I stopped and asked my audience to let me know whether I had said anything that was worth their while. No one was ready to say anything, suggesting only that I increased my input until they found themselves ready to “react” (as they said). I told them that I accepted as a fact that they were not telling me anything about what I had said but that they were telling me something about themselves which I would have been unable to guess since I did not know most of them. Twenty minutes later I stopped again to enquire about what they were experiencing under the flow of my discourse. One or two made some remarks which I found vague and I told them to be more precise. This they considered to be a rejection of their attempt at “reacting” to what I was saying and asked me to tell them what I wanted to hear. I took that opportunity to let them know how I worked in my seminars, and I explained the importance of feedback for me who considered his job to be a servant of those present rather than as the source of new information. “How could I serve you, if I went on telling you what I think and never considered whether I was reaching you or was wasting your time which is the substance of your life?” Someone said that he came to the seminar sure that it was going to be worth his while and that he could later look at his notes in his own time and reflect on the


On Feedback

matters raised. That he and the others have had years of experience of that kind of teacher-student relationship and that it suited them. Would I go on as I did so far and tell them those of my thought that I believed should become their thoughts? At that point, I saw my opportunity to engage a large group of people who were keen to be with me to study why we all need feedbacks to become better teachers. Rather than theorize about feedback I gave them an example by impersonating a teacher who became so engrossed in his own work that he forgot altogether his audience. I stood up in front of the chalkboard talking to the board, writing with my right hand at the level of my head and erasing with my left hand what I wrote as soon as I wrote it. After a few minutes of that game I turned around and asked them whether they had something to say. Most of the audience who did not quite understand what I was doing, was baffled and expressed itself by asking: “Why did you do what you did?” or “I could barely hear what you said and hardly had time to see what you wrote then it was gone. Is that good teaching?” But some of those present understood that by exaggerating one feature I was forcing them to relate to my activity and to feel a need for a link between teacher and students, as an opening for this class to enter into the subject of feedback. At least they saw that to teach without any concern for what students experience is bad teaching; even crazy! I then asked them: “Do you think it is possible to teach in such a way as to remain in continuous contact with one’s students?” in other words: “is not good teaching characterized by the teacher responding exactly to what the students are in need of in the here and now, when facing some challenge put to them by the teacher or the curriculum or a test?” “Could we try to illustrate this in this workshop, so that we all learn to be responsive to our students i.e. capable of processing more and more of the feedbacks we receive from them?” In fact, we had there both the opportunity to experience what feedback was and to give it enough exposure so that everyone present learned in his flesh its importance as well as obtained some idea of how to use it in one’s classroom. I told them I was going to give them a lesson whose purpose could be dual, they would perhaps learn something, but


Chapter 1

mainly they would be invited to attempt to be with themselves while learning and with me as their teacher aware of them. I selected as my exercise the naming of the set of our fingers in various bases of numeration, a very simple exercise we can play with young children and adults alike. To those who would find it very easy I said: “Watch the audience and the dynamics in the lesson, watch me to let me know what you think of my way of working.� The exercise lasted for 20 minutes. I only asked questions and most people in the audience were totally taken by the demands of the task. Some were laughing hysterically when they found that 12+12 may be called 101. Most could not easily stop themselves from being carried away by the habits they had formed for years: when I showed them a few fingers, the only label that came to them was the habitual one but which was excluded in this game. The most exciting moments came during the session that followed at which so many people had so much to tell. The audience was throbbing. Many wanted to speak at the same time; they accepted to take turns and we heard one after the other quite a number of them speak of their experience with details no teacher suspects until he develops the techniques used in that lesson. The audience had a feast and asked for more. The rest of the day was modeled in a similar fashion. Every session was a lesson on a different subject matter but essentially one on feedback and its various aspects. On top of all that there were the dynamics of the day and the feedback on feedbacks. We gathered on that occasion that it was possible to work in such a way that, while the students worked on the challenge offered by the teacher, the teacher worked on what the students were doing, hence getting feedback all the time. Among the visible items of that feedback were the mistakes students were making. In fact, mistakes suddenly gained a prominent role in the understanding of what feedback is in actuality. Since the members of the audience made some mistakes but not others in the exercises given, these mistakes could be linked to their idea of 3

On Feedback

what the task was, their perception of the challenges, their perception of themselves, and therefore could help the teacher to work on what the students needed, as I did in my lessons. That mistakes could be perceived as an essential part of the feedback and gain such a positive meaning was stressed by the participants at the end of the day, as one of their most important gains. Feedback was no longer a novel idea that could simply intrigue people or become a fad. It was seen as the backbone of sound teaching and a desirable technique for anyone who wished to become a better teacher. Of course, feedback can be used with profit in many other circumstances besides teaching. Every one of us needs to be given what we cannot find by ourselves and therefore we all need to let others know somehow what it is that escapes us and hence need other people’s perceptions, particularly if they are more perceptive, more sensitive. Today we say we need their feedback. What this notion has definitely brought to us is that the processing of information affects the information we receive and retain, and that we may have to pay attention to that processing. But it also brought to us the importance of the two-way traffic in every relationship. Of course our teaching does gain a lot when we integrate in it a sense of where to go to get the feedback that alters it so as to remain in close contact with the actual activities of the learners. It makes feedback as necessary as our presence and that of our students in the act of teaching. Caleb Gattegno


Chapter 2

Once it is clear that learning is an internal, purposeful activity under the control of the learner, one’s efforts towards enhancing that activity become unavoidably saturated with a concern for knowing as clearly as possible and at every moment how the learning is (or is not) taking place. One’s capacity for constructive intervention is directly dependent on one’s clarity of perception into the shifting currents of inner movements of the learner. The instrument for that perception is one’s self, as that self is attendant to the effects on oneself of the inputs generated by what the learner is doing. These inputs we can call feedback, and, as one is in the presence of another person who is learning, one can find how to be more attendant to it. A case in point. I have for a number of months been working with an 18 year old deaf man (Larry) on his mastering some of the rudimentary skills of mathematics. His use of the English language is such that we can understand only very little of what we say or write for one another. On the other hand, my mastery of manual sign language, in which he is proficient, is so meager that very little communication is accomplished through that means. This state of affairs creates for me a rich opportunity to learn better how to use feedback in helping someone else learn, since what is usually the most easily obtainable (and probably the least reliable) source of feedback (verbal exchange) is for all practical purposes unavailable. So my attention must necessarily shift to the more subtle and revealing impacts which are forthcoming.


On Feedback

For example, Larry and I were recently working together on his mastering short division. At least we were supposed to be working together on that. It quickly became apparent, however, as we sat at the dining room table in his home, that I was working on it much more than he was, at least in the beginning. I knew it because of the feedback available in the situation, some of which is revealed in the following narrative. We began by my placing an orange rod end-to-end with a light green one. I looked at him and waited, expecting that he would show the hand sign for “thirteen.” Instead, he looked at me blankly and did not move. Now, that could mean many things: perhaps he was waiting for me to go on, or he thought it was silly for him to show that he knew what I already knew he knew, or he was pulling my leg, or he was distracted, or he was confused or he did not want to be bothered with it, etc., etc. So, because I did not yet really have a clue as to what was going on inside him, I waited a bit longer, assuming that by now (after perhaps 30 hours of working together) he understood that my sitting back and waiting was often an indication that I expected him to do something. Still, he took no initiative in that direction. At this point, I took a sheet of ruled paper, wrote on the uppermost line the numeral “13,” and then underlined it. I looked at Larry, who shrugged and nodded simultaneously. Since I only very rarely asked him to be engaged in something which was not worth his time, I wondered at his apparent detachment and felt very definitely his reluctance to begin working with me. Alerted to and keeping in mind his reserved state, I made sure that my next request for his cooperation involved his doing something new but also immediately accessible if he watched. I formed, just below and touching the orange and light green train of rods, a second train, equivalent in length but composed of six red rods and a white one. Then I wrote, on the second line on the sheet of paper, “6 twos + 1.” I looked at Larry, who stared blankly at the rods. Watching him, I touched with my pen the first train of rods and then the numeral “13,” pausing there. Still no response. I then touched the second train, and 6

Chapter 2

followed by indicating the corresponding writing. At this point, Larry’s eyes narrowed slightly, which I interpreted as indicating some inner movement in him which was in correspondence with my actions. I rapidly put down a third train, composed first of four light green rods and then one white one, and then wrote on the third line of the sheet of paper, “3 fours + 1.” I noted that Larry’s eyes followed my actions. Would he now take the initiative required to reach the awareness that a pattern of rods was being constructed, whereby every subsequent train was (1) to begin with the next longest rod (2) to be composed of a repetition of that rod until the length of the first train would be exceeded, and (3) to contain one rod of a second color to fill the gap remaining? I sat back and waited. Larry hesitated and looked at me as he reached towards the pile of rods. Sensing this hesitation as uncertainty, I waved my hand over the pile in an attempt to encourage him. I knew that, in acting, he would either show that he saw emerging the pattern I had in mind, or he would give evidence of something else. He went directly to a pink rod and placed it properly. Now, he could have taken three pink rods all at once, or even the three pink rods and the necessary white one to complete the train. The fact that he did not, but instead methodically placed one rod at a time, then searched back in the pile for the next one, and so on, provided feedback for me that he preferred a careful, deliberately narrow approach in place of a more daring move based on a broader insight into the challenge. I pushed towards him the sheet of paper and he wrote on the appropriate line, “3 four + 1.” With the tip of my pencil, I touched the paper between “r” and “+.” Larry directly added an “s,” showing he had the criteria for knowing what to do, but did not use them until prompted. He then went on forming the appropriate trains and accompanying descriptions. Besides waiting to see what initiatives he might take once he was confronted with the fact that there was no length longer than “10,” I watched how he proceeded in selecting the color of each first rod of every subsequent train. Looking for the next longest rod after the pink one, he reached into the pile and pulled out a black one — which is longer by two units than the yellow, which was the appropriate color. Placing the black rod below the first pink one, he saw it was the wrong color and threw it back into


On Feedback

the pile. There was an abruptness in his gesture which said that the responsibility for having made that choice seemed not to be accepted as his own. He then went on as though his criteria for choosing the correct length were so lacking that it was mainly a hit and miss operation which was called for. Having thrown back the black rod, he picked up the brown. On this one though, it being even longer than the black, he only brought it halfway towards the pattern before dropping it. Then he tried a pink one, and didn’t give up on it until it had actually been placed in the pattern where a yellow one belonged. This provided feedback that, rather than being guided by an internalized, virtual representation of the rods, he was expending all of the energy which is required by actual manipulation. Having worked with the rods for a number of hours, he had had ample opportunity to internalize the information necessary for functioning on a virtual level; by not having taken the steps required for that or perhaps not using what was internalized indicated his remaining confined to a level of functioning far less productive in terms of learning than what was possible. Returning the pink rod to the pile, he selected a yellow one, this time having taken a few moments to survey the possibilities. Then, showing more explicitly his use of criteria, he tested the length of it by comparing it to the pink rod just replaced. Finding the yellow to be longer, but not by too much, he placed it properly in the pattern and added the appropriate rods to complete the train. To start the next train, he picked up a black rod, brought it close to the pattern, then tossed it back into the pile. His next choice — a dark green rod — was correct. That train completed with a black rod, he went without hesitation to another black rod, which was the correct beginning of the next train. The directness of his action indicated a change in him. Trains starting with the brown, blue, and orange rods followed in rapid succession, though with one or two errors, self-corrected. What I observed in Larry’s next two actions indicated initiative, and the impact on me was of someone becoming more watchful and more responsible. First, he removed the last train he had just formed — the one with an orange and a light green rod. He made this move as soon as he noticed that the first train which I had formed was composed of the same color rods in the same order. He had evaluated the situation


Chapter 2

and had made a decision that there was no need for the repetition. Then, when for my reasons, I put the train back, so that it did appear a second time, he easily and without comment accepted this, providing feedback that he was ready to cooperate, to allow for my initiatives to have their place. The relaxed expression on his face and in his eyes confirmed that this readiness was indeed a present aspect of his inner state. The second action he took at this point was to immediately place an orange and white rod end-to-end, as the start of the next train. A red one was added to complete the length. The train for “12 + 1” was handled as easily. The pattern now completed, along with the accompanying written description of each train, I asked, in sign language, “How many twos in thirteen?” Larry looked at the display, which was feedback that he connected what he had just done with the question I had just asked. As he moved his eyes up and down the pattern and spent perhaps a minute studying it, I could feel first the intensity of his concentration, and then, in the end, the tentativeness of his solution. He touched with the tip of his pencil the train of rods corresponding to “1 eight + 5.” He looked directly into my eyes, writing for me to confirm or deny his choice. I did nothing and he moved his pencil to the next lower train. My response again was not to respond. His shoulders slumped as he slid his pencil down one more train. At this point, there was ample feedback that my question may have been interpreted in a reasonable way — i.e. “which train is composed of two rods?” — but not reconsidered in light of there being several possible right answers to that interpretation. Larry was confused and felt that he could not sort his way out left to his own devices. So I intervened. I took a handful of assorted rods and asked, “How many twos in my hand?” He methodically counted the red rods one-by-one. Then, I asked again, “How many twos in thirteen?” He looked at the pattern on the table, counted the red rods in the second row, and answered “six.” I


On Feedback

formed with my hands the sign for “plus” and looked at him. He referred to the pattern and answered, “one.” I wrote on a clean sheet of paper, 13 = 6x2+1. Feeling more and more strongly his mental presence, I wrote alongside this, “or 13÷2 = 6, remainder 1.” I pushed the sheet of paper towards him, and noted that, instead of sitting back and waiting for it, he reached and took it from under my hand. He wrote on the next line 13 = 4x3+1 or 13÷3 = 4, remainder 1. He continued putting down pairs of statements for the remaining trains in the pattern. Seeing his eyes each time shifting back and forth between the pair he had just written and the one he was working on, I covered the pairs he had completed once he finished writing, 13÷5 = 2, remainder 3. He paused for a moment, wrote 13 = , and then paused again. Smiling, he tried to lift the book I was using to cover the pairs just written. Finding that it was held firmly down, Larry put his pencil back to the paper and slowly finished the line of writing, without error. I took my hand away, but left the book where it was. When he moved it down himself to cover the line of writing just completed, I had all the feedback I needed to know that he understood clearly what was being asked of him and that he knew he understood. Ted Swartz


Chapter 3

The word “feedback” appeared on the horizon for me late in my life. Even though I did not engage in investigating the scientific origin of feedback, I could straight-away relate to the sense in which it was being used around me. I found the concept as well as its application akin to a phenomenon in human relationship of which I have been aware over the years. Without intending to restrict the meanings of feedback, I will attempt to elaborate in what follows on what I see to be the dynamics of feedback in human interactions. *** 1 One of my colleagues at the office came to my room one day. She had come to discuss a personal matter. I put aside what I was doing and asked her to take a seat on the other side of my desk. Within a couple of minutes after she began to talk she leaned over the desk. As I listened to her, I found myself leaning over too. We were looking into each other’s eyes as the conversation proceeded. Presently, it took a somewhat objective tone. I sat back. As we carried on, she leaned against the back of her chair too. Now she was saying something about herself which (it seemed to me) she felt to be not so flattering. There was a tension on her face, her posture stiffened as she talked, her eyes wandered off and got fixed vaguely in space at an angle towards the floor. My eyes moved from her eyes to other parts of her face. I leaned over seemingly, automatically towards her, and I listened to her with my hand extended in her direction resting on the desk.


On Feedback

2 A rather intense conversation is in progress. One of the participants is doing most of the talking. Soon the eyelids of the other one get heavy with sleep and the whole body begins to show the signs of “not being there.” Does the sleep indicate boredom and a lack of interest on the part of this person? Is it due to an inability or/and unwillingness to be involved in the matter at hand? Is the falling off to sleep a judgment that whatever is going on is not important? Is it an expression of a “couldn’t care less” feeling? Or, is it just the simple fact that the body has succumbed to the fatigue accumulated through the day and now has been overcome by the need for a nap? *** These two slices of life-situations of human interaction I have brought in as examples to focus upon the fact that the body is a carrier-to and from — of our responses in a very important way. In the first example the “body rhythm” of the two participants is such that it enhances the interpersonal activity. In the second case, it is apparently disruptive, leaving one of the participants asleep and the other one confused and wondering what to make of it. It brings the interpersonal activity to a halt, at least for the time being. Our postures, gestures, facial expressions, the look in our eyes, indeed the total body participation give substance to our responses as much as do our thoughts, experiences, words, the tone of our voice, our silence, inner feelings, motives, intentions etc. The questions arise: is feedback the same as a response or is it different? In what way? Is it a part of a response; but a special part which conveys through its own dynamics something quite specific? What are the dynamics of feedback? What does it mean to be a sensitive giver and receiver of feedback in human interaction? ***


Chapter 3

Feedback, as I understand it, signifies the presence of oneself in one’s responses. Whereas a response is more comprehensive and more complex, feedback — like a spearhead — belongs to a response but as a direct and concise aspect of it. Feedback contains in it and brings to the others a concentrated expression of the impact upon one — compacted in the here and now — of the “happenings” generated by the interacting of two or more persons who share their presence together in a given situation. As a part of a response, feedback is a personal statement. At the same time — by its very nature — it is interpersonal for it addresses itself to the other participants in the situation and is intended to be heeded personally by those who are engaged in the interpersonal activity. In a group of people studying a topic of common interest together, for example, each one addresses himself, and responds, to the topic and to each other’s comments from one’s own personal point of view, from the knowledge and experience one has of the particular issue, and from the understanding that one gains of the responses of others. The reach of these responses is vast and their nature complex. Each response represents a universe of experience not necessarily easily accessible to others, and not necessarily immediately comprehensible in its detail and totality. But, somehow, into the fiber of individual responses are knit the signals which convey to others the extent and the ways in which the self of each of the participants is present, the ways in which each is vulnerable to others, the extent to which one is interested in what is taking place, if the responses of others are being received or not, if one finds the reality of the situation confusing, clear, within one’s reach, beyond one, and so on. The presence of the self of each one — carried by the messages embedded in the responses — is the feedback, going back and forth, conveying pinpointedly the state of one’s being at that moment. These messages evolve as a consequence of being together and when received, are representative of the dynamics of human interaction. Feedback thus embodies the articulation of one’s vulnerability to the reality of the situation as it is expressed by one to others in the totality of the moment. One of the distinguishing features of feedback is that it is expressed without thought, without pretense — just as it is at the moment. An understanding of feedback in this sense serves to smooth the expression and exchange of responses and creates chances for the 13

On Feedback

responses to be taken in and understood better. The energy in the form of feedbacks given and received contributes to the dynamics of human interaction. But if, on the other hand, feedback is unattended, that is, if the expressions of one’s vulnerability are ignored, then the responses tend to become rigid monologues and interpersonal activity changes into individualistic pursuit. In no interpersonal activity, it seems to me can one afford to neglect the exchange of energy in the form of feedback without paying a heavy price. *** For a sensitive teacher, teaching — above all — is an interpersonal human activity. Hence, to develop and exercise the skill of receiving the output of students’ energy in the form of feedback is seen by him or her as a professional necessity. A sensitive teacher asks: “Can I be open to receiving in the responses of my students the personal statements they make about their vulnerability to the activities in which we are participating together? Can I respond to their messages in ways which carry to them the message that I am prepared to act in the light of their feedbacks?” Since these questions belong to the teaching-learning situations which are dynamic, new, growing and changing all the time, the answers to them are unpredictable. The preparation of oneself, however, for knowing how to receive the feedbacks from one’s students, and how to reciprocate in the light of them, seems to be in knowing that that which is unpredictable can best be met with an open mind. When in one’s mind there are no expectations of others and no demands are put on them, it becomes possible to receive feedbacks as they come. When one’s mind is not filled with preconceived notions as yardsticks compelling one to be preoccupied with what the feedbacks should be, then it is possible to receive the feedbacks for what they are, and it is


Chapter 3

easier to act accordingly. In the absence of the inner pressures generated by expectations and preoccupations, it becomes feasible for one’s sensitivity to be at work to let the two-way flow of energy as feedback take place. What also helps is knowing to what extent one actually treats one’s students as persons from whom one has everything to learn as to what it is to meet them in their responses. One’s willingness to know this is mobilized when one is not identified with oneself as an authority in any form, and therefore approaches one’s students as equal. To know one’s students as one’s equal for what they are, calls for neither a lofty philosophical attitude nor an expertise in the psychoanalytical explanations of their needs. It simply requires that one be prepared to learn to be attentive — in the here and now — to the expressions of the students’ state of being with regard to the activity at hand. One can learn to receive the messages as they emerge in the dynamics of togetherness. One can learn to act in the awareness of the sense of their presence by knowing, from the outset, that one does not know and is going to find out by being in contact with the tentativeness of one’s own findings in face of the mystery that is each of us. Feedback — in all situations of human interaction — is invited, given and received through the body language, through words and actions, through expressed or unexpressed affectivity in various subtle/indefinable forms. Rather than going by appearances or guessing or interpreting, one could learn to decipher and redecipher the messages sent by the students so that one’s teaching is in harmony with what matters in terms of the students’ learning. One can become a skillful user of feedback as a technique in one’s teaching by consciously disciplining oneself not to demand and not to expect, but to attend to what is presented, with care and an active sensitivity. Shakti Gattegno


Chapter 4

Of the instruments used in the Silent Way, “feedback” is perhaps the most powerful, but also the most difficult to learn and to use properly. There are definite techniques that go with it, but for me, the main difference between learning these techniques and, say, learning those related to the use of the charts, is that, unless one has developed the correct sensitivities for the instrument itself, the techniques are not objective enough to carry through one’s lack of understanding of them. Without these sensitivities, the instrument becomes useless, even counterproductive. Let me give an example to clarify this point. When I cover up words on a chart and ask students to tell me what the covered word is, I don’t need to know that I am using the students’ power of imagery to help them retain those words. The technique is so powerful that, if I execute it with a certain degree of precision, it will make my teaching more effective even if I don’t understand why it works. This is what I call an objective technique. It is obvious that when I attune myself to the sensitivity or sensitivities which are involved in this technique, I become more able to use it creatively and effectively. Many of the techniques of the Silent Way are objective and powerful in this way. In contrast, when I first attempted to use the instrument that I have called “feedback” I found myself at a loss for lack of these objective techniques. Although I have now expanded my understanding of what “feedback” is to include the many and varied responses students give all during a class. I have used it here to mean the sessions Silent Way


On Feedback

teachers usually hold at the end of each lesson in which students have an opportunity to express in their own language what they have experienced in class. During these sessions, so long as I remained insensitive to the instrument, not only could I not take advantage of it, but at times I felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with it. When I found myself trying to convince my students about how wrong their perceptions had been, or how prejudiced they were, or, how inattentive they were to the way they learned, I knew that I missed the purpose of feedback. I used to take my students’ feedback personally and I felt that I had to defend my ways of teaching. At that time, I did not like these sessions, mainly because I could not see how they were helping anyone learn. I also sensed that my interferences were responsible for turning these sessions into an arena for arguments. So I decided to stop them altogether. In so doing, I gave myself the opportunity to examine from a distance, what “feedback” is and I soon realized that I had been using this instrument throughout my classes. Indeed the whole concept of the “subordination of teaching to learning” is based on various levels of feedback. As I observed myself using feedback in the course of a lesson, I found that there were many objective techniques which were helping me develop the sensitivities I needed in order to be more in contact with my students’ states of mind and their ways of learning. Waiting for an answer without pressing a student, speeding up an exercise, removing myself physically from the center of action in a lesson — all these techniques gave me opportunities to observe my students and to be guided by them as to what to do next. As I started observing my classes more systematically, I discovered that students’ responses did not have to be taken at face value, since they may hide “truer” realities. Unless one is prepared to work with this truer feedback, one’s actions may turn out to be ineffectual. For example, giving extensive practice on a particular sound or set of sounds can be quite useless if what is interfering with a particular student’s learning is a “I can’t do it” image. To deal with feedback at this level is quite challenging, for often, even when one suspects what is the cause of a difficulty, one may not find the way to remove the obstacles met by the learners. Eagerness to find a solution to a problem


Chapter 4

may prove to be another interference. Paradoxically, I now know that I had made a step forward in sensitizing myself to feedback when I fully acknowledged to myself that I didn’t know what to do in certain situations. On the one hand, my attitudes in class have become more pragmatic and detached. Being fully aware that I am working on hypotheses that I’m going to test, I’m much more prepared to discard solutions and strategies that don’t seem to work in a particular situation. On the other hand, my way of receiving feedback has changed in kind: I’ve learned to watch my students more with an open mind and in a mood I call “suspended” which I have found, definitely helps to reach the invisible behind the appearances. Having an open mind and a motiveless attitude of truly wanting to find out effectively, once I had developed these insights, I resumed the sessions of “feedback” at the end of some of my lessons, and found that they could be of great help to me as a teacher of the class if I interfered as little as possible. First of all, I discovered that if I refrained from talking at all, students would feel freer to express frustrations and doubts they might have in working in ways they are not necessarily accustomed to. Even though some of these frustrations may represent real hindrances in the students’ progress, they are no less real. Letting students express freely what bothers them, often serves another purpose: it releases pressure and allows them not to cling to their preoccupations. I also found that if I’m really listening and in contact with my students rather than with myself (trying to defend what I have done or said), the invisible truth hidden behind their words strikes me more easily. I learned this invaluable lesson one day when I was visiting a class given by a young teacher. In her lesson, she presented among other things, two new English expressions. In presenting them, she did not notice that she had used exactly the same situation with the rods to illustrate both meanings. From her point of view — i.e. from the point of view of a person who knew English — it was understandable why the mistake was made: the two expressions described different aspects of that one situation. But from the point of view of a learner, the whole sequence was very confusing since there was no way in which the distinction between the meanings of both expressions could be reached. At the end of the lesson, one of the students present said in his feedback that he wished someone had translated those expressions because he didn’t understand them and therefore couldn’t “learn” them. The teacher dealt with the appearance of his feedback instead of with its real 19

On Feedback

meaning and started lecturing the student about the interference of translation. Had she understood the real feedback “You made it impossible for me to use my perception; therefore I was confused,� she would have gladly taken this opportunity to improve her teaching by finding ways to be clearer. I was struck by this experience, for I knew there that I also had missed many opportunities of the same kind. And the reason for my missing these was neither ill will nor lack of care. It was simply that, being too close to my actions, I was unable to see them for what they were, and so I resorted to schema that replaced reality with ideas and principles. Taking in feedback silently now helps me to become more detached and to reflect on what students have said with a different perspective. It gives me time and space to be more neutral. Cecilia Bartoli


Chapter 5

Even though I had come across definitions of feedback mechanisms as they apply to the realm of cybernetics, I had no real understanding of the process; much less did I see that it was a process that had somehow always been at work in human transactions, whether it was between individuals, or within the same individual. Therefore it had never occurred to me that feedback techniques could be employed as a deliberate form of working in a teaching-learning situation. When I first attended workshops where those techniques were being used, I was taken by surprise. The word itself alone created a small problem. In my mind, I felt biased by my lifelong acquaintance with French, a language in which feed describes a movement that goes from the outside to the inside. To describe the reverse movement, I would have to use another verb. The fact that the people who speak English insist that you can use the same verb, expressing the change in direction by adding back, brought to my mind images of foods, or thoughts, being sent back, almost as if vomited, without having undergone much change. Sure enough, in my first few attempts at feedback, much of what I said sounded like a repeat of what had been said during the class — a habit acquired through many years of schooling. And I heard other people around me making similar statements, i.e., •

saying something that resembled what had just been said,


saying something that made sense and could please the teacher,


On Feedback

saying something clever to show that one is on top of situations,

and of course, there was always a way out, by saying: “I have nothing to say.” In fact, all these things seem to me to be what feedback is not. Having been made aware of this, I could begin to put aside these obstacles and focus on what was there. What I saw was: 1

a reality (topic, subject matter, language, etc.) being looked at and studied, representing the objective factor,

2 a phase through which every participant relates to this reality and integrates part of it, 3 a movement whereby people can tell themselves and/or others where they are at now, what they have captured of the item being looked at, in what way they have processed what was offered, and finally how much of the new belongs to them now. From listening to more people, I could see how rich and varied step 3 is; and how could it be otherwise, since it is the reflection of the uniqueness of each of us. As a student, as a person, I would be much better off if I was in closer contact with the use I made of myself in learning situations, and at all times for that matter. At a small energy expense, I could begin to develop some watchfulness — and analogy with the cybernetic model was becoming clearer. As I started doing this, and as I listened to some more people feed-backing along with me, I began to hear more than just the words they were saying and to perceive more of themselves beyond their statements. It was as if I could perceive up to the level of authenticity that I had reached myself. This also implied that the more I would work on myself, the more I would perceive and understand about others. From a more technical point of view, it meant: •

that I had to say something whenever I was solicited. There will always be something to say, since I can’t be nowhere in the process of integration;


Chapter 5

that I had to say something to contribute to the experience of the group. By their very nature, statements made by participants call for no comment, no praise or criticism. They are just temporary milestones; like players in a card game, we may offer to show a card every once in a while.

I can remember feedback sessions after week long seminars carried out in France, Switzerland, Italy or other places. Every time there would be one or two people bursting into tears. It did not seem out of place then, not because feedback is supposed to be a confession, or a display of emotions, but because it is a time for giving indication as to where one is, regardless of the form the evidence might take. When I saw how much I was gaining from feedbacks given by participants in a group, I realized that my own feedback was just as meaningful to that of other people, not because it was specially “good,” but because it would allow them to widen their understanding of a situation, exactly as my listening to them had allowed me to widen my own. When it came to using feedback techniques as a teacher, I had a number of problems. First, I felt shy about asking people how they felt. Why would they tell me? And a number of times I knew that I did not really care to listen. But after awhile it became pretty obvious that unless they told me something about what they just went through, I would never know how to adjust my teaching to their needs. So I asked for evidence more consistently and more systematically. But then I encountered two new problems: 1

more often than not, people were not very articulate, and I had to refrain from putting words in their mouths, and try instead to read between the lines and be more sensitive,

2 people could articulate their thoughts and feelings, and provided evidence showing where they were, but I did not know how to take it into account immediately and to translate it into teaching techniques or specific exercises that would meet the need or requirement they had just expressed. 23

On Feedback

The real challenge for me lies in this: 1

to be so alert that I receive constant feedback from students, whether in words or otherwise, solicited or unsolicited,

2 to be technically so skilled and versatile that I can be sure to find at every moment a solution to the problem that the feedback indicates to exist. Beyond all the prejudices, the hang-ups, that had to be cleared out of the way, I can see how the thorough and serious study of this double challenge — a study, all-encompassing and pinpointed at the same time — can contribute to the laying of foundations for a true science of education. Clermonde Dominice


Chapter 6

We include this feedback as an example of (personal growth) how a student may relate to a learning situation. This feedback was sent by one of the participants in a six session series on Evolution and Memory led by Dr. Gattegno from October 1977 to March 1978 and using his book with the same title as background reading. When I was 13, I ran from my home to the grass fields across the way and I embraced the wind that swept around my body. I smelled the grass and earth as I laid flat with my back against the cool, somewhat damp grass whose clusters of blades helped to soften the hard ground as my body laid there. I have printed, in my memory, forever, my wonderment of the blades of grass and the floating clouds above me. I knew then that there were wonders of the world out of my home and within reach of my vision. I knew then that my world must include the “whole” world in order to include the whole of me. Perhaps if my home was one of Joy, these opportunities that presented themselves out of my home would have passed me by. Perhaps Joy within the home with its embracing arms around me would have kept me from determining the whole world as my Lover. I don’t know. I know I refused to stress the sadness of my parents’ way of life. I also know that running away was not enough. Running into nature nurtured me and spoke to me of what was welcomed by me as much more to life’s existence than the small world of a family. (Visually the whole of the Universe gave me a picture of hope rather than despair.)


On Feedback

Why is it appropriate to share this childhood memory in my feedback on the evolution seminars? It belongs because I recognized then at 13 that the study of the whole world was joyful for me. My ignorance, complexities and the undisciplined ways of me — more often than not — have taken me away from my involvement with studying the Universe and my place in it. Dr. Gattegno was the teacher who has invited me back to such a discipline and study. I perceived the invitation as an opportunity to be in the state of myself, as I knew myself in the grass fields across the way from my dwellings. And now that the 1977-’78 Evolution and Memory series is completed I reflect on its impact on me; I have a far better understanding of the content in the world I travel through. I am far more watchful and more aware of my limitations and the scope of the assignment I have given myself in studying and creating my evolution. I know “better” my place and the significance of “this” moment in my life’s time. Although I inevitably meet frustration and confusion on the path of my study of my evolution, the rich quality of my feelings and joy motivates me onward. In conclusion, the series has helped me to better accept that my encounters with blind alleys and healing wounds of myself and others are permanent in my attempt to evolve as a human being. Irma Goldbloom


News Items


The Mexico City ‘78 TESOL Conference

Dr. and Mrs. Gattegno went to Mexico City to represent the Silent Way. They showed to a group of about 150 interested people the Silent Way Video Series for English as a second language. Our readers know we consider this project a breakthrough in the field of language teaching. At the Conference, this presentation was a small, (though effective) part of the impact made by the Silent Way. It is true that many among the thousands who came from many parts of the world to attend the Conference had neither heard of the Silent Way nor of its author. A number of the participants left the Conference without having had any contact with either, but for many more the contact they had with the Silent Way and with Dr. Gattegno meant a lot. On the program, Dr. Gattegno was given a chance to teach two 3-hour classes of Spanish the Silent Way. Perhaps one hundred people — among them a score who served as students — were exposed to this event. Since feedback was part of the six hours, we know that the demonstrations made explicit some of the salient features of the Silent Way. The students used themselves in a very concentrated manner and achieved a satisfying yield, while being constantly interested and relaxed. The teacher uttered not a word of Spanish; the students spoke all the time and worked on the components of their flow of speech to make it more and more similar to that of natives, and this soon freed


On Feedback

them to acquire new content. At the end of the first lesson (3 hours), Spanish numeration which is not the simplest in the world, was being used with facility. During the second lesson, a topic foreign students of Spanish find often confusing was tried out. By the end of the lesson, the students were discriminatingly using the pronouns se and le. There were native Spanish speakers and teachers of Spanish observing the lessons. Some of them compared the students’ progress to what is usually obtained via other approaches in the same amount of time. Many of the observers expressed that in this case the yield seemed to them to be incredible. Some of the students, without a comparable frame of reference, considered these six hours the most important gain in their studies of language and language teaching and reported to the TESOL leadership that it was important to keep offering such demonstrations at forthcoming Conferences. The 3-hour session on the Video Series attracted many people. The participants seemed to have gained the certainty that the seemingly crazy idea of having a long video program in which the teacher is not only silent but also not seen is after all a wise one. It was apparent they would be thinking about what they saw happening in the segments sampled from the first 60-hours of the 70-hour long program and shown to them during two of the three hours. The public essentially was not jolted, but rather fascinated by the presence of the eight adults studying English all the time they appeared on the tube, and tackling matters which the majority of the seminar participants knew were far from trivial, and coming up with respectable performances. On the whole, the public responded to this exposure in a way very encouraging to those who risked so much to make this use of video a current tool of language learning and teaching. In yet another 3-hour session, led by Dr. Gattegno on “Evaluating Students’ Progress,” the participants seemed to have gained a healthy view of the various responsibilities involved in the classrooms where people are taught. In fact, the more than two hundred people present had come with the current ideas about evaluation which are exemplified in the readiness to use standardized tests as the “measure”


News Items

of what benefits students derived from their lessons. But they were also sure that the subject of truly assessing students’ progress eluded them. They were therefore ready to examine the complexity of the interactions of the components emerging from the students’ personal dimensions, the teacher’s idiosyncrasies, the way of teaching and the content of the lessons, which includes the syllabus, the special demands of the specific languages, the material selected for the lessons and the format of their presentation (books, tapes, slides, etc.). The questions raised about assessing students’ progress, of course, implied a more proper assessment of each of the other components as it hinders or enhances that progress by itself or together with others. Besides, the question raised and discussed was: “Is it the same to ‘measure’ what someone has actually achieved in one’s study as it is to measure the ‘distance’ still left to be covered to reach an a priori goal or level?” Involved in these discussions, it was possible to see how a continuous feedback approach to what the students are doing with themselves all the time can serve the cause of assessing their progress as it takes place in the actuality of working in the class, which, includes all the other factors. By using the instruments of the Silent Way, it was possible to illustrate what is meant by continuous feedback and by the teacher’s subordinating pinpointedly his or her teaching to the actual student’s learning. At the Mexico City Conference, three other occasions were given Dr. Gattegno to contribute to the needs of the conferees. At a breakfast meeting reserved to almost a score of invited students of ESL in graduate schools across the country, Dr. Gattegno put the question: “What impact upon our teaching would result from not taking anything for granted with regard to our students and our activities, while we actually grant them all they have achieved in their lives, that is relevant to the task of learning a new language?” It was a complex topic and not easily sorted out, but it was felt as capable of keeping one preoccupied with it for a long time. Short but fruitful, this small group meeting contrasted with the generally large meetings (also generally short) offered to whoever wished to come. A


On Feedback

better acquaintance between people could result from the short session, while in the larger ones anonymity prevailed, except for the speakers whose peculiarities could be seen by many. Dr. Gattegno got such an exposure in the Wednesday plenary session of the Conference. A moderator and two other panelists were to share a time slot which was to last one hour. The three panelists were brought together because they are suggesting alternatives to the current ways of teaching found in schools all over the world and because the planning committee finds them worthy of the TESOL membership’s attention. As it happened only the moderator was acquainted with the three proposals, and not too deeply either. The three panelists knew nothing or almost nothing of each other’s approach. The awkwardness of the situation gave this session features which can not be easily reported nor estimated with precision as to their consequences. To finish reporting on Dr. Gattegno’s involvement in the activities of the international conference, let us mention the Saturday afternoon three-hour course on how to reduce illiteracy in Spanish via Leo Color. This course was one of the very few in which the language used was Spanish. English could have served as well, since the audience spoke it; but the lingua franca of Mexico was used on the topic of literacy in that language. One or two local guests appreciated this fact. The session was lively and impressed the participants who found the directness and the simplicity of the approach easily assimilable by would-be literacy teachers. The low cost of literacy at the huge scale of the Hispanic world was another feature that struck the audience, preoccupied with the immensity of the challenge in a world of poverty. Anyone looking at the thick volume issued by the Conference will know that no one can give an accurate picture of the several hundred activities that made it. It was only possible to be present at a very small number of sessions and to be acquainted with a very small number of people. Many of these people hold important positions in the field and are doing significant work. This Newsletter is in no way capable of doing justice to the meaning of the gathering in Mexico City of so many contributors to the improvement of the teaching of English in the world. One thing can be added here and that is to pay tribute to the


News Items

skills required of the small number of people who managed to put this Conference together and make it run smoothly from beginning to end. 2 We are pleased to report that a beginning has been made recently in the establishment of Silent Way Video schools in which students will learn languages through the tapes made by the Silent Way Video Company. The first one started in Lyon, France a few weeks ago. We shall announce in the following issues where the next ones will be founded, since three or four are being contemplated at this moment and contracts are at various stages of completion. 3 The notes for the teachers that accompany the video tapes for Hebrew are being printed. Now we know that viewers working on their own can use these tapes to learn Hebrew to the point they make it possible. Learners have enjoyed working with them and telling friends about the existence of this opportunity. On May 1st, we shall start a class for 8 adults, two evenings a week, as an experiment on behalf of the Congregations interested in offering their memberships this kind of course. We shall report on the findings as soon as they are collected and examined. 4 Recently our staff studied a 1974 book put out by the BBC Publications to accompany one of its TV programs. “Use your head” by Tony Buzan impressed all of us as a very useful book to have met at this stage, and several of us have made use of it to produce graphic presentations of what we want to convey. Shakti Gattegno’s diagram is one example and we publish it here for the benefit of our readers. Others will be found in some of our publications on specific subjects and from time to time.


On Feedback



About Caleb Gattegno Caleb Gattegno is the teacher every student dreams of; he doesn’t require his students to memorize anything, he doesn’t shout or at times even say a word, and his students learn at an accelerated rate because they are truly interested. In a world where memorization, recitation, and standardized tests are still the norm, Gattegno was truly ahead of his time. Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1911, Gattegno was a scholar of many fields. He held a doctorate of mathematics, a doctorate of arts in psychology, a master of arts in education, and a bachelor of science in physics and chemistry. He held a scientific view of education, and believed illiteracy was a problem that could be solved. He questioned the role of time and algebra in the process of learning to read, and, most importantly, questioned the role of the teacher. The focus in all subjects, he insisted, should always be placed on learning, not on teaching. He called this principle the Subordination of Teaching to Learning. Gattegno travelled around the world 10 times conducting seminars on his teaching methods, and had himself learned about 40 languages. He wrote more than 120 books during his career, and from 1971 until his death in 1988 he published the Educational Solutions newsletter five times a year. He was survived by his second wife Shakti Gattegno and his four children.


Newsletter, Vol. VII No. 4, April 1978