Responsiveness:  The Power of Feedback

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 22 (July 1998)

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With headphones, microphone and amplifier, I can feedback to your ears the sounds of your own speech, faster and clearer than they normally reach your ear by air and convection. Result: both your speaking and thinking will be clearer and faster for hours afterward.

With the same gear and a tape recorder with loop to delay feedback to your ears for 1/8 second (or with very poor acoustics in some auditorium or hall), I can so muddy your speech and thinking that you’ll go around confused for hours afterward.

Studiously ignored by six or so generations of American teachers, Maria Montessori in the 1900s demonstrated that learning comes best, easiest, strongest and most effectively when it comes as feedback from the environment as a result of one’s own activities. In the 1950s O.K. Moore – who still is based in University of Pittsburgh’s Sociology Department (1997 note:) – used only feedback from a child’s own spontaneous activity to teach 2-year-olds to read, type and write.

Summing up findings after 30 years of his intensive studies of the brain and vertebrate nervous systems, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, acknowledged father of neuroanatomy, in 1911 wrote that it was feedback through the senses from one’s own activities, especially from the activities of infancy, that most developed the cells and circuits of the brain.

The entire content of the field of study of Behavioral Psychology is in terms of effects of feedback from responses. (All reinforcement is feedback, by definition.)

The secret of success in dealings with business fellows, friends, or even your own family, is: make the other person feel good about the things you feel he is doing right.

Would you rather work in a firm where everyone ignored you and it didn’t seem to make any difference what you did – or in a firm where people noticed and responded to you, and where the things you did appeared to make a difference? In which setting would you work at your best? And what environment for learning things?

Which way would your child answer for himself, given the same sort of choice? Why, then, do you expect him to get anything from his schooling the way that such schooling is usually set up now?

The proper role of the schools is: to enrich, repair, support, reinforce learners — and then get the heck out of their way. It matters not one whit what the schools teach: it matters only what the learners learn, and all else is costly distraction. What would things be like if our schools were centered on what learners were learning?

In Your Own Home:

Is your own child growing from his strengths, or is he mainly having to fit into the spaces he is directed into by your expectations, leaving behind his special awarenesses, his initiatives, the things which catch or have caught his interest which could have most strongly motivated and empowered his development as a human being? (–And what have YOU yourself been forced to leave behind?)

The basic human nutrition is: appropriate feedback. Does your child have enough of your time and attention for you to be able to provide that?

And on the Other Foot:

Which child are you more likely to like and accommodate: that little urchin who really appears to hear what you say and seeks to respond to it, even though he usually goes his own way; or the child who is unresponsive even if apparently obedient?

Correspondingly: with your own friends, co-workers, associates: when are you likely to be more accepted, more able to “get away with more?” When you actually hear them and take their views into account, even though you often then go on and go your own way? –Or when you don’t hear what they are saying, even when you don’t step out of line?