Feedback, according to business consultant Ken Blancard, is the breakfast of champions. Blancard gives it this distinction because it is the ingredient that can help individuals take incremental steps of improvement. Feedback is how we learn and grow. And while we know it matters, having the power to transform performance, crafting effective feedback is difficult. 

For school leaders it is especially difficult because teaching is a complicated endeavor. There are a lot of things happening in a classroom and a school at any given moment. Helping teachers learn and grow so their students can requires an understanding of the connectedness and complexity inherent in schools. The metaphor of a  garden helps describe this phenomenon. Feedback can’t exist in a vacuum. Fertilizing plants that don’t get enough sun or are planted in the wrong soil won’t help with growth. Feedback to teachers works in the same manner, optimal conditions are needed for it to be effective. 

Feedback is the information that we receive that helps shape our next response (Nottingham & Nottingham, 2017). For this to happen feedback needs to be timely, specific, understandable to the learner, and actionable (Wiggins,1998). Creating the conditions for this type of feedback requires an examination of the mechanism or tool that leaders use. Knowing when a power tiller is more effective than a hoe depends on the task, master gardeners understand this and distinguish when each tool is needed. School leaders must be as discerning especially when it comes to feedback. 

Figuring out which tool to use begins with purpose. While both a shovel and a trowel are useful tools, one will be more effective than the other based on the task at hand. If the purpose of giving teachers feedback is to help promote reflection and improve practice (which I would argue should be the predominant reason) then the feedback has to be descriptive or qualitative. If the purpose is to discern which practices a teacher is using then feedback can be more quantitative in nature. Because the purpose is different, different tools are needed. Two specific tools assist  in this work– look fors and checklists.  

Look Fors. Collaboratively developed look fors serve as the tool for crafting qualitative feedback. Look fors clearly state in observable terms what the teaching practice,  process, behavior, or strategy look and sound like when being implemented. Look fors act as a magnifying glass, allowing the teacher and leader to focus on specific well-defined practices. Look fors are collaboratively developed by all staff in order to create shared meaning and understanding. Look fors are complete statements that avoid educational jargon and describe what the practice looks and sounds like. 

When feedback is crafted using look fors it provides a descriptive analysis of the situation, materials, or student work outcomes. The descriptive nature of look fors helps promote self-awareness, serving as that voice in a person’s head that has them constantly thinking and reflecting on how to advance or change performance. It’s easier to act on feedback that invites dialogue and reflection. 

Look fors help a leader to move away from generic feedback such as, “good levels of engagement” and towards feedback that provide more actionable information. Consider the school that is working on setting high expectations and increasing academic rigor. The look fors developed might include the following:

  • Students are able to state the learning objective and provide examples of success criteria 
  • Teachers frequently ask students to explain their thinking.
  • Teachers use higher order questions that require thinking.
  •  Open-ended tasks /investigations are used that allow students to apply their thinking.

Armed with this look for feedback can sound like, “You asked several higher order questions during your focus lesson that had your students engaged and responding in thoughtful ways. How can you continue to pose those types of questions  during collaborative and independent work so students are always able to explain their thinking? “  This level of specificity invites thinking, reflection, and action. 

Checklists. Checklists are a common quantitative tool used to provide feedback to teachers.  This tool focuses on whether or not a practice, strategy, or technique is present during an observation and to what extent. Checklists are useful for quantifying practices such as identifying who teachers are calling on to answer questions or how often they ask open-ended questions. 

One of  the limits of using checklists for feedback is that it is difficult to take into account quality. Keeping a tally of things can get in the way of discerning impact. Even if a practice is in place, it doesn’t guarantee that it is making a difference in student learning. A teacher can ask several open-ended questions, but if students can’t answer them or the teacher moves on without clarifying student misconceptions the practice falls short. 

Checklists can serve as a good jumping off point to identify areas where a teacher might want to identify a goal or focus area. Checklist data can also be useful as  part of a summative discussion, when coupled with descriptive feedback, this can provide a good idea of how prevalent practices are and if they are making a difference.

Which Tool When…. The best way to determine which tool to use is based on the task at hand. Consider the following. 

Use look fors when the goal is to: Use checklists when the goal is to:
  • Provide frequent actionable feedback
  • Spark discussion about a teaching practice observed 
  • Define/ refine teaching practices
  • Provide ongoing support to teachers
  • Determine which areas of a teaching practice/ routine are in place and which are missing 
  • Identify implementation levels of an instructional practice at either the schoolwide or classroom level
  • Figure out next steps based on implementation levels

Anyone who has ever tried DIY projects knows, no one tool is adequate to get the job done. The same is true when it comes to providing effective feedback. A heavy reliance on checklists can help determine current practice, but falls short of providing specificity on how to move forward. Look fors provide this level of specificity. Using look fors to provide ongoing formative feedback coupled with intermittent use of checklists can provide needed summative information.  This combination of feedback helps all teachers and students in a school grow.

Tools help and assist us so that our labor produces the desired result. Feedback can be the fertilizer for teacher growth, but requires the right tools for maximum impact. The next time you craft feedback, consider your tools, use them wisely and then watch the garden of learning grow. 


Nottingham, J. & Nottingham, J.(2017). Challenging learning through feedback: How  to get the type, tone, and  quality of  feedback right every time. Corwin.

Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance.  Jossey-Bass.