Formative feedback for student learning — informed by philosophy?

Bizarre, perhaps, that it was research on effective feedback to students that led me to the work of Richard Rorty, philosopher who died last Friday. He introduced the term ‘final vocabulary:

These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes

(from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, CUP, 1989).

For learning and teaching, this matters because using final vocabulary in feedback tends to close down discussion or reflection on the part of the student (or so the theory goes).

In any case, telling a student that their work is ‘good’ or ‘poor’ does little, on its own, to help them learn — explaining how and why, or pointing towards this, offers much more. I suspect that final vocabulary is prevalent in a great deal of feedback to students (including my own) — at some level it’s ‘natural’. But it’s worth keeping an eye on, if one takes Rorty, David Boud and others seriously.

The Telegraph obituary puts Rorty’s influence down to clarity — an essential in journalism, of course:

One of the reasons for Rorty’s popularity, and the esteem in which he was held, was his lucidity as a writer; even in technical works for an academic audience, he was at pains to spell out his analyses clearly, and not to duck their consequences. This alone made him stand out from almost all other writers and philosophers who adopted postmodernism.

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