How to Get Better Feedback

Question: Who is the fastest learner in the world?

That is, if there was a magical machine that could accurately measure the learning speed of every person on the planet — every writer, musician, math student, chess player, artist, and athlete — who would come out on top?

My answer: a kid learning to skateboard.

You’ve seen it happen: you hand a kid a skateboard, they start messing around, and before you know it — without any coaches, instruction books, or classrooms — they are crazily, stupidly, mythically skilled.

The question is, why?

The answer is feedback.

Skateboarders learn incredibly quickly because they receive a rich, continuous, useful stream of high-quality feedback. Every action creates an immediate and crystal-clear consequence. Mistakes can be detected; patterns intuited, brain circuitry swiftly built.

(Picture the brain of a kid balanced on a skateboard: glowing with engagement; blueprinted with models, keenly attuned to the edge — their brain is a neon-lit Las Vegas of high-quality feedback signals. Now picture the brain of a corporate employee listening to a lecture in a training session. See what I mean?)

It’s useful to judge feedback like you would judge the quality of a GPS mapping app on your phone: the best ones are real-time, detailed, and crystal-clear. The problem is that most of the time — especially at work and in school — the feedback we get isn’t timely or clear. So we tend to wander, and get lost.

In other words, the feedback question is really a design question: in a world that can be vague and mushy, how do you tighten the loop, and deliver the right signal in a timely way?

Karen May, vice president for people development at Google, has invented a method she calls “speedback.” It works like this: partway through a training session she will tell everyone to pair off and sit knee to knee, and give them three minutes to answer one simple question: “What advice would you give me based on the experience you’ve had with me here?” Participants say that it’s some of the best feedback they’ve ever gotten.

Compressing space works well too. Since I wrote about the effectiveness of Brazli’s futbol de salao (football in the room) for teaching soccer skills, I’ve come across numerous examples of coaches shrinking space to increase reps and improve feedback, from hockey to swimming to baseball to factory assembly lines.

You can also compress information: many good teachers have developed the technique of interleaving their lectures with a short quizzes, given not for grades but to help students and teacher determine where their skill levels are at.

In every case, the same rule applies: the more timely, vivid, accurate feedback you get, the more skill you can build.  And if you have any examples of useful methods you use to boost feedback, I’d love to hear them.