Most teachers care deeply about their subject matter. Those who do set high expectations, arguing that caring about student learning is best expressed through holding students accountable to the rigorous standards of their discipline. Many students are deeply appreciative of this experience, but not always.

Reading a recent article by Kim Scott, an executive trainer at Google, I found myself reflecting on whether something is missing in that classic description of best practices for instruction. In her article, Scott argues for “radical candor” in the workplace because that’s what gets things done. That may sound similar to the culture of high-expectations many teachers argue is necessary to prepare kids to be productive adults, but it’s not exactly the same.

Teachers often assume that the ‘real world’ is a harsh place. Yet to Scott’s call for “radical candor” she adds a second dimension: “personally caring.” She leaves exactly what “caring personally” means up to the boss who offers the feedback, and the relationship the boss and her employees are trying to build. Scott is clear, however, that feedback exists in the context of the relationship necessary to get things done. That’s potentially different from saying feedback must exist in the context of the task, or subject at hand. I have discussed the importance of putting relationships before rigor before, and Scott’s notion that feedback always exists in the context of relationships opens up new and interesting possibilities for thinking about formative assessment.

First, however, let me be clear that I’m not arguing that the teacher should act like “boss.” That’s a 20th Century industrial role that I think most educators are, rightly, trying to re-imagine.

As teachers, we give a lot of feedback—or at least we should through regular use of a wide range of formative assessments. Those teachers I described above as caring deeply about their subject give feedback primarily to help students understand whether they are mastering the teacher’s chosen discipline. Because this type of feedback is based on the teacher’s sense of the discipline rather than the student’s ability to grow, the student experience of assessment often leads to an in-group out-group feeling. You’re one of us because you get it, or you’re not. If you’re not, for most learners the relationship ends there.

Scott’s article helps us see how we could use radically candid formative feedback to keep the relationship growing. She draws her conclusions from what she learned at Google, where her boss helped her to understand that “Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do… which is being willing to piss people off.” She makes her point bluntly to hammer it home. The candor she advocates will not be received unless the person offering it demonstrates that she cares, personally, about the success of the person receiving the feedback. To make sure that happens, Scott developed the acronym HHIPP: “Radical candor is Humble, it’s Helpful, it’s Immediate, it’s in Person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t Personalize.”

How does this connect to your classroom? First, it requires knowing your learners as much as your materials. Second, it also asks us to think about the context in which we give that feedback. Why? According to Scott, “that last P” — it doesn’t personalize — “makes a key distinction.” Some forms of feedback will further a relationship, where others will harm it. To help us see how, Scott unpacks feedback into a four-quadrant map that can help us offer radically candid feedback without harming relationships with our students. Her examples come from the business world, but let’s explore what that might look like in your classroom.

Quadrant

Standardized tests, offer candid feedback. They directly challenge what many students—and their teachers—believe a student knows. Yet because scores are not immediate—often received months after a student’s learning experiences—the feedback from these tests is often experienced as “obnoxious aggression.” Tests may be objective metrics, but when the feedback they provide is delayed they do not help to develop the relationship necessary for students to accept that feedback. Indeed, they probably undermine students’ willingness to trust you as a teacher.

By contrast, a teacher—or an app—might offer a list of generic comments on an assignment from a pull-down menu. These comments may be grounded in the best practices of a discipline, but may not say anything about what it was the student was trying to communicate with the effort. When students feel his voice is not heard, your feedback comes across as impersonal, a manipulative and insincere carrot and stick set of incentives to achieve compliance. Thankfully, Daniel Pink has offered educators a lot of insights about why that approach doesn’t work.

Scott’s final harmful category of feedback is ruinous empathy, and she rightly notes it’s one of the most common in the workplace, too. When teachers sit down in one-on-one conferences and try to boost a student’s esteem and performance by focusing on a single asset just to say something nice, they aren’t providing effective feedback. Instead, this misleads learners as to the actual quality of their work precisely because it does not challenge them to improve. “Ruinous empathy” often leads accountability guardians to ridicule a relationship-based approach to teaching. Scott helps us see that the issue is not the relationship, but that the relationship is too shallow to support radical candor: the teacher does not really know the learner, only one good thing the learner has done.

These negative examples may leave you wondering: “What kind of assessments would actually lead to the relationships necessary to exchange radical candor with my students?” Let me offer two not from my own practice, but with which I’ve become familiar since reading Scott’s article.

The first comes from Conrad Ball Middle School where Nichol Wolverton and Kendra Vair scaffold their assignments in a context most Colorado learners will understand: green, blue, and black challenges. Skiers know those signs are posted to help them make safe decisions based on their abilities. Teachers at this school coach their learners, like ski instructors, with feedback that helps them understand what they need to be able to do to handle each level of a challenge safely. Students appreciate this personal care and, based on early responses, work harder to reach black diamond level work than before this system was in place.

The second comes from my wife, a college ethics professor. In her intro courses, opportunities to submit papers arise throughout the semester, but they’re not simply the traditional sequence of submissions and corrections recommended by the professor. Students who don’t demonstrate high performance on an early writing attempt can choose to improve that previous submission, try again with a similar assignment type on a slightly different topic, or attempt a different kind of writing altogether. Rather than learning to write in the professor’s voice, students develop their own voice while deepening and broadening their content knowledge. The students who leave her class not only feel they’ve mastered some philosophy, they know they have a professor they can come back to when they have new questions.

These are short examples that require dialogue and reflection, either here on this page, or in your own professional learning communities. That said, Scott’s quadrant is a powerful tool for guiding that reflection and professional development.

As I conclude, it’s time for some radical candor. If some of your students are failing to learn from your formative feedback, perhaps you need to comb through your stock of formative assessments and ask whether they develop the caring relationship necessary for your students to hear your radical candor. If they don’t, you may be committing one or more of the harms that ultimately drive students to drop out. On the other hand, if you think you have formative assessments that help you to build relationships with your students in a way that allows radical candor, tell us what you do, and why they work! We could all benefit from such a dialogue, even if it takes a while to get it right.