Social integration: a topic close to the hearts of all teachers
Christian Huber from the Institute for Educational Research at Bergische Universität is investigating the effect and influence of teacher feedback on students in a project
End of lesson, return of a class assignment. Praise for the good, reprimand for the bad. Who doesn't know this situation from their everyday school life? If you are one of the bad ones, an additional negative teacher comment can put the icing on the cake of an already frustrating day.
Teachers often underestimatewhat they can do with negative feedback," says Prof. Dr. Christian Huber, head of the SIGNAL project (Social Integration in Schools through Teacher Feedback) at the Institute for Educational Research at Bergische Universität. For ten years, the scientist has been studying the effects of teacher feedback on students. The importance attached to this topic is based on the fact that children and adolescents orient themselves to their teachers, among others, when choosing their social contacts. "This is nothing new at all," Huber says, "because we all do it! Adults do it, teenagers do it, and kids do it. It's a basic social psychological principle, first of all, that people orient themselves to signals in their environment." When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, Huber explains, you think about what is appropriate or what is not so appropriate, what may or may not constitute proper behavior in the situation. "What's new, though, is that we've transformed that very idea into the realm of school, that is, that children are also guided by such expressions when choosing your interaction partners." The topic of social hierarchies, social integration, or social exclusions on the one hand, receives additional consideration with this new aspect.
Teacher feedback moves into the focus of consideration
In a project study, teachers and their feedback are therefore also moving into the focus of research. The fact is that children with special needs are often socially excluded by classmates in the common classroom, and among the factors that can contribute to this is teacher feedback. Through many presentations Huber regularly gives to professional audiences, he knows that teachers* often underestimate what they can do with negative feedback. "But this is also a relatively new finding," he says, because "we've been researching this in Germany for maybe six to eight years." In the meantime, he says, this aspect has been integrated into teacher training in Wuppertal, and students are now learning how to influence social integration. A lot has happened in the last ten years and it has been recognized that teachers also have factors that can influence integration in a positive way. "Today, social integration is considered to be much more influenceable than it was ten years ago, among other things via teacher feedback. We have emphasized this very strongly in Wuppertal in recent years and this is now also fully incorporated into teacher training."
Criticism is necessary
The project entitled "SIGNAL Study," which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), focuses its attention primarily on public feedback, which, unlike four-eye criticism, can significantly influence the integration process. "Of course, negative feedback is also part of classroom management," Huber explains, "it's part of a normal teacher's job, and we have to criticize people sometimes. But the crucial variable there is publicity. In principle, I can be socially integrative with public feedback, that is, feedback that I give in front of the whole class, that all the children notice." As a result, she said, a teacher must always weigh how to make a justified negative criticism that she wants to give to a child. "I can do it in private, in a situation where the other kids won't overhear, or I can give it over the whole class. I can also yell it into the classroom and then we have a completely different starting point. I.e., we have to distinguish at this point, not whether I give negative feedback, but how I give it."
The way in which criticism is communicated is also a crucial point that can have a major impact on integration, he said, because it makes a difference, of course, whether negative feedback is phrased neutrally and signals to the child that one does not agree with his or her behavior or performance, or whether that criticism is phrased in a judgmental or even condescending manner. "That, as we also found in this study, has a much greater negative impact on social integration." Huber talks about paraverbal communication in this context: "So do I sound aggressive, do I sound matter-of-fact or do I sound friendly, that makes a big difference. It's difficult, because even a mood can be good one day and bad the next. But we always have to assume that teachers are professionals and have a professional standard. From that, we always have a good chance of influencing the social integration of children with special needs in particular in a positive way."
Animated films with situations from everyday school life
The study proceeded as follows. The basic idea of the experiment was that the test subjects, third and fourth grade students, observed the everyday school life of a virtual school child named Kim in an animated video. Divided into four lessons, it varied school performance and associated teacher feedback. "These are everyday classroom situations that we recreated there. One situation where teacher feedback is common is reading, for example. A child reads well, not so well, or poorly, and there's often a lot of teacher feedback," Huber explains. "A class assignment is returned or the child is focused or not focused in class. Those are other examples that we reenacted there. There was off-camera, varied teacher feedback on those situations." The animated form for this, as opposed to acting it out with real actors*, offered the advantage of a higher degree of standardization as well as the ability to make any revisions later.
Effects of praise and blame
"Negative feedback particularly affects social rejection, i.e., children do not want to sit next to other children, have them as play partners, or spend time with them at recess if they are frequently criticized by the teacher." In contrast, positive feedback has a strong influence on social choice decisions, he said. This is then reflected in the fact that the positively rated children are chosen for social interactions, as playmates or seatmates, for example, and thus the likelihood of integration is many times higher. The study was able to prove that negative teacher feedback can be causally responsible for a child's choice or non-choice decision. "Children are very strongly influenced by these social referents, by teacher feedback," the researcher says. Achievement also has a very strong influence on social popularity, he adds. The idea that children who are seen as nerds are less popular is simply because "classic nerd behavior, as we ourselves may still know from school, also often comes across as socially awkward and these children show little sensitivity in dealing with their good performance," Huber says, but "a child who performs well but is rather inconspicuous in social behavior is still very popular." The researcher laments that Germany is still one of the few countries where achievement very much influences social integration, saying, "The good ones are very popular, the bad ones are not so popular. That's more decoupled in other countries. We're doing a lot of research on that so we can get that decoupled."
Implementation in teaching
The implementation of these findings is already being realized in teaching. "We are raising awareness among teachers in training sessions and in continuing education courses precisely for this purpose," Huber tells us. "But we are also now preparing the second part of this study. These are two further DFG studies where we have designed a teacher training based on our findings that will subsequently enable teachers to consciously influence social integration processes through their feedback behavior." Huber is aware of the stress limits of teachers, who often do not know what they still have to consider and implement in everyday school life due to requirements from the ministry. "I've done a lot of in-service training on other areas where I've had that exact perception," the education researcher says. "It's all on the top and it's all way too much." However, the topic of social inclusion and the role of teacher feedback is something he feels is near and dear to the hearts of a great many teachers. "They are curiously interested. It's a topic that touches everyone: Social exclusion. All the teachers I know care very much that no child in their classes is socially excluded." What's more, he said, every teacher can start with themselves and simply change the way they report back a class assignment, for example. "That's already a small contribution to my giving less performance feedback or negative performance feedback," Huber sums up, "and the nice thing is, it actually costs very little on a day-to-day basis."
Uwe Blass (interview from February 9, 2022)
Prof. Dr. Christian Huber is head of the teaching and research area of rehabilitation education (focus: promotion of emotional-social development) at the Institute for Educational Research in the School of Education at Bergische Universität.