Closed loop classrooms – Tom’s Restaurant vs. Scotty’s Diner

Closed loop classrooms – Tom’s Restaurant vs. Scotty’s Diner

A couple of questions have been tormenting me for a few weeks now, regarding teachers and leaders for whom things on the surface seem to be going well. We all know that there are teachers out there who seem to make things look easy. Their classes always look productive, well organised and enjoyable. The most obvious feedback indicators are all positive. So how does a teacher get feedback when their classes seem to be going well? Perhaps a more telling question for some teachers is; why they would seek extra feedback, when for all intents and purposes things seem to be great?

Don’t get me wrong here. There are many professional teachers who are always seeking to improve, and relentlessly evaluate their impact and pursue feedback for improvement. However there are also those who don’t, because they can point to clear obvious indicators that their classes are going well. Why risk exposing weaknesses or areas for improvement if they don’t have to? I guess the question really distils down to this; how do teachers actively evaluate their impact when all of the feedback they are getting seems to be positive?

I got thinking about this idea whilst recently visiting New York with my wife. We love New York style diners, especially Scotty’s Diner on Lexington and West 39th street. We’ve frequented there on previous trips as the super quick service, friendly owners and staff makes it one of our favourite places to eat. The amazing Belgian waffles don’t hurt either. This trip however we decided to head uptown and find Tom’s Restaurant, the iconic diner used for the exterior set of Monk’s – the diner from Seinfeld. To all intents and purposes, a very similar establishment to Scotty’s and other diners we had eaten at. What we found inside however was starkly different to Scotty’s. Staff who were more interested in joking with each other than serving us, meant long delays in ordering at each stage of our meal (not great for a short order restaurant). Scoldingly hot burnt coffee was followed by tasteless dry food. It was everything a restaurant shouldn’t be.

And yet, the place was packed. At 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon they were packed to the brim with customers. They were doing an absolutely roaring trade. A quick scan of some food review websites showed that this was generally the case. A combination of factors including the fact that the restaurant was world famous, but also in a part of town with relatively few food options meant that they were always busy and the financial bottom line was more than healthy. Due to this healthy bottom line, they had no incentive to seek feedback on their performance. There was no need to check on food or service quality, revamp the menu or hire more attentive staff.

Tom’s Restaurant is operating in what author Matthew Syed would call a closed loop. In his great new book “Black Box Thinking – Why most people never learn from their mistakes but some do” Syed describes the types of systems that embrace failure as an essential tool for learning and improvement (such as the airline industry) and those that shun, ignore or gloss over failure and don’t learn (healthcare industry). Syed describes a closed loop as a system where “failure doesn’t lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored” and an open loop system “lead[s] to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon.”  Tom’s Restaurant had no need to search for failure in their business, as the bottom line was great.

The link to classrooms and school leadership is clear. There are many classrooms which operate in a closed loop. Due to surface level indicators like behaviour, work submission and grades all being good, there is no incentive for the teacher to seek feedback. Similarly, school leaders may walk past such a classroom and put it out of their mind – thinking everything is going well – and move onto the class with behaviour problems down the hall. The ‘good’ class may never be interrogated for adding value or stretching students beyond their comfort zone. Syed discusses the need to actively seek independent feedback, because quite often “from a first person perspective, [the problem] didn’t exist. That is one of the ways that closed loops perpetuate: when people don’t interrogate errors, they sometimes don’t even know they have made one”.

This links in with an idea from the Heath brothers. In their book “Decisive” the Heath brothers show how one of the key aspects in great decision making is the seeking of contrary evidence – or disconfirming information. Teachers need to be making great decisions every day. To make better teaching and learning decisions, teachers should always be asking themselves disconfirming questions: ‘How do I know the students actually mastered this?’, ‘What if there’s a better way to teach this?’, ‘How can I assess this in a more formative manner?” Seeking contrary evidence through gaining multiple forms of feedback is essential for all teachers – especially the ones doing well.

Unless a teacher is actively and regularly seeking feedback, they are operating in a closed loop classroom. So what can teachers do to move from a closed loop classroom to an open loop classroom, where genuine feedback and learning is an ongoing process? There are many ways to do this, but a few quickly jump to mind. Data: teachers can mine the learning data from their classrooms and look for patterns, strengths and areas of weakness. If they don’t have enough data, they can get more, by finding ways to complete more diagnostic and formative assessments. Clinical observations and coaching: these two methods are powerful ways to get another set of eyes in the classroom to show teachers another perspective on what is actually happening. Surveys: completing regular and comprehensive surveys with classes that are mapped against teacher standards and effective teacher practice models should now be common practice in schools. They are powerful reflective tools. Collaborative practices and protocols: the use of protocols with colleagues to interrogate student work, assessment tasks, rubrics etc. are powerful. These work great in Professional Learning Team environments due to their collaborative and non-judgmental focus.

At its heart, having an open loop approach to classroom teaching comes back to Prof Hattie’s mantra of ‘Know thy impact’. If you only suspect thy impact, or feel good about it, it’s simply not enough.

As for Scotty’s, I can heartily recommend the Belgian waffles. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s a great New York experience and the people that run the place are fabulous. As for Tom’s, I’m genuinely hoping the manager gets on Yelp, sees the 2 and a half star rating and decides to join an open loop.


Quotes from – Black Box Thinking – Why most people never learn from their mistakes – but some do, by Matthew Syed. Published by Portfolio/Penguin 2015.

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