In Think Like a Freak, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt share an analogy about the first person in history who is trying to make bread:
Imagine you’re the first human in history who’s trying to make bread — but you’re not allowed to actually bake it and see how the recipe turns out. Sure, you can adjust the ingredients and other variables all you want. But if you never get to bake and eat the finished product, how will you know what works and what doesn’t? Should the ratio of flour to water be 3:1 or 2:1? What happens if you add salt or oil or yeast — or maybe animal dung? Should the dough be left to sit before baking—and if so, for how long, and under what conditions? How long will it need to bake? Covered or uncovered? How hot should the fire be? Even with good feedback, it can take a while to learn. (Just imagine how bad some of that early bread was!) But without it, you don’t stand a chance; you’ll go on making the same mistakes forever. Thankfully, our ancestors did figure out how to bake bread, and since then we’ve learned to do all sorts of things: build a house, drive a car, write computer code, even figure out the kind of economic and social policies that voters like.
From this analogy we can derive that feedback or a “feedback loop” is vital in the majority of learning contexts.
Feedback and the loop
Feedback is be the information given to you by someone else assessing your performance, understanding or assumptions. The “feedback loop” is a way of repeatedly testing your performance, understanding and assumptions to see whether or not they hold true (i.e., by receiving feedback on them). Without feedback and the feedback loop, learning anything would be near impossible!
Working without feedback
Working without feedback is similar to setting out an important journey minus a map or signposts. You may have a great sense of direction, but this may not be sufficient to keep you on track. When people receive little feedback they tend to either be overly self-critical or self-congratulatory. This is because they are relying upon events to happen rather than specific feedback on their efforts to measure their performance and impact thus far.
Create feedback loops
K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the popular 10 000-hour rule of thumb, said:
You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.
This means that you won’t necessarily improve a skill by blindly spending time training or practising that skill. To improve it you need to be able to analyse your workout, technique, performance or routine, and then adjust it to become better. Essentially, this is what coaches and teachers specialise at doing. The most effective coaches and teachers provide you with an objective analysis of your current performance, and then provide a continuous feedback loop that keeps you tweaking and focusing the execution of the particular activity that you want to improve in.
What is the feedback loop in the skill you are currently learning? Create one if you do not already have one. Feedback plays an important role in learning. Without feedback, we’d still be eating terrible bread!