A New — and Old — Form of Feedback: The Don Rag
At Make School we use an innovative (and ancient) form of feedback — the Don Rag.
My palms were sweating. I pushed open the door to the conference room and sat down. In the room sat four of my instructors. They were alternatively writing notes and leaning back in their chairs, sipping their waters. Mr. Davis turned towards me, smiled, and said “Welcome Mr. Braus, we’re going to talk about you for the next ten to fifteen minutes and then invite you to join in the conversation after. Feel free to take notes while we talk.” What then commenced is one of the strangest, and one of the best experiences in my entire educational: my first Don Rag.
The Don Rag goes like this: reviewers sit around and discuss a reviewee’s performance for 10–15 minutes. The reviewee listens in like a wall flower. The instructors talk about the student in the third person. It is kind of like Ebenezer Scrooge hearing the Marley Brothers or is neighbors talk about him in private.
Upon first hearing about the Don Rag structure, people generally get a bit of the willies. “That’s weird!” people exclaim. And their right. It is a bit weird. But is it a good way to give feedback? Is it better than a standard performance review or feedback session? In some ways, it is better.
Most performance reviews or feedback sessions the reviewer or reviewers talk to you directly. You have a conversation. Although this is a noble goal, sometimes a conversation can actually hurt the goal of a reviewee listening to and reflecting on feedback. A reviewee naturally wants to respond to positive or negative comments in some way whether by defending, explaining, prevaricating, self deprecating, or something else. People get in the way of hearing praise and criticism objectively and they do not get a chance to take a beat to reflect on how others perceive their performance.
Don Rags turn that on its head. You aren’t allowed to respond. You just have to sit there, and let the feedback sink in. It doesn’t mean it is all correct, but it does mean that this is how your performance was perceived. Two questions naturally arise for the reviewee: How can I improve? Why was my performance perceived this way?
Don Rags are structured to be safe. Safe enough that the ego defenses that we all naturally have up to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows of the world come down. Because it is safe and because you literally are not allowed to talk until invited to do so, people have time to mull over what is said, process it and reflect on it.
You can’t just sit down and do a Don Rag without training, so don’t read this and say “we’re going start Don Rags tomorrow”. A reviewer in a Don Rag has to be kind and thoughtful about their feedback. And positive or negative feedback aught to be couched in growth mindset language. Moreover, a Don Rag is a chance to put someone’s performance in the largest possible context, such as their life, their inherent value, and their future.
Don Rag Origin Story
The Don Rag originated at Oxford University in England where the Dons (heads of departments) would rag (as in “criticize”) students. The weird name stuck! Make School learned about Don Rags from St. John’s College, a school that has specializes in teaching their Great Books Program since 1927.
But if you look deeper these two college are closer than you’d think. Make School is from its very beginning a disruptive novel response to the standard college experience. 2 years long, project-based learning software engineering program, with a strict focus on 21st century, job-ready skills. St. John’s College with its mandatory Ancient Greek and Gregorian Chant courses might seem a bit stodgier in comparison. However, the general skills taught at St. John’s College like critical thinking, writing, and discussion made it so in 2017 Quartz called St. John’s College “The most forward-thinking, future-proof college in America.” So maybe not so surprising if Make School borrows the Don Rag from this ivory tower institution. And maybe even improves on it.
Whereas St. John’s uses the Don Rag out of tradition, Make School chooses the Don Rag intentionally because it works. Tech companies and corporations are addicted to feedback, largely thanks to Harvard professor Douglas Stone’s 2014 book Thanks For the Feedback that draws on current research suggesting that feedback is the critical (often forgotten) step to improving the performance of employees and teams. As Make School designed its curriculum, feedback was central. However, instead of letter grades or little notes with smiley faces at the ends of papers, Make School was looking for a way to provide more direct and meaningful feedback to students. The Don Rag was so radical and so rich and reflective that it stuck. We will be sitting down to our next round of Don Rags starting tomorrow.
Please share this article if you think Don Rags are cool. Thanks!