For years in education, when talking about what matters in classrooms everyone refers to the same power trio: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. But in doing so we often under-emphasize a critical fourth ingredient: feedback. Feedback merits the same level of attention as curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and here’s why.

Start with assessment. Educators regularly try to convince themselves and their students that assessments are actually for the student’s own good, but let’s face it: We all know that when we are being assessed we are being judged, and nobody likes to be judged. So we introduce terms like formative and interim and periodic, but in the end it’s all variations on cold verdicts delivered by someone passing judgment on others. But if we switch to thinking of grades not as assessments but rather as feedback on how students are doing, then we have more room to switch how we imagine what we do with those grades. Feedback implies, from the start, that this is part of a back-and-forth process. I get a grade in order to have the information fed back to me to see what I will do with it next.

Move on to instruction. Educators are admonished to differentiate their instruction, but oftentimes this seems to result in teachers only making different groupings or providing different materials. Absent the idea of feedback, such changes seem to rest on the sheer hope that the more different options you offer, the more students you will reach—a fair and reasonable hope, but not enough. Models like Response to Intervention offer a deeper insight: focus not on the different things you provide, but on the way in which you decide what to differentiate in the first place. Differentiation is a helpful result, but the hard work lies in getting and using the feedback that leads to it.

In curriculum, too, the idea of developing plans that adjust to meet student needs seems far easier to explain if we recognize that educators need to have systems in place to get feedback on how well the plans are working and then adjust in response to this feedback.

Without feedback systems in place, assessment is a cold judgment, differentiation is a shot in the dark, and curriculum planning is a one-time event. Once feedback systems are in place, the nature of each of these changes for the better: assessments as feedback are guidance instead of verdicts; differentiated instruction with feedback is responsive, not just different; curricular planning with feedback can be revised, not just rewritten. Perhaps adding a fourth item to the power trio in education isn’t so important: it’s all just words anyway. But perhaps if we name it, we can begin to put in place the systems, structures, and support to do it.