Reflections on researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

I’ve landed back in Perth after a whirlwind trip to Melbourne for this year’s researchED conference. This post is an attempt to unravel the tangled threads in my head, after what was a big day of thinking, listening and talking.

On coaching: Our panel

Being on a panel with Corinne Campbell, Chris Munro and Jon Andrews was the highlight of the day for me. That included not only the panel presentation but the opportunity to be in the same place, at the same time, able to flesh out our ideas about coaching together (as well as plenty of other educational issues).

Founder of researchED, Tom Bennett, saw the four of us working together early in the day and joked that it was like four Avengers coming together in one movie. That struck a chord with me, because we are four individuals deeply committed to making a difference in our own contexts, in four different Australian cities. But we’ve come together across social media time and space to collaborate on #educoachOC, a monthly Twitter chat on coaching in education, which aims to centralise, clarify and tease out the global conversation around coaching in schools. I met Corinne and Chris for the first time at last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, the first Australian iteration. I hadn’t met Jon until yesterday, yet we’ve been collaborating for months, and talking about practice, writing, leadership and coaching.

So getting together with my fellow Avengers was like landing in my nerd heartland for a day. We are, however, less about avenging and more about advocating for supporting teachers and trusting in their capacities for improvement. Coaching was revealed in the panel discussion as an enhancement and growth process, not a deficit model for fixing underperformers.

Our panel seemed well-received, and I learned from my fellow panellists as we covered what we mean by coaching, why each of our schools adopted coaching, what it looks like in each school, the impacts we’ve noticed, and the broader implications for coaching in schools. We explored issues of trust, implementation and mandation. We considered the conference theme: how coaching might fit with ‘working out what works’. On the one hand coaching does not prescribe ‘what works’ to coachees, and yet coaching has been shown to work. It is a researched but contested approach to learning and growth, with coaching models varying in intent and execution. Coaching is about practitioners being given the time and space to work out what works, for them, in their contexts.

On research ethics: My presentation

My individual presentation was on a topic I later described on Twitter as the unsexy undergarments of research: ethics. Necessary and crucial, but often viewed as unexciting. I looked at ethical considerations and decision making, for teachers researching their own schools, using my PhD study as an example.

I shared this quote from Helen Kara’s book Creative research methods in the social sciences:

Ethics should underpin every single step of research, from the first germ of an idea to the last act after dissemination. And ethical problems require ethical decision-making – which allows for creativity.

Here, Helen reminds researchers that ethics is creative problem solving. It does have to be well-considered, systematic, respectful and just (see the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research), but it doesn’t need to be tedious.

I outlined the ethical challenges in my PhD, and the ways in which I grappled with those and made decisions. My operationalising of ethical solutions included writing information letters and consent forms; using an independent interviewer to interview teacher participants (and a rigorous approach to protecting teacher identities); designing deliberate interview protocols; drawing data together into composite stories; and utilising metaphor to protect participants while making interpretive meaning.

I discussed the benefits and limitations to being a researcher embedded in one’s own context. Below are the implications and questions I ended with.

Evidence-based practice in education

Among other presentations, I saw two on using evidence and research in schools, one by Gary Jones and another by Ray Swann. What I enjoyed about both approaches to evidence-based and research-informed practice in schools, is that they promoted valuing of not only the ‘best available evidence’, but also the wisdom of practice of teachers and school leaders. That is, they valued tacit knowledge and the expertise that comes with lived experience. They also acknowledged the value-laden and culturally-influenced nature of using evidence in schools. I think these are important layers to understanding what works in schools, and how schools can work towards finding what is shown to work in other contexts, and how they might therefore pursue what works in their own.

What I enjoy about Gary’s work is that he provides explicit frames for applying systematic approaches to evidence-based practice. He manages to make sense of the complexities of evidence-based practice, in order to communicate it with clarity, and in a way that educators can understand and apply. I recommend reading his blog and his handbook for evidence-based practice.

The researchED Avengers?

Thinking back to Tom’s analogy of the Avengers, the crowd at researchED is kind of like a room of fantastical superheroes. Here were close to 200 educators—teachers, school leaders, researchers and professors, each with their own individual gifts, talents, passions, stories and arenas of expertise—spending their Saturday dedicated to learning, connecting and talking about working out what works in education. There were some great questions from the audiences in the sessions I attended. Those that got me thinking included:

“Who decides what the ‘best available evidence’ is and how do they decide?”

“Where should coaching happen and how long should a coaching conversation be?”

“If you were start your research again, would you make the same decisions?”

There were also great comments, questions and provocations from those educators on Twitter who were engaging with the conference hashtag from afar, adding another level of richness to the online and offline conversations.

When Dylan Wiliam popped into the speakers’ dinner, it added a further layer to discussions. Here was another educator coming out to talk education on a Saturday night, after coming straight from presenting at a national conference, and before getting up the next day to present all day again. For me, it was great to be able to discuss his new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning, the use of the Danielson Framework for Teaching, and performance pay.

Tom describes researchED as built on and powered by (I’m paraphrasing and embellishing here) blood, sweat, volunteers and fairy dust. That is, those supporting this conference, around the world—including participants, presenters and schools—care deeply about education. These are people dedicated to making classrooms and schools better places for better learning.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conversation for the second year in a row. I’ve been left with plenty to think about.

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And some more reading …

You can see my reasons for attending researchED Melbourne 2016 here.

Jon Andrews has shared his reflections on Melbourne’s researchED here.

Pamela Snow has written this post about her presentation at yesterday’s researchED on justice re-investment.

Greg Ashman wrote this post about his day at researchED.

Gary Jones wrote this post reflecting on Melbourne’s researchED.

Susan Bradbeer has written this post about her experience of researchED from afar, as someone who followed the conversation on social media and the blogosphere.

Tom Bennett had some reflections after the Melbourne event, published here on the TES blog.

You can see my reflections on researchED Sydney 2015 here.

Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?

Coaches, fit your own oxygen masks! How do we support the coach’s needs?

As a coach, and leader of a team of coaches, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the needs of the coachee. Coaching is all about the coachee. The context in which coaching happens must establish and maintain trust. In my school, this means that the coaching conversation, when it happens with one of our team of trained cognitive coaches, is confidential. The details of any observed lessons or coaching conversations are not passed on outside of the coach-coachee relationship. Line managers are still expected to be aware of the teaching, development and work of their staff. Managers might pop in to lessons and conduct their own conversations, but the person’s coach is not a place for others to glean information. We have been very deliberate about protecting the sanctity of the coach-coachee relationship as, without trust, the conversation is no longer a safeguarded space for formalised reflection. It would become tainted with hints of evaluation, accountability and fear that could hinder honesty and prevent vulnerability.

A coach uses their coaching toolbox of strategies and awarenesses to minister to the coachee. To reflect, facilitate, provoke and deepen the coachee’s thinking, by paraphrasing and asking questions, while applying a nuanced understanding of non-verbal language and of cognition. When coaches reflect, they do so to develop their craft in order to better help others to build internal capacity, to better create a non-judgmental space for coachees to freely explore their thoughts and experiences, to paraphrase with more precision or question with more sophistication, to more deeply internalize the many layers of coaching knowledge and practice.

But recently I’ve been wondering about the needs of the coach. I’ve been a coach in some coaching conversations which have been emotional or confronting for the coachee. I’ve found myself affected by the emotion of the conversation, deeply immersed as I am in rapport with that person. I have left these conversations wanting to debrief, but aware of the moral obligation to maintain confidentiality for my coachee. When confidentiality is promised to the coachee, so that the conversation can be a safe space for talk, where can the coach go to reflect on their own experiences? How does a coach refine their practice if they are unable to share their experience of the conversation?

Coaches require somewhere for the coach to go in order to refine their coaching practice through reflection and planning, and as a tool for self-care. Fit your own oxygen mask before helping others, and all that. What support do coaches need? Who coaches the coaches? Where and how might they access support in ways which are mindful of the trust put in the coach to be trusted fortress of coachee information? What responsibility do organisations have in providing support structures for their coaches?

I’m lucky to work with a team of coaches at my school. We have all been trained in Cognitive Coaching, in non-inferential lesson observations and in using the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for teacher reflection. In our meetings and in our Voxer group, we are able to debrief with each other to some extent, or to throw out questions to the collective mind when we come up against coaching challenges. We never use coachees’ names in these discussions or divulge identifiable information, so we tend to talk cautiously around issues or questions we have. For example: How might we differentiate our coaching model for highly-reflective or highly experienced teachers? What questions might be useful for surfacing deeper or more abstract thinking? How might we respond in a coaching conversation which becomes highly emotional for the coachee? We might have textbook answers from our training, but talking about and around these sorts of questions helps us to tease out our beliefs about coaching, our coaching practices and the tensions within our specific context. It helps to develop our shared understandings and language of coaching, as a collaborative group of coaches.

Ideally, a coach would be provided the opportunity to be coached on their coaching. In my coaching team we sometimes participant in meta-coaching (coaching about coaching) with each other. While we don’t ask our coachees to permit us to collect data during conversations, we can do this when we coach each other. A video or audio recording, or a transcript of questions and paraphrases, can act as data on which the coach can be coached around their own practice. We tend to do this in training or within our own coach group, so as not to impact our conversations with coachees. There’s nothing more likely to shatter the sense of a trusting, safe space than setting an iPad or dictaphone on the table to record the conversation!

Of course a coach can debrief at home, to a partner or family member, which might allow an opportunity to download. But this won’t necessarily provide a high level of support in working through an issue or experience.

Another possibility is finding support from coach-educators outside one’s own school context. I’m grateful to have connected with other Australian educators who are using and leading coaching in their own schools. On Voxer, we are able to discuss the issues in our own contexts, again without divulging names or identities of others. I can ask a question of the group and receive thoughtful, informed feedback from those who share my view of coaching but have different tools and knowledge at their disposal. Sometimes a paraphrase from another coach is all I need to see my own issue more clearly. Coaches informally coaching coaches, at point of need. It’s brilliant DIY professional support. I’ve found this invaluable in allowing me to think aloud about, and be coached through, wonderings or experiences, while protecting the confidentiality of my coachees.

Learning through sharing with other coaches is one reason that a few of us—myself, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell and Jon Andrews—started the monthly Twitter chat #educoachOC. This one hour chat, which we co-moderate on the first Monday of each month, is a vehicle for bringing together those involved in coaching in education. The discussions are often rich and allow coaches, and those leading coaching initiatives in schools and systems, to explore the commonalities and differences, privileges and challenges. I emerge from that hour feeling understood and invigorated.

Being a coach (like being a principal or CEO, I imagine) can be lonely work, because the coach is required to keep what’s said in the coaching conversation, in that coaching conversation. As coaches, it’s important that we find ways to develop our practice and support our own needs, while protecting the trust of the coaching relationship. We need to support coaches, so that coaches can best address the needs of those they coach.

Using coaching in qualitative research interviews

being interviewed about my research

being interviewed about my research, in front of Sydney Harbour

In my last post, I tried to illuminate some of the internal dialogue and thinking that goes on in the coach’s mind during a coaching conversation. On Twitter, in response to that post, Avril Nicholl reminded me that being deliberate about interaction, and explicit about role, is applicable to qualitative interviewing. So in this post I’ll explain how I used my coaching toolbox when I was conducting qualitative interviews for my PhD.

My PhD experience of the qualitative interview comes from both participant and researcher perspectives. I interviewed one group of participants for my study, as interviewer and researcher. But ethical issues resulted in another group, and me, being interviewed by an independent interviewer. So I was interviewer, designer of protocols and questions for someone else to interview some participants, and an interviewed participant in my research.

Interview is a widely used way of generating data, especially when the researcher is seeking to explore feelings, relationships, beliefs, identities, and insights about people in action in their social worlds. As I discussed here, the creation of meaning is a complex interaction dependent on meaning-maker and context. Narrative researchers often agree that participant stories are not fully formed, waiting to be drawn from the person. Rather, meanings are made on the spot; shaped by the questions asked, the interview structure, the interview environment and the interviewer themselves. Interviews do not just recall knowledge; they produce it, in the moment.

Anecdotally, I experienced this myself in being interviewed for my study by the independent interviewer, who I had briefed on interviewing me and other participants. I had written the questions and the protocols, so I was surprised by the experience of being interviewed for my own study. In thinking aloud, or being probed to think further or differently, my own thinking was not only illuminated, but deepened, extended and re-shaped, even though I knew what the questions and foci beforehand.

The interviews for my PhD sat somewhere between semi-structured and un-structured, designed to elicit storytelling from participants. I wanted to, as narrative research doyenne Catherine Riessman suggests, “follow participants down their diverse trails” (in ‘Analysis of personal narratives’, 2002). I wanted interviews to be less about my agenda (although of course my study had its foci) and more about surfacing participant stories in all their messiness and humanness.

Planned questions were sparing; there were only a few. These were based on the phenomena on which the study focused. Mostly, these anchor questions started with, “Tell me about …” There were also suggestions for probing questions. The interviews were designed to be broadly consistent for each participant (in question order and focus) but the structure of the interview was flexible enough to explore tangents which emerged from each participant’s responses.

When interviewing, I was explicit about my role as researcher and interviewer, especially because I was interviewing people from within my own professional context. I used my coaching toolbox to give me a structure and approach for research interviewing. I applied an interviewer listening pattern of ‘pause, paraphrase, ask question’ (borrowed from Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching). This interview structure encouraged participant storytelling, while allowing patterns and idiosyncracies to emerge.

I was aware of leaving space in conversation for pausing and thinking, rather than jumping in when there was silence (as I mentioned in my previous post, restraint and pausing are areas of personal mindfulness for me). My coaching training on eye movement (see visual representation above for more on how to recognise eye cues) allowed me to see what sort of thinking the interviewee was doing, which helped me to wait while that thinking happened; I knew if I jumped in with another question I would be interrupting the person’s internal dialogue or their recollection of an experience. Usually the silence in the interviews didn’t last long but instead was a jumping off point for the participant to speak further; it was a space in which the interviewee was thinking and after which their story would continue.

I found that, rather than asking questions, I was attempting to distil, clarify, or abstract the person’s thinking with a well-considered paraphrase. While the focusing questions were necessary to direct responses onto the research foci, a Cognitive Coaching approach allowed me to ‘get out of the way’ of participants, following them along their own stories as they directed and developed their own responses. After the interviews I had feedback from a number of participants who said that for them the interview was useful, a great conversation, and a luxurious space in which to reflect on their own professional selves and practices. The research interview was valued by participants as an opportunity which provided the space and structure for learning and reflection.

My Cognitive Coaching training also helped to bring to my awareness, during the interviews, to the importance of trust, rapport, body language mirroring, pausing and paraphrasing. Conscious of maintaining rapport, I did not take notes, but allowed a Dictaphone to capture the audio. I watched the conversation body language in a kind of meta out-of-body looking-in-from-outside experience, and often found myself mirroring the interviewee’s body language. I was mindful of how participants used their bodies and hands to express their ideas and their relationships to things. This allowed me to pick up on the nuances of their thinking. Were they sequencing points on their fingers or in the air in a linear pattern? Were they expanding themselves and their ideas out into abstraction or magnitude, or bringing them close to their chests, showing something was dear to them? Non-verbal cues helped me to paraphrase participants’ responses.

For me, coaching and being coached has influenced the way I have conversations in all sorts of arenas. As a parent, as a partner, as a friend, as a teacher and as an interviewer. As a PhD candidate and neophyte researcher, the coach’s toolbox was helpful in developing my approach to qualitative interviews. As interviewer and coach, my PhD interview transcripts and audio provided data for reflection on my practices.

While the role and purpose of a research interviewer is different to the role and purpose of a coach, the principles and skills are transferrable: belief in the capacity of the individual, active listening, paraphrasing, asking questions which mediate thinking, and keeping oneself (coach/interviewer) out of the conversation. Both kinds of conversation – coaching and research interviewing – should be primarily about the person doing the thinking, talking, sharing, storytelling. Although the coach or interviewer of course influences the words and thoughts generated, they should aim to be almost-invisible catalyst, mirror and conduit.

The hard cognitive work of coaching and the curse of expertise

Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath. ~ Michael Caine

This week I had a chance to reflect on the work of being a coach, work which happens in the throes of a coaching conversation. I was co-presenting part of the Cognitive Coaching course to some colleagues, and as part of the course I modelled a Cognitive Coaching planning conversation in front of the group, with one of the course participants as the coachee.

In my journey to coaching, I’ve often likened the experience of coaching to being a duck, apparently gliding effortlessly across the surface of the coaching conversation pond while the legs paddle manically beneath the surface. This analogy reflects for me my intention of providing for the coachee an experience of effortless rapport. No matter what internal coach dialogue or self-critique is going on inside my head, I want the coachee to feel that I am fully present in the conversation and that the conversation is natural and fluid.

Being fully present in a coaching conversation in which I am coach is hard cognitive work. In that moment I am focusing on maintaining eye contact and watching body language. Are my body language and facial expression open? Is my brow unfurrowed? Am I mirroring the posture and gestures of the coachee? What are their non-verbal cues telling me about their thinking? How can I paraphrase what they are saying in a way that helps their thinking? Do they need me to help boil down the essence of their thinking? Do they need me to help clarify a goal? Bring coherence to a system of ideas? Shift the level of abstraction of their thinking? Challenge them to consider their problem from a different point of view? Apply a different State of Mind (in Cognitive Coaching these are Consciousness, Craftsmanship, Interdependence, Flexibility and Efficacy)?

In a coaching conversation I am also working, in my head, on asking the best questions. Are my questions succinct? Do they reflect the language of the coachee? Do they use those things which my Cognitive Coaching training tells me are best for thinking: open-ended-ness, tentative language, plural forms and positive presuppositions? How is the coachee responding to the words I’m choosing? Have I understood the coachee’s thinking?

During this week’s model coaching conversation I was reminded of Pamela Hinds’ 1999 paper ‘The Curse of Expertise: The Effects of Expertise and Debiasing Methods on Prediction of Novice Performance’ (which I have written about before in terms of doing a PhD). Hinds found that experts may have a cognitive handicap; they are unable to accurately predict the time and difficulty novices need to complete a task. Intermediate learners were more helpful for novices as they still remembered and understood the problems of the beginner.

The curse of expertise suggests that becoming an expert can ‘black box’ the understanding of being a neophyte. Experts seem to forget what it was like not to know something or be able to do something. They have often forgotten the steps, the misconceptions and the struggle to mastery from the novice perspective. I reflected on this as I thought about my performance as the coach in my model conversation. My co-presenter, a Cognitive Coaching trainer with much more expertise than me as a coach and trainer, had taken some data for me during the model conversation. This data was a record of the questions I asked and my pattern of pausing, paraphrasing and questioning. Its purpose was to give me, as the coach, some non-inferential data on which to reflect, in order that I could refine my practice.

As I reflected on my thought processes as coach in the conversation, I found plenty to improve upon. And yet I remember that a few years ago, my post-coaching-conversation reflections were around much simpler and less layered aspects of coaching. Now I am reflecting on more than the conversation maps, the precision of my questioning and paraphrasing. While I still have to focus on those things (and pausing! I have to be very mindful about not jumping in) these aspects have become somewhat automated. I am now able to be thinking also about the Five States of Mind: which State the coachee is focusing on and which I might be able to help them access. I’m able to pay attention to eye movement to tell me about what sort of thinking is happening for the coachee. I’m able to consider how to paraphrase: whether I will clarify thinking or help to shift thinking to another level.

I don’t yet feel like an expert coach but I can see that I’ve moved from novice to intermediate, where some of the basic elements of being a coach in a coaching conversation have been internalised, allowing me to layer nuances of my practice and coach with a more craftspersonlike approach.

Sometimes now it seems my little duck legs are moving in slow motion; I have more control and less mania in my mind while I am coaching. I’m learning that as my skills develop, I stay buoyant more (but not totally!) effortlessly. It’s hard cognitive work, but work which has powerful outcomes for coachee and for the coach themselves. And the liberating thing about the work of coaching, I think, is that the hard work happens in the conversation. It’s in the conversation that the coach needs to be present, focused, and paddling like the dickens. Afterwards — when the coachee’s thinking has been sparked, pushed, pulled, surfaced and mediated through coaching conversation — the coach can reflect on their own practice, but is liberated from taking on the coachee’s thinking, solution finding or working through of problems.

My PhD found that becoming a coach can be a constant state. Just as our identities are in a constant state of becoming (we never arrive but are always being formed and reformed and transformed), coaching can become a way of being and a continual process of growth, self-development and identity work.

The power of data for learning and growth

My school’s coaching model for teacher growth uses lesson data as the ‘third point’ in coaching conversations and as a non-judgemental tool for reflection, self-direction and empowered development of teachers’ classroom practices. I was reminded this week of the power of data, of video in particular, for learning, growth and reflection on practice. This reminder came while I was at the skate park with my children. Bear with me as I explain.

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my little guy on the quad bike: confident, focused, wind in his shirt

my little guy on the quad bike: fearless, focused, wind in his shirt

My youngest son is pushing towards 4 and his brother is a year and a half older. In the last week, the youngest has begun to ride his pedal bike, which doesn’t have stabilisers, or ‘training wheels’. Watching my boys each approach this learning challenge has reminded me of the differences in learners. My eldest basically taught himself to ride. I turned my back to attend to his brother, and when I looked back, there he was, doing it without any need for assistance or encouragement. He wasn’t deterred by falling over. He desperately wanted to master the skill and could taste the freedom that the wheels offered.

My youngest, in contrast, is easily discouraged. Despite being a speed demon when beach quad biking recently, falling over or falling behind can send him into desolation. Part of his frustration comes from comparing himself to his older brother who is taller, faster, stronger and more experienced (although the younger of the two was the least cautious and most confident on the quad bikes). He also doesn’t like being told to do something, so any new skill is very much on his terms. It wasn’t until our New Year camping trip when he saw friends riding their bikes at the campground that he picked one up, deciding he wanted to figure it out.

The day after we returned from being away, we went to a local skate park. My youngest wanted to take his balance bike, with which he is comfortable, but we brought just the pedal bike along. If he wanted to ride, he’d have to ride the pedal bike. (You know, embrace your discomfort zone and all that.)

He was fantastic as he rode around the skate park, over the smaller rises and along some bike paths. After a couple of hours, he began to tire and his technique began failing. I offered to carry his bike back to the car but he refused. He was torn between wanting to conquer the bike and feeling like a failure. He collapsed and stomped and cried and wailed that he couldn’t ride his bike; that he was terrible at it. Not good enough. Not fast enough.

We got back to the car, one false start at a time, and I told him that he had done a great job and I was proud of him, to no effect. When he continued to be inconsolable about his riding I tried a different approach. I said, “I took some video of you riding your bike. Would you like to see?” All of a sudden, he perked up. Yes, he did want to see.

He watched the videos of he and his brother riding that I had taken on my smart phone.

“So, what do you think about your riding?” I asked.

“Good!” he beamed.

It was only in seeing informational evidence of his performance that he was able to reflect that he could ride his bike and was actually quite good at it. Of course, there was some selection of detail on my part – I didn’t video him crying and falling over – but the raw data allowed him to reflect on his performance.

My eldest son also watched the skate park videos. He was interested in watching the much older riders, scooters and skaters, who weren’t the purpose of filming the video, but emerged in the data. He was looking for their confidence and their technique. How did they get up the steepest ramps? How did they execute their tricks? So video was useful for analysing the mastery of others who do something well.

my boys at the skate park

my boys at the skate park

*                    *                    *

This skate-park moment took me to my experiences as a cognitive coach, coaching teachers on their practice. Our school coaching model is based around non-judgemental paraphrasing and questioning, and around non-inferential lesson data. There is no critique or praise from the coach, and the data comprises of facts and information, not judgements, suggestions or critique. It is not the coach who reflects critically on the teacher’s teaching, but the teacher, with the coach guiding their cognition.

In my role as coach, it is always interesting to hear teachers’ reflections on their data, which might be scripts of classroom talk, maps of classroom movement, audio or video recordings. Often their feeling of how it went, post-lesson, is initially nebulous or contrasts to what they see in the data. Sometimes they are very critical of small details on their lessons, or unexpected information leads to fresh insights. Often, a teacher will find a video affirming, allowing them to see the positives in their practice, perhaps those things which have been automated over time or which they don’t even realise they do. I’ve yet to see a teacher who doesn’t find video a useful tool for their own professional reflection and learning.

Taking video footage of lessons, or excerpts of lessons, is a great way to allow teachers the opportunity to reflect on their craft. It is a seam rich with potential for improvement of instruction and professional discussions around practice. This data should be owned by the teacher and not used for performance reviews or appraisals. The thing about lesson data is that it can be a reward in itself; an opportunity to learn and see one’s practice and one’s teacher self in new ways, without the need for external praise, affirmation or critique.

5 things I learned in 2015

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. ~ Socrates

Epiphanies and moments of clarity can be simple and, on reflection, obvious. The following list of ‘5 things I learned in 2015’ may seem like statements of the bleeding obvious. They are nothing new, and yet this year I’ve seen new refractions from, and noticed more minute details of, these simple truths. They have been affirmed for me this year through my experiences of being and becoming. Of teaching, leading, parenting, coaching, being coached, researching and writing.

local café wisdom

local café wisdom

1. Doing many things at once can work, but it’s also important to take breaks.

In the last few years I’ve been working 0.8 of a teaching and leadership job at a school, parenting two pre-schoolers and working on my PhD (now submitted – woot!). While I always had a sense that this was working for me in its strange busy way, it wasn’t until my first writing retreat this year that I understood how much. On my retreat, I found it difficult to stay on my one task – editing the PhD thesis draft – for a full weekend. I realised that my routine of intense short bursts of PhD, in among the other many things in my life, worked for me. These short, regular, time-constrained bursts of energetic PhD work were intensive and focused. They felt like an indulgence, some intellectual ‘me-time’ in which I could luxuriate, a brain-bending haven from my other responsibilities. It helped me to love my PhD, while also appreciating the specialness of my teaching, leading and parenting roles.

Yet, as I discovered, relentless busyness is not sustainable. Breaks are required. Real, curl-your-toes-in-the-sand, unplug, breathe deeply and love abundantly kind of breaks. Nourishment for wellbeing. Care for self and others. Time to breathe.

2. Welcome resistance & engage in respectful disagreement.

On my blog, which is now 16 months old, as in Twitter and in my professional life, I have been becoming more comfortable with, and encouraging of, disagreement, although I prefer dissent to be served in a respectful, articulate and reasoned manner. And I prefer disruption which emerges from deep purpose, rather than trendy buzzwordification. Last year I completed the Adaptive Schools Foundation course, which champions graceful disagreement as a key element of high-performing groups. I’ve written a few blog posts which err on the side of controversial. I’ve engaged in Twitter debate. I’ve experienced my first peer review comments from academic journals, and attempted to take critique as an opportunity to strengthen my work. And in my role leading and implementing a school coaching initiative for teachers, I have welcomed the contributions of those who are resistant to the change.

I’ve found those individuals who might be dismissed as ‘resistors’ or negative voices, to be important ones worthy of close listening. I find myself asking those who disagree to take the time to explain their view to me. I listen intently, wondering, ‘What can I learn here? How might this help me to make what we’re doing better, stronger, and meaningful for a wider range of people?’

I am reminded of this line of Richard Bach’s from his novella Illusions:

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

It is often in engaging with those who disagree with us, that we are taken to new places in our own thinking, helped to consider alternate perspectives, or are able to find solutions which we may otherwise not have reached.

3. Trust individuals. Believe in their capacity. Choose empowerment.

Punitive accountability measures which promote fear and compliance can only undermine teachers’ and school leaders’ professions, identities and practices. Through my experiences of coaching, my PhD research into school leadership and organisational change, and my observations of systems of teacher evaluation around the world, I have become increasingly convinced of the need to focus on empowerment and growth, through support and trust. It’s the belief upon which my school’s coaching model is based.

4. Connections with others are powerful.

We know that connecting with others is powerful. One of my ‘three words’ for 2015 was ‘sharing’ and another was ‘presence’, both words which speak of connecting with others and being present in relationships.

This year, not only have my personal and face-to-face professional relationships been impactful, but so have connections I have made online. For the first time this year, I began to meet ‘in real life’ individuals I’ve connected with on Twitter and through my blog. Catching up over drinks, breakfast or the conference room had been a seamless transition from tweet, blog post or Voxer message, to in-person banter, support and inspiration. I’ve engaged in wonderful blogging conversations. I’ve become bewitched with the potential of our interconnectedness and the ways in which technology might help us grow support networks and knowledge webs.

5. Teeny regular steps add up to a long journey.

My PhD was the thing that brought home this truth to me. Over three years I plugged away with little step after little step, finding stolen moments of doctoral time in the cracks in my days and nights. Regular, persistent effort. Sometimes forward; sometimes back; but maintaining forward momentum. And then I looked back along the path I’d walked and found that it added up to a thesis. So my big lesson was, just put one foot in front of the other. Keep going!

sunset, Gnarabup

sunset, Gnarabup

What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness

I was delighted to be invited to present on my research (which is, in part, around coaching in a school context) at yesterday’s inaugural Australian Coaching in Education Research Seminar. My presentation – to a room of academics, educators, doctoral candidates and prospective doctoral candidates – looked at sharing both my own study and my post-submission understanding of doctoral research. In this post I use some of the slides from that presentation to look at the latter part: what I now know about the PhD.

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

I saw the PhD, some times and in some ways, as a long dark tunnel or rabbit burrow. That is, when we are standing at the mouth of the tunnel it is dark and unilluminated. And sometimes we have to dig. As I had never been a doctoral researcher, I didn’t know what doctoral research looked like. I didn’t know what a good PhD looked like. I didn’t know what the process looked like. These are things we can’t really know until the end.

That said, while my supervisors were not experts in my particular fields or methodology, they were experts in the doctoral process and in supervision. This is reminiscent of my work in coaching at my school. There, coaches aren’t experts in all pedagogy in all areas; they are teachers who are experts in being coaches, in having professional conversations in which the coachee’s thinking is teased out and shifted to different levels of abstraction, in ways to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching to refine teachers’ reflections on their practice. My supervisors were a lot like coaches, in that they facilitated my thinking about my research and writing, and helped me grow into a less-neophyte more-autonomous researcher. But they were also experts and mentors who sometimes chose to give me directive advice, or asked me to develop a clearer rationale for something I wanted to try (like using illustrations in the PhD thesis – who does that?). They helped me to keep focused, especially when I got excited about alternate pathways or theories.

Put your PhD blinkers on

Put your PhD blinkers on

The PhD is a tightly focused study. No matter how curious or impassioned we are, a single three-year-equivalent study can’t be all encompassing. We can’t cover everything that interests us or explore every avenue which takes our fancy. Like the racehorse, we need to put our blinkers on in order to make it to the finish line. Those really intriguing tangential ideas and large chunks of deleted text (for instance, I axed 20,000 words between the first full draft and the final draft) can be put into a folder for another time, another project, another paper. Of course, research studies are iterative, so we need to be flexible and open to changing course, but as Tara Brabazon says in this 2010 Times article:

the best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.

by @debsnet

Bearing in mind that PhDs are tightly focused and that all research has limitations, these were the questions I thought were most important for any doctoral researcher to ask themselves:

  • How will my research add to scholarly conversations?
  • What question/s or problem/s of theory or practice might I hope to answer?
  • What will my method offer? What might it eclipse (limitations)?

That is, what can or will this research do? What can’t or won’t it do? We need to be ok with what a particular study, from a particular worldview, using a particular method, can do. And what it can’t. We need to own the limitations of our work.

my go-to online advisors

my go-to online advisors

I shared some of those academics-who-blog who have been particularly influential for me in my PhD writing and understanding. These are those whose generosity of knowledge helped me to understand the process of knowing the PhD, doing the PhD and being the PhD. Their work helped to illuminate the PhDarkness for me. An example was Pat Thomson’s help in the writing of my discussion chapter at a time when I was asking myself what a discussion chapter was, and trying to figure out how to best approach and develop mine. The academic bloggers named in this slide have reams of useful posts about endless aspects of the PhD, academic writing and getting published. Additionally, Helen Kara is writing short eBooks for doctoral students, while Pat Thomson and Babara Kamler have the super-useful book, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision.

I have found the reflections of others useful and so I share some of my own story on this blog because perhaps my words will shine a light into the shadows for someone else looking for help in a time of doctoral uncertainty. My working-through-writing-frustrations blog posts might help others when they come to that point in their journey, by which time I may have happily forgotten about how hard it was for me at the time!  As sometimes the curse of expertise – thank you, How to Survive Your PhD MOOC for pointing me towards Pamela Hinds’ 1999 work on this – means that once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. While I don’t think I’ve been in the game long enough to automate too much, blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self, before certain things become ‘black boxed’.

putting the PhD in perspective

putting the PhD in perspective

Finally, (my own version of) the PhD is only something I understand (sort of) now that I am at its end. It is unknowable before then. Each step of the way felt like a step into the darkness. Sometimes I felt like I had a flashlight to light the immediate way or a lightsaber to slice confidently into the tunnel. Sometimes I felt that I was fumbling around in the dark and feeling my way. Sometimes I went the wrong way and had to go back. But as Matt Might shows in his illustrated guide to the PhD, and as Mullins and Kiley (2002) show in their paper ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize,’ the tightly-focused you-can’t-do-it-all parameters of a PhD mean that a PhD needs ‘only’ to add a miniscule aspect to the world’s knowledge; it’s a small blip in a larger conversation. Let yours be like a tiny jewel: small, intense, luminous.

Collecting honest data on coaching perceptions & impacts #educoach

Bruce Nauman's Human/Need/Desire, 1983 ~ photo taken at MOMA

Bruce Nauman’s Human/Need/Desire, 1983 ~ photo taken at MOMA

In a gentle way, you can shake the world. ~ Mahatma Ghandi

As coaches it is important that we gather data about the impacts of our practice. As a coach we might feel a conversation or relationship has gone well, but how do we know? How can we find out the depth of our coachees’ perceptions, vulnerabilities or reflections?

This has been on my mind as this year my school’s teacher growth model, of which coaching is a central piece, moved from pilot program populated by volunteers, to mandated model which involves all teachers in the school. This is a big shift. Piloting a model with teachers who have volunteered to be involved and are keen to have a voice in school change, is very different to applying a model, no matter how flexible and differentiated, to all teachers at a school. We’ve been very aware that one size does not fit all. We’ve tried to design something which is relevant and adaptable from person to person, early to late career, pre-kindergarten to Year 12, Physical Education to English Literature. Coaching is a big part of this as the lesson data collected and the following conversation are all about the coachee; where they are at; where they would like to go.

Over the last two years I have used focus groups of teachers and coaches to gather some of the data I’ve been using to reflect and report on our impacts. This year, too, we want to gauge how we’ve gone. The intention of our model is that it is meaningful for teachers, rather than a box to be ticked or a process to be endured. We want it to nurture cross-school professional connections, open classrooms, and build internal teacher capacities. We want it to be a process which both trusts teachers and in which teachers feel they can trust. (I visually represented these intentions in this post.) So how can we see if that’s happening beyond what the coaches might observe or what information teachers might anecdotally volunteer?

In order to get a sense of how teachers are finding the process, I have recently set up an anonymous survey monkey survey with the following questions. Apart from questions 12 and 14, which are optional comment boxes, the questions are click-button ones on a Likert-style rating scale of Strongly Agree – Agree – Neutral – Disagree – Strongly Disagree. The good thing about that is that it is quick for teachers to complete, and easy to analyse. While it provides a snapshot of how teachers are finding the coaching cycle, a limitation is that it doesn’t drill down into the why of respondents’ answers.

The survey questions:

  1. I have a clear understanding of the cycle’s process, expectations and roles.
  2. I found the reflection survey useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  3. I have felt comfortable having someone (and/or a video camera) in my classroom.
  4. I found the data collected in my lesson observations useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  5. I found the coaching conversations useful in terms of my teaching practice.
  6. I have felt that my coach is approachable, supportive and trustworthy.
  7. I have found it ‘do-able’ to manage the cycle in terms of time, scheduling, and, where appropriate, technology.
  8. The cycle has helped me gain greater awareness and clarity around my teaching and what happens in my classroom.
  9. The cycle has helped me clarify my instructional goals (i.e. how and in which areas I would like to develop my teaching).
  10. The cycle has resulted in the development of one or more collegial relationships (with either my coach or another team member).
  11. I have made changes to my teaching or classroom as a result of the cycle.
  12. Optional comment: If I have made changes to my teaching or classroom, what have these been?
  13. I think the cycle has had a positive impact on my teaching practice.
  14. Optional comment: I would like to offer the following comments or suggestions for the development of the cycle from 2016.

It is important that they survey is anonymous as we want the feedback to be honest. While these are by no means comprehensive, they provide a piece of our data puzzle in looking to the impact of our observation and coaching cycle as professional learning. It is by listening to positive and critical perspectives that we can identify those things working well, and address those areas of challenge.

Coaching fields forever #educoach #twistedpair

strawberry fields forever

strawberry fields forever

Today’s blog post is a response to two blogging challenges: the #educoach October blog challenge and the #twistedpair blog challenge set by Steve Wheeler, in which a blog post needs to blend two disparate things. I’ve decided to pair coaching (something of my journey as/to coach here) and picking strawberries. (Although now that I look back on Steve’s challenge, he asks us to pair people or characters, not things; still, I hope this counts as a strange duo.)

So how is coaching like strawberry picking?

Today I took my two young children to pick strawberries. After a week of working relentlessly on my PhDdeep in the thesis cave where it’s dark and solitary, and with a sprained ankleit was so good to get out into the sunshine and the dirt. 

The first rows were dry and over picked; there wasn’t much to find. We fossicked and looked, but our box remained sparsely populated. It wasn’t until we walked further afield that we found bushes that were greener, bushier and more bountiful. Even then, it wasn’t until we crouched, paid attention to a particular plant, and looked deeply into its foliage, that we found the glossiest and juiciest strawberries, protected by shade and unseen by others who had trudged by without stopping to examine that plant and explore its blossoms, leaves and unseen-from-the-outside fruit.

This reminds me of coaching, which requires us to approach a person, the coachee, uncertain of what we might find or where we might find it.  We cannot assume where they are at, or where the conversation is going to go. In order to uncover and bring to the surface thinking which they haven’t previously accessed—not to mention the a-ha moment, or ‘cognitive shift’ as it’s called in Cognitive Coaching—we need to be present, pay attention, and expertly use questioning to reveal those glossy, or rotten, unsurfaced thoughts which help that person to take their own reflection, practice or dilemma to the next level.

by @debsnet

part of our haul

Not only that, but as I picked the strawberries this morning, and later washed and sorted them this afternoon, I noticed their snowflake-like idiosyncrasies. Each was recognisably a strawberry, but each was a slightly different shape, colour and texture, with a stalk which bent a different way, or seeds which sat differently against its skin. Some were under-ripe, some had just begun to turn, and others were at the apex of their strawberry-eating life: red, shiny, firm and glorious. Each coachee is an individual, and they are in a different place each time we meet with them. So while a coach might apply a coaching conversation map or set of tools to all coachees, each relationship and each conversation will look different, shaped by its person, time and place.

Combining two very different things seems a disruptive way to approach a topic. I’m interested in how we might bring new understandings to familiar concepts or practices by attempting a twisted pairing. I’ve written before about research and Wicked, the musical, and my PhD as a sculpture or birthday cake. I’m wondering what else I might uncover about myself as coach through analogy or metaphor.

by @debsnet

strawberry blossom in the sunshine; perfect potential