Is teaching an art?

close-up of Monet's Nymphea at the Musée de l'Orangerie

close-up of Monet’s Nymphea at the Musée de l’Orangerie

How can we appreciate an artist’s work or know an artist’s worth?

We can see the genius of Frida Kahlo in one of her paintings, get a flavour of her life at La Casa Azul in Mexico City, or understand her dramatic story arc through a comprehensive exhibition of art she produced throughout her life. We can marvel equally at one of Monet’s early Impressionist works as at the spectacular exhibition of his Nymphea in the naturally-lit oval rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie. One of Salvador Dalí’s paintings can give us insight into his skill, style and artistic significance, but a visit to his Teatre-Museu in Figueres allows us to more deeply know his life, work and mad genius.

Richard Olsen tweeted in the #educoachOC chat this week that he considered teaching an art, and that he thought that when being appraised, teachers’ teaching should be looked at as a body of work, rather than as individual pieces. You can see Richard’s tweets, which got me thinking, in the screenshot below. His view is consistent with those who warn against the compartmentalisation and atomisation of teaching into disparate, de-contextualised bits.

There are also, however, those who advocate for clear maps and standards of teaching in order to develop shared understandings of what good teaching might look, sound and feel like. My own school uses the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing our shared language of teaching and the precision of our reflections on and planning for teaching and learning. These reflections are also based on lesson data snapshots of practice, which provide the basis for Cognitive Coaching conversations. Our approach seems to fit into Richard’s notion of “critiquing specific pieces”, rather than looking at a body of work. Yet fine-grained lesson data and consequent reflections allow teachers to drill down into aspects of their teaching practice, while acknowledging that one lesson is only ever a moment in time, a snapshot of practice, a through-the-keyhole-peek into their teaching as a whole.

Many, including Robert Marzano, describe teaching as an art and a science. The notion of blending art and science, creativity and systematisation, resonates with me. It was the approach I took to my PhD research, one that I outline in this paper in Narrative Inquiry. I have blogged about viewing research as sculpture, as art-esque conversation, about teaching Art, and about textiles as political metaphor for academic writing and identity.

Elliot Eisner’s body of work explores education as artistry and connoisseurship. Eisner advocates for the arts as a frame for re-imagining education as innovative, artistic practice, rather than as a cookie-cutter or assembly-line one. Conceptualising teaching as an art, or arts, or artistic, assumes a complexity, a non-linearness, a rich tangled web of intangibles and un-pin-downables.

Is teaching art or science? Or both? Is it inappropriate to look at a single work, a close-up of the brushstrokes or the marks made by the sculptor’s tool? Should we only talk about teaching in terms of bodies of work, portfolios of evidence, the whole and not the parts? Can Michelangelo’s David be separated from his Pietà, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his unfinished ‘slaves’? Can or should meaning be sought in a singular laboured-over artwork, or in a dusty pile of experimental sketches found in the attic? Or should we only assess or seek meaning in a body of work accumulated over time?

How might a teacher’s performance be appraised? How can the whole, as well as the parts be considered? Of what use is the performance of teaching for observations by management, versus relaxed one-on-one discussions with students or an experimental lesson tried for the first time? And of what use are the ‘individual works’ such as unit plans, student work examples, lesson data and external test results? Data from particular lessons can provide a tangible, depersonalised third point for professional conversations, just as a particular work of art can be representative of an artist’s work. An exhibition from a particular period of an artist’s work can give a broader picture of their work during that time. A posthumous exhibition of their life’s work can provide the broad narrative of how their work has evolved. These are all different but meaningful lenses for appreciation and critique; each is a useful way of viewing the work and worth of the artist or teacher.

On the one hand, teaching does become a body of work over time. A life’s work for some. This gestalt includes ever-expanding subject knowledge, evolving pedagogies, relational skills and behaviour management tools. Many of the things teachers do become internalised, less-deliberate moves, part of a way of being. Perhaps a teacher should not be judged by a lesson that they teach or one set of student results, but there is value in each piece of work being reflected upon and closely considered for the understandings it might surface about that teacher’s practice; the details it might reveal; or the points of celebration, critique or change it might incite.

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Reflections on coaching after ISCAPPED 2016

ISCAPPED2

The International Symposium for Coaching and Positive Psychology in Education (ISCAPPED) happened in Sydney this week. It involved two days of keynotes, breakout sessions and corridor conversations by academics, pracademics and practitioners committed to researching, implementing and sharing their coaching and positive psychology work in schools around the world, and specifically in Australia. The yoking of two fields meant that it was possible to glean the differences in the arenas and the places at which they intersected. What stood out to me as a point of difference was the language used; while positive psychology sessions tended to use words like ‘self-esteem’ and ‘strengths’, coaching presentations were around ‘efficacy’ and ‘capacity’.

I presented twice at the symposium, once with colleagues, on the journey of our coaching model for teacher growth, and once on the coaching findings of my PhD research, which was set against the context of that school-based coaching model for teacher professional learning.

My colleagues and I outlined the story of the development of our model from its strategically-aligned beginnings, to its teacher-owned development and its whole-school implementation. Our presentation included a structured conversation that used some of the basics of Cognitive Coaching: the pattern of pausing, paraphrasing and posing cognitively-mediative questions, while setting aside the coach’s own patterns of unproductive listening. Our selection of coaches is based on beliefs that, while everyone is coachable and has the capacity to improve, not everyone can be a good coach.

I then shared my PhD research alongside Alex Guedes, who has also conducted research against the backdrop of a school-based coaching model for teacher capacity building. This presentation, which occurred under lights on the stage on which the keynotes were presented, covered the context, foci, method and findings of our PhD studies, with a particular focus on coaching. My findings, which I explore in more detail in this paper in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, include that coaching can be an empowering, identity-forming, relationship-building and language-shaping experience. They also include that coaching, while not a silver bullet, can be an effective part of positive organisational growth.

These findings resonate with Costa and Garmston’s notion of holonomy, in which the parts and the whole are both separate and together; the individual and the organisation grow and influence one another. Identities, language and understandings are collectively constructed. Congruent tools like Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching can be used to grow people, teams and systems, within environments and relationships of trust. In the coaching intervention that provided the context for my study, and that continues to operate in my school, non-judgemental data provides a ‘third point’ in coaching conversations, in order to depersonalise teacher reflections. Another third point is the Danielson Framework, our shared standards of teaching practice.

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

Coaching is hard cognitive work. This Monday, the #educoachOC Twitter chat will explore listening in a coaching context. I’ve recently been exposed to another string to the listening toolbox I use when coaching, which has thus far included careful listening for spoken language use, purposeful paraphrasing and watching eye movement to gauge what thinking is going on for the coachee. Recently, Bruce Wellman, author of The Adaptive School and Learning-focused supervision, came to work with my school on a variety of things. He worked with our team of coaches on something he calls non-verbal paraphrasing. He ran a workshop with us and shared his paper titled, ‘Nonverbal elegance when paraphrasing’.

Bruce couches this idea in research from anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science and neuroscience. Gesture, he explains, reduces the cognitive load of the speaker, saving energy by communicating information through body as well as spoken language. It is also primal in that gestures can reflect emerging or intuitive understandings. That is, our physicality can express those things we might not yet have words to express, or those things we are wrestling with between our knowing and not knowing.

In a coaching context, our brain’s mirror neurons help us to show empathy with the coachee, and we can also be deliberate about mirroring body language in order to be in rapport. Bruce suggests that additionally, we can “listen with our eyes”, watching for how someone’s body language extends, amplifies or makes clearer their thinking. Paying careful attention to how coachees use their hands—to explain concepts, sequence events or place people in their internal world—is a powerful listening skill. It allows the coach to paraphrase, not just the words the coachee uses, but also the physical referencing. Since doing this workshop I’ve noticed myself paying more attention to gesture, and trying to reflect back coachees’ gestures during my paraphrasing.

(Side note: As I type this I’m finding that I am gesturing between keystrokes as I try to figure out my ideas and the words I’ll use to express them. Perhaps that’s because Bruce Wellman’s concept of non-verbal paraphrasing is new to me, and my primal brain is helping me figure out my understandings. I’ve spoken a lot about writing as a mode of inquiry – writing to understand. I’m wondering now about gesturing as a mode of inquiry – gesturing to understand. *gesticulates wildly*)

So there are multiple skills to coaching, which can be honed and developed over time, but as Christian van Niewerburgh’s keynote pointed out, the coaching process and coaching skills aren’t enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. I agree with Christian when he says that transformative coaches are those who adopt coaching as a way of being. I also agree with him that coaching needs a theoretical and evidence base. Coaching isn’t a recipe on a laminated sheet. It is more than a process, a conversation or something anyone can do after a quick training session in which they are given a conversational formula.

Cognitive Coaching, which is the model in which I am trained and that my school uses in our context, is deeply rooted in research, and layered with multiple lenses and skills. The research base for Cognitive Coaching is most rigourously explored in Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching text, now in its third edition (the previous editions were called Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools). Other references include this 2003 paper on why Cognitive Coaching persists. These references and others (I have plenty!) tease out the reasons why coaching, done well, can be powerful and transformative.

Coaching is not mentoring, or telling, or advice giving, or passing judgement, or giving ‘helpful’ tips that make the feedback-giver feel like they’re being really useful. It is trusting in the capacity of the other person to solve their own problems, decide on their own trajectory of growth and consider how best to improve. The coach’s difficult work is in expertly and deliberately using a toolbox of knowledge and skills. These knowledge and skills are deliberately used as well as internalised and woven into the coach’s way of being, to help move the person’s thinking forward. That’s where the ‘cognitive’ in Cognitive Coaching comes in. The coach mediates thinking, because thought is what drives action. Changing thinking changes behaviour. It’s in the ‘a-ha’ moment, which cognitive coaches call ‘cognitive shift’, that individuals are transformed from the inside out. The magic is that the coach is mirror, conduit, provocateur and nudger, but it is the person being coached who does the thinking and finds their way.

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.

_____________________

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.