Implementing a coaching model: One school’s approach

If threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection. ~ Costa and Garmston

tulips in Monet’s Giverny garden: a beautiful example of individual and collective growth

Coaching has contested definitions and a range of models which include instructional coaching, peer coaching, literacy coaching, GROW coaching, Growth Coaching and Cognitive Coaching. In education, schools and systems have a variety of approaches to adopting and rolling out coaching models. In the lead up to Saturday’s #satchatoc Twitter chat on coaching, I thought I would write this post to outline some of my views. I know they are hard to articulate in 140 characters!

This post is based in my research and experience, and are of course coloured by these. Bear in mind when reading that I am one person, in one context, with one set of experiences, conducting one study. It’s one perspective of many. I enjoy being part of a wider conversation around coaching.

My coaching training is in Cognitive Coaching (I have done the Foundation course three times now in three consecutive years), in which I have experience as a coach and coachee. My PhD and school-based research has familiarised me with other models of coaching, with my thesis reference list running to almost 8000 words, with a portion of that around coaching research, as part of my focus on transformational professional learning. I also continue to work with a number of classroom consultants who have observed my lessons and worked with me to improve my classroom practice in a variety of ways from more to less directive. (While some might call this ‘coaching’, in a Cognitive Coaching sense, having a pedagogical expert giving you advice on your practice is called ‘consulting’.)

This post looks to outline my school’s particular approach to developing our coaching model, our guiding principles and the emerging practices, in order to share them and open up a conversation around others’ coaching principles and practices.

Start with context and vision.

The most important thing for me is this: start with and work from your school’s context. There is not a one-size-fits-all model, but rather each school should consider their values, vision, mission, current work going on and where the academic staff and professional growth processes are at. Where is your starting point? What do you want your end point to be?

When I was charged with researching, piloting and implementing a growth-based professional learning model at my school the principal said, “What I want is for this to grow the vibrant professional learning culture of our school.” Our model emerged from this aim and the school’s strategic intents. It aligned with work already being done, rather than being a tacked-on innovation. This reflects work from those such as Fullan and Senge on cohesive shared vision and aligned practice.

These were our aims:

'Take one' (or take all!) for your school

‘Take one’ (or take all!) for your school

Go slow to go fast. School change is an evolution not a revolution.

An outline of our model’s development goes something like this:

In 2012 I wrote a research and recommendation paper which took into account the school’s context, the strategic plan and current research on teacher quality, professional learning and school reform. In 2013 I worked with a team of teachers to pilot the recommended model and develop it for our context. We decided that after that initial pilot year, the model wasn’t yet ready, so I worked with another team of teachers in 2014 to continue the pilot. In the second pilot year we refined our model. Each year we collected data from the coaches and coached teachers through online surveys, online discussions, and focus groups. Each year I reported to the school board and principal who provided strategic feedback. In 2015 we have been rolling out the model at a whole school level, with teachers across the school. Each year we have used a Schooling by Design (Wiggins & McTighe) template to backwards plan our work with our goals in mind, aligned with deliberate action.

This is a very condensed run-down but it shows that we chose to go slow. We wanted the process to be owned and driven by teachers. We did not have a performativity and accountability agenda, but were interested in increasing the capacity and efficacy of teachers, in helping them on their own trajectories of growth. As I explained in this post, our model is about helping teachers open their doors from the inside.

Buy-in was key, and the decision to have teachers lead the development of our model, guided by research, the strategic plan and data we collected on our impacts, was very deliberate.

Believe in the capacity of all individuals to solve their own problems, do their own thinking and drive their own learning.

This belief has been the foundation of our use of Cognitive Coaching as the coaching model: everyone is coachable. I was initially skeptical of Cognitive Coaching. It seemed like common sense: build trust, listen actively, pause, paraphrase. Well, duh. And what about if people don’t have the capacity to do their own reflection? What if they need my expertise, for me to help them become their better selves? These were my reservations.

But what I love about the Cognitive Coaching course (remember: I’ve done it three times!) is that it is saturated with research and the why. Like the coaching model itself, it is about changing thinking in order to change practice.

Examples of research that shaped my thinking are: Costa and Garmston’s 2003 paper which points out on page 5 that “if threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection”; and another study by Boyatzis and Jack (2010) which looked at brain imaging during coaching and found that “by spending 30 minutes talking about a person’s desired, personal vision, we could light up (activate) the parts of the brain 5-7 days later that are associated with cognitive, perceptual and emotional openness and better functioning.”

I realised that being helpful to coachees (and don’t we all want to be helpful and have a positive impact?) was helping them do their own thinking, their own reflecting.

In my consequent experiences as coach and coachee, I have found that people have the capacity to be highly self-aware, if given the opportunity.

The best feeling as a coach is when a coachee experiences what Cognitive Coaching calls ‘cognitive shift’, a moment of new previously-untapped realisation.

As I develop my own coaching practice I have realised how many layers of expertise and deceptively simple skill a coach requires. Incorporating the Five States of Mind, tracking eye movement, paraphrasing of non-verbal as well as verbal language, and artful asking of the right question for the right person at the right moment, are skills I continue to develop. As a coach it is like being a duck who appears to glide across the pond whilst its legs are madly paddling under water. There is a lot going on in the coaching brain! While I think everyone is coachable, I am not sure everyone can be a coach.

by @debsnet

Impacts

As a coach this year in our now-rolled-out model, my belief in the power of Cognitive Coaching continues to be affirmed. The approach has been well-received by teachers who are realising that this process is not about evaluation or accountability, but about their growth and authored by them. The other aspects of our model are also working. Lesson data is proving to be potentially transformational in its own right (that is another post for another time). The Danielson Framework for Teaching is enhancing teachers’ precision of reflection and goal setting around their practice.

We continue to collect data from a number of sources to continue to iterate the model. This includes external student achievement data, internal perception surveys and focus groups.

I want to leave you with this quote from Andy Hargreaves and Jane Skelton (2012), which really sums up for me what coaching should be about (my emphasis):

In some of its earliest origins, coaching is a learning journey undertaken willingly by travellers together. However, in the context of large-scale systematic reform, coaching has too often turned into enforced transportations from boardrooms into classrooms of unreflective practices based on inflexible ideologies or exaggerated sources of evidence.

A coach is a vehicle. But in education, it is not an inanimate one. Should a coach be a mere deliverer of other people’s goods and chattels? Or should the coach carry learners and learning along a self-chosen journey together? Are coaches providers of service learning, or vehicles that deliver people into bureaucratic servitude? Like life coaches, should educational coaches develop people’s own capacity to help themselves, or is their role to watch over teachers’ fidelity to or compliance with externally prescribed practice? …

It takes a big man or woman to step aside from surgery and actively help others take their place at the cutting edge of their profession. And it takes a great coach to stand up for the moral purpose of their work that is or should be at the core of all coaching – developing people, not implementing policies; building capacity rather than enforcing compliance; and giving colleagues a professional service rather than delivering them into ideological servitude.

by @debsnet

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Reflections on the conference experience: Hawker Brownlow Melbourne 2015

Human interaction remains the key component of changing education. ~ Eric Sheninger

Yarra River, Melbourne

Yarra River, Melbourne

I have spent the last four days at the Hawker Brownlow Education Conference in Melbourne, an annual conference which brings big name educational thinkers together from around the world to present immersive sessions on educational issues of the moment. What follows is my reflection on the conference experience and the value of the conference model for learning.

I selected my conference sessions based on my particular areas of current interest. While Dylan Wiliam opened the conference by using William Schmidt’s warning against teaching an inflexible curriculum which is ‘a mile wide and an inch thick,’ my recent work in professional learning and effective school change has been an inch wide and a mile deep. The sessions I chose were therefore along this same vein and were intended to take me even deeper.

Many of the speakers’ points resonated with what I already know and affirmed my own thinking and practices. These added some layers of complexity to my existing understandings and acted as springboards for conversations around education.

Dylan Wiliam and Bruce Wellman pointed out that we learn when we are uncomfortable. Wiliam said, ‘we learn more when we’re wrong,’ while Wellman talked about the discomfort that comes with working towards understanding. He pointed out that teams and individuals need to be willing to squirm and grapple with challenging questions. A comfortable team is not a learning team.

Caulfield Racecourse view from the HBE conference

Caulfield Racecourse view from the HBE conference

Learning communities were a thread which appeared in the sessions I attended. Wellman, co-author of The Adaptive School, discussed how skilful high-performing groups share intellectual and emotional space, which includes being comfortable with pauses in discussion. Silence is not the enemy of learning and collaboration, but an ally.

Wellman pointed out that being in the same room together does not make a group a community of learners. Anthony Muhammad added that a professional learning community is not a collaborative team which meets regularly, but a systemic contextually-embedded paradigm which raises collective knowledge through collective inquiry. Much like the Adaptive School material, which advocates ‘graceful disagreement’ as a norm of effective teams, Muhammad maintains that constructive, professional disagreement is the foundation of innovation.

Muhammad’s work at Levey Middle School reflects that of my own school in that it emerged out of the specific context of that school and where its community and practices were at. While our context is vastly different, we too have built our teacher growth model out of our school’s mission, vision, values, existing work and knowledge of our students, teachers and leaders.

Part of our model is based around how feedback and conversation might be deliberately harnessed in order to build teacher capacity and amplify the learning culture of the school. Wellman says that feedback is ‘in the moment, about the past, to affect the future.’ He points out that advice has very little impact on the advisee, and instead advocates for using clear, shared standards and a focus on learning, within an environment of trust. The focus on learning is about meeting the person where they are. ‘Wherever I meet you in your practice,’ he says, ‘we’re going to grow from there.’ He adds that, ‘We are starving our master teachers of rich conversations; they are hungry to talk about the whys of what they are doing.’

As outlined in Lipton and Wellman’s Learning-Focused Supervision, Wellman sees standards as rallying points for important conversations which set aspirations for goal setting and growth. My Australian school similarly uses Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing shared understandings about teaching; and for reflection and data-based conversation around teaching practice. Our approach also gels with Wellman’s assertion that feedback should be customised and appropriate for the individual; one size does not fit all. Our model of teacher growth incorporates differentiation in terms of what sort of data teachers collect from their lessons and the ways in which coaches approach each conversation. As with the metaphor of the stage coach, our coaching model is about helping the coachee get to their desired destination.

Melbourne autumn

Melbourne autumn

One of Wellman’s points about data analysis was that, when looking at data, we should focus on analysing reasons for successes, rather than failure. What are the successful students or teachers doing? What knowledge and strategies do they have? How can we develop those in others? (He also has a great strategy for teams looking at student achievement data in which he employs prediction to engage people in their assumptions about what the data might hold, before revealing the data.)

At the end of the conference I met up with Eric Sheninger who had just landed in Melbourne for his first time working with Australian educators, districts and conferences (he will be keynoting at the EduTECH conference in Brisbane next week). I had tweeted a pile of books from the conference two days earlier, including Eric’s, with no idea that he was en route to Melbourne. Ours was an impromptu meeting which arose out of a morning Twitter conversation. We met up and chatted about our work, global educational thinkers, the world of connected educators and DIY professional learning. During our conversation, Eric pointed me towards some great apps which will be useful collaborative tools for my work with student and teacher learners, such as Verso, Tozzl and Padlet.

In addition, my first night in Melbourne had me meeting with some of my Twitter PLN – Greg Curran, Chris Munro and Jo Prestia – to discuss coaching in school settings, research journeys and approaches to school intervention implementation.

Both in and out of the conference I fielded questions about what my PhD is about. This was a great opportunity to hone my ideas about what is most important about my research and communicating that in effective ways.

So there were affirming moments in, and out, of the conference, which added nuanced layers to my thinking. Yet on reflection, I realise that much of what a conference can bring for the delegate are conversations with others, unexpected moments of collaboration, and the space and time to process and reflect. Although I was surprised at the lack of a backchannel at a national conference, by both presenters and delegates, – Where was the Tweetstream? – I found valuable connections with my own colleagues, other educators, presenters and connected educators who weren’t affiliated with the conference but were open to connecting in person.

Federation Square, Melbourne

Federation Square, Melbourne

Embrace your discomfort zone: bubbling in the crucible of growth

Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. ~ Sigmund Freud

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

Scholarly literature and the blogosphere are saturated with thoughts around motivation, growth and what it means to learn, lead and be the best we each can be. Some of this is around what qualities, attitudes or behaviours we need in order to weather life’s difficulties while continuously growing our selves.

Skill sets & mindsets for discomfort and growth

Carol Dweck’s much-touted work on mindset argues that our self-conceptions frame our life paths. If we perceive ourselves as having fixed immovable traits, then we are less likely to be resilient and positive in the face of challenge. Those who perceive that their talents and abilities can be developed are more able to see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.

Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching model would suggest that we need to help individuals to reflect upon their own goals and experiences, figuring out their own ways to get better while assuming that each individual has the capacity to do exactly that.

In their recent book Uplifting Leadership Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle and Alma Harris talk about a yin-yang balance between positive energised leadership and tenacious hard work. They talk about disciplined innovation and feet-on-the-ground (rather than pie-in-the-sky) creativity. “An uplifting mindset and skill set keeps your head up high while your feet stay firmly planted on the ground.” Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris articulate the need for leaders to have visions and dreams alongside the determination to struggle through hardship and adversity. They remind us that “without dreams, profound human and social change would scarcely be possible” but that we need inspiration that incites action, daring and doing. Leaders, then, are grounded visionaries whose diligent exertion drives imagination and change.

Environments of support and challenge: being held while being pushed

In her work on adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson talks about organisations as ‘holding environments’, spaces in which adult learners feel ‘held’ and which provide both high support and high challenge. When I spoke with Ellie this year, she emphasised the need for schools to facilitate the development of self-authoring individuals, able to take charge of their own journeys of transformation.

Charlotte Danielson, too, talks about the need for support and challenge for teacher growth. Teachers need an environment of trust, she says, in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry. As I explained previously in my reflections on hearing Charlotte speak at the Australian Council for Educational Leadership 2014 conference, the need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been pivotal in my school’s work to provide a setting for the transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Enter the discomfort zone, the birthplace of rainbow growth

So while we need to feel supported enough to take risks, we need to be daring enough to be vulnerable, uncomfortable and daring. Margie Warrell calls this the ‘Courage Zone’, the place beyond comfort (but before terror and paralysis) in which risk taking and growth happens.

In my own experiences I have found this discomfort zone to be a tipping point for my own growth. Often it is in the squirmiest spaces of discomfort that my breakdowns become my breakthroughs. As I illustrated (literally) in the drawing above, my discomfort zone is a place of dark messiness, but from which rainbow-like growth can emerge. The comfort zone might be all white fluffy clouds, affirmations and unicorn-blessed pixie dust, but it also tends to be a space of inertia.

My classroom is a place in which my experience and comfort level are best served by being challenged to try new things like a recent term without marks or grades. And while my online PLN and at-school professional friends provide me with support, it is getting out of the supportive echo chamber and into dissenting debate which pushes my thinking and incites my learning.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of my growth this year have been in my PhD work which often involves wrestling with my thesis. Support and criticism from my supervisors help me to work tenaciously through difficult research and writing problems to find solutions and make progress. As an experienced educator but novice researcher, it is interesting negotiating a space in which my learning curve is dizzyingly exponential. The best thing about grappling with and through discomfort is the unrivalled feeling of satisfaction at solving, innovating or realising learning.

Who, where or what makes you feel ‘held’ and comfortable? How at ease are you in your discomfort zone? Is it a crucible of growth for you? What do you find when you stay there and thrash around for a while?

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching …. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape. ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort