Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney.

My presentation explored key concepts that, in my experience, underpin the use of coaching in schools. I drew together insights from my reading, research, practical and personal experience of coaching in schools, with a particular focus on the organisational conditions necessary for coaching, and the effects of coaching on individuals and schools. I interrogated the complex interlocking elements that schools need to balance when working to build a coaching culture, including contexttrust, rapportway of being, differentiation, holonomy and semantic space.

Here is my slide deck.

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Should a coach be curious?

On Twitter recently I have noticed a few people talking about the qualities that a good coach might have. One of the qualities that has been raised more than once is that of being curious. During the last #educoachOC chat, I had this interchange with two respected voices in educational coaching, Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Chris Munro.

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

And it got me thinking. What might be the focus of a coach’s curiosity? Does being of valuable service as a coach involve being curious? Does being curious mean showing genuine interest in a coachee and demonstrating eagerness to hear the details of their experiences? Is it about paying close attention or finding out more? Does a coach’s desire to find out more make a coachee feel valued and empathised with, or does it sidetrack the purpose of the conversation?

The notion of coach curiosity rubs against the grain of Cognitive Coaching in which the coach–while encouraged to be open, inquiring, flexible, caring and compassionate–is instructed to set aside the following unproductive patterns of listening:

  • Autobiographical: This is ‘me too!’ listening in which the listener is compelled to share experiences of their own that they see as relevant to the speaker’s experiences. The coach needs to restrain their urge to be drawn into thinking or speaking about their own stories.
  • Solution: This is listening in which the listener is drawn to thinking up their own solutions to the listener’s problems. Rather than problem-solving, the job of the Cognitive Coach is to assume that a) the coachee knows their own context and problem best, and b) has the capacity to solve their own problems, using the coaching toolbox to help that person access their own internal capacities and thereby developing their self-efficacy.
  • Inquisitive: This is curious listening in which the listener wants to know more about the details of a particular situation. However, the purpose of a coaching conversation is not for the coach to know intimate details, or to provide advice, so what purpose does curiosity serve in a coaching conversation? Who is it helping?

This is what Art Costa and Bob Garmston write about inquisitive listening:

Inquisitive listening occurs when we begin to get curious about portions of the story that are not relevant to the problem at hand. Knowing what information is important is one critical distinction between consulting and coaching. As a consultant, a person needs lots of information in order to ‘solve the problem’. As a coach, a person needs only to understand the colleague’s perspective, feelings, and goals and how to pose questions that support self-directed learning. (Costa & Garmston, 2006, Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, p.65)

Coaching is a form of self-restraint: setting aside personal preferences; refraining from telling one’s own stories; withholding one’s own ideas or advice. Coaching is a service and the coach a servant. The coach is mirror, conduit, bucket in the well, water on the grass; a gentle influence that helps the coachee be the best version of themselves, and move towards where it is that they want to go with increasing capacity. In Cognitive Coaching this capacity development is focused around the Five States of Mind: consciousnesses, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility and interdependence.

So, should a coach be curious, or is curiosity a form of self-ish, rather than self-less, listening? If a coach’s questions are focused on seeking to understand the inner details of a coachee’s experiences, is that of value to the coachee? Often I find that as a coach I don’t need to know details. The coachee knows the details of their own situations and their thinking is benefited by being able to focus on where they want to go, rather than recounting minutiae for my benefit.

When I am being coached—my thoughts flying and forming and jelling and tumbling—I don’t necessarily want to be diverted by the well-intentioned interest of the coach. A coach’s curiosity to know more can sometimes take me from my own desire to move forward in my thinking, backwards or sideways to having to explain the specifics of my situation. My coach might not know the context or background of my issue, but I do. I don’t need help knowing the situation I am in; I need help to think my way to future solutions and successes. I want a coach to be present, to listen attentively, to hear, to paraphrase, and to ask me well-crafted questions that I haven’t thought to ask myself. Coaches might ask themselves: ‘If I’m being curious in this conversation, is that about me and what I want to know, or is it of benefit to the coachee?’

What do you think? Should coaches be curious, and if so, about what? If coaches are on a need-to-know basis, what exactly do they need to know?

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.

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.

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