Time and again, research has demonstrated that improved student performance is directly (and strongly) related to the effectiveness of a child’s teacher(s). To further understand factors that contribute to a teacher’s effectiveness, a team of researchers at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KUCRL) have been doing in-depth studies to determine the role that instructional coaching may play to support teachers in their professional growth and development. Regarding coaching, Atul Gawande (2011) said, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for (improving) human performance.”
Gwande’s statement is often used to justify coaching. What is often overlooked, however, are the words “done well.” The KUCRL researchers have been on a multi-year quest to answer the question of what is involved in coaching “done well?” Among the factors that they’ve found most impactful are the following: (1) Understanding the complexities of working with adults, (2) Using an effective coaching cycle, (3) Knowing effective teaching practices, and (4) Gathering and using student data to refine instructional practices. The first of these factors will be described below.
Coaches may know a great deal about teaching, but if they don’t understand the complexity of working with adults, their efforts to improve teacher effectiveness may fall short. Jim Knight, the lead researcher on instructional coaching at the KUCRL has written a book entitled A Partnership Approach to Dramatically Improving Instruction. He describes a set of “partnership principles” that have become a cornerstone of the various coaching strategies and routines that he and his colleagues have designed and validated.
According to Knight, partnership is an empowering alternative to more common patriarchal models of human interaction. In essence, a partnership worldview requires that individuals approach interactions with each other as partners in which each brings something of significance to the table. One (e.g., the coach) is not in a position of superiority over the other (e.g., the teacher); rather, they engage with each other as equal partners seeking a solution to improve outcomes. Knight’s work focuses on six partnership principles.
Equality. Partnership involves relationships between equals. Thus each person’s thoughts and beliefs are held to be valuable, and, although each individual is different, no individual decides for another. When this principle is applied to instructional coaching, it means that collaborating teachers are recognized as equal partners, and consequently no one’s view is more important or valuable than any one else’s.
Choice. In a partnership, one individual does not make decisions for another. Because partners are equal, they make their own individual choices and make decisions collaboratively. When this principle is applied to instructional coaching, it means that participant choice is implicit in every communication of content and, to the greatest extent possible, the process used to learn the content.
Dialogue. To arrive at mutually acceptable decisions, partners engage in dialogue. In a partnership, one individual does not impose, dominate, or control. Partners engage in conversation, learning together as they explore ideas. When this principle is applied to instructional coaching, it means coaches listen more than they tell. They avoid manipulation, engage participants in conversation about content, and think and learn with participants.
Voice. Partnership is multi-vocal rather than univocal, and all individuals in a partnership require opportunities to express their point of view. Indeed, a primary benefit of a partnership is that each individual has access to many perspectives rather than the one perspective of the leader. When this principle is applied to instructional coaching, it means that teachers should have the freedom to express their opinions about content being learned. Furthermore, since different teachers will have different opinions, coaches should embrace conversation that encourages people to express a variety of opinions.
Reflection. If we are creating a learning partnership, if our partners are equal with us, if they are free to speak their own minds and free to make real, meaningful choices, it follows that one of the most important choices they will make is how to make sense of whatever we are proposing they learn. Partners don’t dictate to each other what to believe; they respect their partners’ professionalism and provide them with enough information so that they can make their own decisions. When this principal is applied to instructional coaching, it means that coaches encourage collaborating teachers to consider ideas before adopting them. Indeed, coaches recognize that reflective thinkers, by definition, have to be free to choose or reject ideas, or else they simply are not thinkers at all.
Reciprocity. In a partnership, each partner benefits from the success, learning, or experience of others–all members are rewarded by what one individual contributes. When this principle is applied to instructional coaching, it has two major implications. First, one of the coach’s goals should be learning along with collaborating teachers. Thus, the coach learns about participants’ classroom, the strengths and weaknesses of the content when seen as an application for that environment, multiple perspectives on the content being presented when seen through the eyes of teachers and students, and so on. Second, coaches operating within the partnership paradigm should believe that participant knowledge and expertise are as important as their own. They should have faith in participants’ abilities to invent useful new applications of the content they are exploring.
Gwande, A. (2011, October 3). Personal best. The New Yorker. Available at www.newyorker.com/magazine/2-11/10/03/personal-best.
Knight, J. (2011a). Unmistakable impact: A partnership approach for dramatically improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Knight, J. (2011b). What good coaches do. Educational Leadership, 69(2), 18-22.