Balancing the purposes of instructional coaching


Steve Farndon

Steve Farndon

Ambition Fellow

In this blog, instructional coach and Ambition Fellow Steve Farndon explores some of the purposes of instructional coaching – comparing an emphasis on habit formation with one that prioritises the development of teachers’ mental models around teaching. He argues that we should balance these two purposes of coaching so that teachers can adopt new techniques and use them flexibly to meet the needs of their pupils.

On the surface of things, different teachers face really different challenges: the demands of working with four-year-olds in an early years setting compared with teaching A-level physics seem incomparable. However, one thing that teachers have in common is the complexity of their work. They have to balance a huge number of competing demands and priorities to secure long and short-term learning goals.

At Ambition Institute, we believe that the best way to support teachers to manage the complexity of their classrooms is through the development of expertise, which can be defined as the ability to effectively identify and tackle the persistent problems of a role. The model put forward by Ericsson (Ericsson and Pool, 2016) to develop expertise is deliberate practice – which I covered in my previous post introducing instructional coaching.

A key idea behind deliberate practice is that by breaking down the complexity of any field into bite-sized steps, focusing intently on practising these steps, and receiving corrective feedback, anyone can become more expert in a field in a manageable way.

Deliberate practice, therefore, forms an active ingredient of any instructional coaching model. What’s the relationship, however, between this and managing the complexity of the classroom?

Instructional coaching and the forming of habits

One way that deliberate practice and instructional coaching can help teachers manage complexity relates to the importance of habits. Whenever humans operate in a complex environment, their limited working memory can quickly become overloaded, leading to undesirable responses in the classroom (Feldon, 2007).

One way to overcome this is to automate aspects of their work, freeing up working memory capacity to focus on making important decisions. A teacher might automate how they bring pupils into their classroom so they can concentrate on the pupils’ mood and attitude on that particular day and respond accordingly. Instructional coaches can play a vital role in developing new habits because they can specify them precisely, get teachers to practise them in a controlled environment and offer feedback to support their effectiveness.

More recently, researchers have focused on the negative nature of classroom habits. This is where the embedding of automatic responses to classroom events inhibits teacher development (Hobbiss, Sims and Allen, 2020). Over time, teachers become unaware of their actions and therefore can’t change them.

Instructional coaching also works well to tackle existing undesirable habits because coaches can bring unhelpful habits back into conscious awareness and work with a teacher to modify them.

"...there is a significant danger if we only think of instructional coaching as a way of facilitating habit change."

Empowering teachers to understand the purpose of techniques

However, there is a significant danger if we only think of instructional coaching as a way of facilitating habit change. By prioritising the change or development of individual techniques in the classroom, we may be inhibiting the rich, interconnected mental models that are one feature of expertise and which enable teachers to respond to uncertainty and complexity. It can be tempting to use instructional coaching to get staff to follow school-approved pedagogies or to offer coaching which focuses on a different technique in each session. However, this approach has risks.

As Kennedy (2016) puts it: “When we define teaching by the visible practices we see, without attending to the role these practices have in the overall lesson, novices are likely to use their newly acquired practices at the wrong times, in the wrong places, or for the wrong reason”. Coaching needs to empower teachers to understand the purpose of the techniques they’re practising and ask themselves, ‘Is this the right response to this situation?’

Framing coaching around persistent problems

How can this be achieved? Let’s return to the definition at the beginning of this post – the ability to effectively identify and tackle the persistent problems of a role. If we frame coaching around the challenges or ‘persistent problems’ (Kennedy, 2016) of teaching, then we can enable teachers to see whether the strategies that they’re practising actually tackle their problem. In doing so, we are building the teacher’s understanding of how different elements of teaching fit together, how they relate to underlying principles of teaching and, most importantly, how they are likely to affect their pupils. This focus on building expertise through understanding and tackling problems has support from evidence in other domains (Persky & Robinson, 2017).

In practical terms, this is likely to mean a few things: agreeing a problem that the teacher wants to tackle at the beginning of a coaching sequence; ensuring that the teacher and coach focus on the problem over an extended period of time; and providing regular opportunities for both coach and teacher to reflect on how well they are tackling the problem. This should lead to the teacher adapting the strategies suggested by their coach to meet the needs of their students, and a better understanding of strategies and the principles behind them. It’s this growing understanding that better equips teachers to balance the trade-offs of teaching and thereby manage the complexity of their classroom.

This shouldn’t, however, lead to coaches ignoring the important active ingredients of instructional coaching, as discussed here. A teacher might want to tackle the persistent problem of enlisting student participation, in particular pupils giving up quickly when faced with a tricky task, but might not know how to do this. The coach's role is to identify how the particular teacher they’re coaching could tackle this problem in their classroom – it could be about classroom management, teacher modelling, or the design of the tasks the students were attempting.

The coach still then needs to break down their proposed solution into manageable bite-sized steps, to model these and to facilitate teacher practice. They also need to support the teacher to process their experiences through careful questioning, which gets the teacher to see how well the individual strategy they are practising is working, and how it relates to larger principles of teaching.

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Other factors for coaches to bear in mind

It’s worth noting a few caveats. For a teacher to be able to reliably identify the problems they face in their classroom, they need to have strong classroom awareness – something which novice teachers may struggle with. In this case, a comprehensive curriculum that seeks to cover all dimensions of teaching, with instructional coaching integrated within it, seems to work better to give novice teachers a firm foundation for their future development (Cohen et al. 2020) – this is a key feature of our Early Career Teachers programme.

When working with more experienced teachers, clearly defining the persistent problem that they want to tackle is also a challenge. It shouldn’t be too narrow or specific to a particular class, but should be universal and unavoidable – a problem that almost all teachers face and need to address if they are to be successful. A challenge for coaches is building confidence in matching strategies to various problems, understanding how they relate to broader principles within teaching, and sequencing them over time. These latter challenges are something we’re keen to unpick with participants on our new Instructional Coaching programme.

We believe that instructional coaching has the power to support teachers to manage the complexity of their classroom, no matter what their phase or subject. We also believe that coaches can best support this by seeing the goal of their coaching as being as much about developing the mental models of their teachers as embedding new classroom habits.


References:

Cohen, J., Wong, V., Krishnamachari, A., & Berlin, R. (2020) Teacher Coaching in a Simulated Environment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head.

Feldon, D. (2007) Cognitive Load and Classroom Teaching: The Double-Edged Sword of Automaticity. Educational Psychologist.

Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, B. (2020) Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education.

Kennedy, M. (2016) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education.

Persky, A.M. & Robinson, J.D. (2017) Moving from novice to expertise and its implications for instruction. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.

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