The origins of incremental coaching

June 15, 2017
Andy Buck

Andy Buck

Founding Director, Leadership Matters

In the last few years I have seen lots of evidence to suggest that the key to improving the quality of teaching is to use a regular cycle of 'incremental coaching'.

I first came across this approach in chapter two of Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Leverage Leadership, where he uses the term 'instructional coaching' to describe the process. For a UK context I have coined the phrase 'incremental coaching', as instructional coaching has the potential to be misleading, implying that one tells someone how to improve their teaching, rather than enabling teachers to own their professional learning.

I chose ‘incremental coaching’ as an alternative, as making improvements one step at a time is at the heart of the approach, allowing for changes to teaching practice to become embedded as classroom habit.

Where incremental coaching began

The incremental coaching approach is based on avoiding some of the common errors Bambrick-Santoyo believes we make when thinking about how best to improve the performance of teachers. In the diagram below, which is based on his work, the left-hand column in the table summarises what he thinks are common pitfalls that schools fall into, and the right-hand column offers the aspects of teacher development we ought to be aspiring to.

Time management

The key aspects of incremental coaching avoid these shortcomings, emulating the right-hand column. By following up observations as soon as possible, the focus on improvement becomes immediate and manageable. As questioning from the coach begins as open, the teacher is able to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about the best ways to improve. And the clear action-based steps of incremental coaching ensure there is an agreed timeline and review point – making the conversation practical and immediately applicable.

Incremental coaching in practice

Three years ago, I came across a great example of incremental coaching in action at Torquay Academy. I was initially working as an executive coach with the principal, Steve Margetts. I was quickly struck by how systematically and effectively the school was using an incremental coaching approach to great effect. Their outcomes for pupils at the school have risen significantly over the last two years. They are clear that incremental coaching has been one of the key drivers for this dramatic improvement in results.

I was so impressed with what was happening, I went back to Ambition School Leadership and suggested we commission a review of incremental coaching, not just at Torquay, but in some other secondary and primary schools that had been using the approach. I wanted to find out more about the impact of the approach and how it might work in other contexts. I was also keen to understand the conditions which might be necessary for its successful implementation. I am delighted that the report has given us a really useful insight into this important area of work.

But the story doesn’t end there. Like any great school, Torquay is always looking for ways to improve what it does. They have recently taken the original seven-step model that incremental coaching is based on and sythesised it into four key steps, as shown in the ASAP model below.


What's next for incremental coaching?

In incremental coaching, after a short observation has taken place, there is a follow-up conversation, ideally on the same day. It begins with some positive, precise feedback about what was seen.

Then there is an opportunity to scrutinise what opportunities there are for growth. These should be arrived at through skillful questioning by the observer. Only if this doesn’t quite hit the spot does the observer make suggestions. The next stage is to then focus on what a single specific improvement might look like in practice.

Finally, the conversation finishes with a chance for teachers to practice the particular focus for growth. Where needed, the observer can model or teach this. As a result, a teacher can focus on practising and improving that one area with clarity and confidence. A week or two later, the whole process is repeated.

What I particularly like about the incremental coaching approach is its precision and its sustainability, rooted in improving classroom practice one step at a time. I very much hope this excellent report will inspire other schools across the country to consider adopting an incremental coaching approach. It seems to me the benefits for pupils are there for all to see.

Find out more about incremental coaching by downloading our 12-page summary of our report.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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