In this guide, instructional coach and Ambition Fellow Steve Farndon gives an introduction as to what instructional coaching is, why it's different to the coaching you've seen before, and how it can have an enormous impact.
What is instructional coaching?
In terms of impact on student outcomes, instructional coaching has one of the strongest evidence bases of any form of CPD - and it can be made 'mechanism-rich'.
The principles of instructional coaching are linked to the principles of developing expertise in any domain through the use of deliberate practice. The first step is to identify a destination or outcome, often called the target performance.
Teachers can move from their current performance towards this target performance by practising a sequence of sub-goals with the aid of a coach. This allows them to overcome existing ingrained habits and adopt new behaviours. The input of the coach is in observing the practitioner’s current performance, setting precise sub-goals and designing practice.
This is in sharp contrast with current practice in many schools, where observations are largely about judging the effectiveness of a teacher.
Where feedback is given it is often highly generic, specifying what needs to change but not how the change can happen. Feedback like ‘You need to improve your questioning’ is equivalent to a footballer being told ‘You need to score more goals’ or a surgeon being told ‘You need to heal more patients’!
Instructional coaching is also in contrast to a more traditional coaching model where the coach asks a series of open questions in order to draw out the answer that the practitioner is already aware of. Instructional coaching assumes that there are some areas where the teacher being coached is more novice and that the coach, being more expert, will be able to guide their improvement in those areas.
This doesn’t only apply to new teachers – all teachers have areas in which they can improve, and the most efficient way of doing this is to undergo direct, explicit instruction.
We can draw a parallel here with other performance professions: these are jobs which involve significant preparatory work and planning but in which the final outcome is determined to a greater extent by a high stakes final performance – such as acting, surgery, sport or law.
In these cases, coaching looks quite different from the current dominant model in teaching, in these cases coaches:
- identify, and clearly define, the target performance
- identify the biggest gap between target and current performance
- break this down into components which can be practised
- design practice
- facilitate practice in controlled conditions
- give feedback and increase complexity of practice
It might be that a footballer knows that they want to score more goals, but, in the heat of a game, they struggle to work out what is holding them back.
A skilled coach will identify an area which can be worked on – a better first touch when receiving the ball in the final third of the pitch for example. They would then break this down into an element that can be practised: improving weight distribution to give better balance when receiving the ball.
This is then translated into drills that build up in complexity – practising whilst static, then whilst moving, then in a practice game, then in a real game – all whilst receiving corrective feedback. In doing so the footballer tackles a previous weakness in manageable steps and embeds it.
Instructional coaching of teachers seeks to fulfil a similar function: coaches observe lessons and select the area which they think will most improve the teacher’s practice. They then identify how the teacher can improve in this area, creating manageable, bite-sized steps for improvement.
Vitally, they design practice for teachers and give them feedback in controlled conditions before the teacher attempts the new technique in their classroom, helping them to overcome their existing classroom habits.
How does instructional coaching work?
One example of this process might be a teacher whose students struggle to link prior and new learning and see the relevance of lesson activities. A coach may diagnose this as being an issue with the teacher’s lesson introductions which are over-long and unfocused. The coach would set a next step of scripting out a lesson introduction that links past, current and future learning, offering a model example and getting the teacher to practise this particular aspect of their delivery with feedback.
These bite-sized steps might seem relatively minor, and unlikely to improve student outcomes, however instructional coaching sessions usually form part of a longer trajectory of improvement. For example, a coach may work on the design and implementation of retrieval practice with a teacher whose students are struggling to recall key information over time.
By taking a long-term, incremental approach to improvement, teachers are supported to make sustainable changes to their classroom practice, whilst simultaneously developing the mental models needed to use these new techniques appropriately. This is what makes instructional coaching such a powerful form of professional development.
Successful instructional coaching requires a number of features:
- teachers must be invested in the process
- coaches must possess strong inter-personal skills to develop relationships of trust
- coaches need to be disciplined in terms of setting bite-sized steps for improvement and getting their teachers to practise these
More important than all of these, however, is the expertise of the coach.
In a similar way as coaches in other performance professions, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to be expert practitioners of the craft, however they do need to have a broad knowledge of teaching that is declarative rather than tacit i.e. they know what is done, why it is done and how it is done.
Instructional coaching has the impact that it does because of its specificity and incremental nature. It also acknowledges that teachers need high levels of support to adopt new habits in the complex environments of their classrooms.