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April 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 7
The Learning Zone

4 Steps for Focusing Coaching Sessions

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When showing teachers new methods, zero in on what really matters.

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Credit: NONGASIMO / SHUTTERSTOCK
"Teaching is not one-size-fits-all; it's one-size-fits-one."
— Eric Liu, Guiding Lights (2004)
When I first started out as a professional developer, I felt a real obligation to share all the important research and information I knew about the strategies I was sharing. I would show up with file folders stuffed with information to show teachers and then talk (a lot) about the strategies I was describing. I felt I owed it to the children in the school to ensure that my professional development was comprehensive. With so much information to share, I admit, it was hard to always give clear explanations, but at least I didn't skip anything.
When I went back to the schools where I had presented, I learned quickly that very few people were using the strategies I had shared, and those who were didn't use them in the way I'd described them. So, to learn how I could be more effective, I started interviewing teachers about how they learned best. In total, I interviewed more than 300 teachers. The teachers I interviewed, and my subsequent work developing instructional coaching—first at The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and then at the Instructional Coaching Group—led me to four insights about how to most effectively share with teachers information to help their practice.

1. Use checklists for focus.

When I talked with teachers about how they learned, they told me they didn't benefit from slide after slide of information. They wanted me to zone in on the most important information and present it in a clear way that they could use. What teachers really needed, I discovered, were checklists.

The most effective checklists offered simple, easy to implement information that gave teachers clear steps to follow.

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Checklists gave teachers actionable knowledge that they could translate into practice in their work with students. The most effective checklists offered simple, easy to implement information that gave teachers clear steps to follow. Not every teaching strategy required a checklist, but for more complex practices, checklists were incredibly helpful.
Using checklists aided me as a presenter, too, helping me remember key components of strategies and keeping me from skipping over important information as I excitedly ran through explanations. Another bonus: creating checklists deepened, synthesized, and simplified my understanding of the teaching strategies I shared. Checklists also helped me overcome the common cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge, the struggle most of us experience when we try to explain something we know extremely well. As Heath and Heath write:
Once we know something, we find it hard not to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.

2 . Leave room for adaptation.

As my colleagues and I started to study instructional coaching, we quickly learned that, powerful as checklists are, they aren't a one-size-fits-all solution. Teachers need to adapt strategies so that those strategies are best suited to their teaching style and most helpful for their students (as the words at the beginning of this column, from Citizen University founder Eric Liu, reflect). Explanations must be precise, but also provisional, leaving room for teachers to adapt practices so they're helpful for each individual in their unique setting.
We also learned that it's not effective to position people as passive receivers of knowledge. Over time, we learned that as we described strategies, we had to also communicate that teachers should feel free to adapt, reject, or accept any aspects of the strategies they planned to try. Simply put, teachers should always decide how they will implement a strategy with their students in their classroom.
To allow for adaptation and teachers' choices, we learned to be flexible as we shared strategies. When coaches use the approach I suggest, they run through the steps and stop after each item to ask the collaborating teacher if they would like to do that step as it is, skip it, or change it. Then the coach records the teacher's modifications right on the checklist.

3. Share ideas carefully.

Coaches don't help teachers by keeping their ideas to themselves, especially if they think a teacher's modifications will create problems. Good coaches still share ideas, but in ways that don't shut down collaborating teachers. My colleagues and I learned that if we told teachers exactly what to do or not do, we cut them out of the thinking about the strategy, decreasing their ownership of the work and, ironically, making them less likely to adopt what we shared. (We also learned that most of us think our advice is more helpful—and more wanted by others—than it actually is!)

Good coaches still share ideas, but in ways that don't shut down collaborating teachers.

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Over time, we learned to introduce ideas provisionally by asking, "Do you mind if I share something I'm wondering?" As we shared our thoughts, we'd be clear that teachers should make all the decisions about how they implement strategies. In reality, of course, teachers will almost always do what they choose, regardless of what the coach says.

4. Offer objective standards for effective implementation.

Yes, checklists have to be adapted, but a poorly implemented strategy almost always gets poor results. So, teachers need to know what effective implementation looks and feels like. For that, they need a standard for excellence. That standard, I've learned, shouldn't be the coach's opinion; it should be a measure of student success. When teachers set powerful, student-focused goals related to achievement or engagement and implement new strategies to hit their goals, they have to keep refining their implementation until the goal is met. Only effectively implemented and adapted strategies will get the results teachers want for learners.

Toward True Change!

When coaches take this nuanced approach to explaining strategies—when they are precise but provisional as they explain strategies and offer ideas as only suggestions—and when teachers set student-focused goals to guide their actions, students will see real results. True change doesn't take a deck filled with hundreds of slides. It requires simplicity, precision, adaptation, and—crucially—a focus on student success.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Jim Knight offers instructional coaches detailed strategies for collaborating with teachers in ways that are substantive and focused on student success.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

1 Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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