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Instructional Coaching: Finally, an Easy Choice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Want more posts like this? Please read: The Pendulum is not Swinging Back, The Next Great Tool for Teachers: Instructional Coaches, and  Thank you for making me cry. Also, be sure to check out the infographics page for other applicable resources.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground contributor Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

A few years ago, I read The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. I was fascinated by the effect choice has on the human psyche. My learning from this book has changed my approach to simple tasks like grocery shopping and more complex manners like child-rearing and teaching. Schwartz writes:

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”

In other words, having choice is vital, but, too many options to choose from is destructive.

In the field of education, choice is a commodity frequently cited as one most valued by teachers. The 2014 study Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found:

“those [teachers] who choose all or most of their professional learning opportunities are more than twice as satisfied with professional development as those with fewer options.”

Additionally, there has been quite a bit written, both formally and informally, on educators’ desire to discontinue “one-size-fits-all/sit and get” professional development as this method is met with resistance and is ineffective at producing change. Instead, self-directed professional development options are being promoted for teachers.

Choice in professional development allows educators to learn more about areas of interest and tap into perceived strengths. Both of these factors build teacher self-efficacy and in turn positively impact student growth. Fortunately, in today’s educational landscape there is not a shortage of choice (for professional development and otherwise).  Let’s take a look at some numbers:

  1. 353 – number of weekly education Twitter chats

  2. 2174 – number of EdTech Products available for educators (most with PD/training options)

  3. 4,050,0000 – number of Google Search results for “Instructional Strategies”

  4. Too many to count – number of EdCamps, Voxer Chats, Pinterest boards, books, blogs, podcasts, YouTube tutorials, etc.

The mere quantity of choices available to teachers could overwhelm even the most resolute of educators. Schwartz suggests that being faced with too many options causes many people to choose nothing which, ultimately, leads to disappointment:

When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

Here we see a paradox. How can we accommodate teachers’ desire for choice and minimize the insurmountable task of evaluating all the available options?

The answer to this question is yet another reason why instructional coaching programs are crucial components to successful professional learning and growth of students. (You can read about other reasons for instructional coaching programs here.)

Instructional coaching’s foremost thought leader, Jim Knight of the Kansas Coaching Project says,

Effective coaching makes it easier for teachers to learn and implement new ideas. Indeed, without follow-up such as coaching, most professional learning will have little effect.”

Knight’s research is corroborated by the meta-analysis done by John Hattie author of Visible Learning For Teachers . Hattie found that when instructional coaching is conducted over-time in conjunction with data team analysis of how students learn to inform instruction student growth is impacted with an effect size of .51 (anything with an effect size above .4 is considered effective).

Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles. Choice is an essential part of coaching cycles and is one of the seven instructional coaching partnership principles outlined by Knight.

When teachers (individually or in teams) partner with a coach, the coach supports the teacher to identify a goal. The teacher may have already come to the coach with an idea they want to explore. Or, sometimes the coach will engage in some preliminary learning on behalf of the coachee(s) to determine options. Instructional coaches are not experts on all things content and instruction, but, they do have significant training on how to determine if resources are aligned to research-based effective strategies and can decipher suitability of strategies. Either way, the coach and the teacher will discuss the possible courses of action and the coachee will choose how and what they will do to achieve their goal.

The learning phase continues with the coach modeling and/or co-teaching the chosen strategy followed by the teacher putting the strategy into action. The learning portion of the coaching cycle culminates when quantifiable improvement on the stated goal is noted. Typically, growth is confirmed by comparing evidence collected before the cycle, during the cycle, and at the end of the cycle. Sustainability of the goal can also be ascertained by continued check-ins and partnership on subsequent goals.

With the paradox of choice teachers face on a daily basis, instructional coaching as the primary vehicle for professional development makes perfect sense. Whether a teacher is well-versed in the available options and readily participating in self-directed professional development or conversely if a teacher does not know where to begin, an instructional coach will accommodate the needs of the teacher and ensure that teachers reach and sustain their goals.

In the words of my favorite coach, Mike Ditka, “I think it’s a wise choice.” Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

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