Coaching in Teaching and Learning

Coaching: A New Frame for Teaching and Learning

Isn’t it one of the most energizing experiences when different pieces of knowledge, separate conversations, and your own wonderings start to collide and connect, and bring you to an amazing new way of thinking? This is one of those moments for me.

It’s a mashup of the practice of coaching with next gen student and professional learning in both K-12 and higher ed (...and industry ...and wellness) with the concepts of agency and mindsets. It’s taking my breath away!

I have understood coaching in a very basic way—the coach is not an expert like a mentor or distinguished professor; the coach spends more time asking questions and listening than providing solutions and advice. That seemed enough for me to “get it.” And then NGLC’s Holly Morris, a certified coach through the International Coach Federation, walked our NGLC team through an introduction to coaching that opened my eyes to a much deeper understanding. And now I can see the transformational power of coaching.

Holly shared with us four cornerstones, adapted from Co-Active Coaching by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, and Phillip Sandahl, and applied to learning environments:

  • The client/system is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Modeling the “guide on the side” approach.
  • The coaching relationship is a designed alliance. A model that reinforces agency in learners.
  • The client sets the agenda. The agenda can be contained in a context: rubric, learning outcomes, etc.
  • The coach is mindful of the client/system context but not limited by it. “I’m busy” isn’t an excuse. “We’ve never done that” isn’t the end of the conversation.

You Are Already Enough

The first cornerstone affected me deeply when I first heard it: The client is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. It means the client is not broken, doesn’t need to be fixed, is in control of her or his own decisions and actions and growth. “You are whole.” Whereas a mentor offers advice and engages with her protégé based on her prior experiences, and whereas an advisor makes recommendations on the best path forward, the coach helps a client figure out his own path and then helps him figure out how to navigate it himself. The client owns the problem, so the client sets the agenda for the coaching relationship. NGLC’s Sarah Luchs, trained in wellness coaching, said, “In the counseling world they talk about not taking away someone's problem because it's there for a reason. The reason is to learn a lesson that's intentional, meaningful, and needed.”

Implication for teaching and learning: Our current views of the education system and education reform don’t start from a place that recognizes learners (or faculty, for that matter) as creative, resourceful, and whole. We use language about achievement gaps and remedial education that suggest some students are lacking. We’re always looking at getting students ready for the next phase of education when we talk about college and career readiness, placement tests, and grade-level achievement scores; it leads us to neglect the value learning has in the present moment.

How can educators reaffirm that learners are not deficient; that it is instead their prior learning opportunities that have been deficient? How can we focus on learning and the learner in the present here-and-now and not always be looking to what learners will need in the future? How can educators serve as guides who help learners set their own agenda for learning?

Trust Your Intuition

According to Holly, coaches recognize that good decisions involve data, values, and intuition. Education doesn’t often value intuition, does it? Objectivity and the scientific method dominate. A coach who supports a client’s intuition trusts in that client’s judgment and affirms that the client should trust his judgment too. We can’t always have all the answers to every question, but we still have to make decisions and move forward. Intuition helps us make that leap.

Holly reminded us, however, that coaching is more successful when we prepare the client to be coached. A lot of people don’t know how to respond to questions posed by a coach, even basic questions about what they want to focus their coaching session on. Clients can’t be passive in coaching.

Implication for teaching and learning: For K-12 teachers, embracing intuition validates their professional judgment. Using data to make instructional decisions is a cornerstone of blended, personalized learning strategies, but it is a challenge to do it well. How can we empower teachers to trust their intuition as they look at data to determine the next instructional move for students? Holly remarked, “That is the beauty of what’s possible in teaching: it is an exquisite combination of art and science in service of the possible.”

For colleges, it shifts the focus away from a catalog of course offerings and a faculty-centered curriculum toward a set of learner-centered decisions about their learning path. Combining intuition with data and values puts more control in the learner’s hands. What would academic advising look like if advisors adopted a coaching approach to their work, if they started from a place of trust in a student’s decision-making, if they spent more time in an advising session listening and questioning? I imagine most academic advisors value the potential to have this kind of relationship with students.

For students, incorporating intuition into the decisions they make about their learning validates their ability to know what they need and to successfully navigate their learning path. It honors their agency. For most students, school has not provided them with learning experiences that recognized their agency. The most common format in K-12 and higher education is “sit and get.” It encourages passivity: sit and take notes, don’t speak unless your raised hand is acknowledged, memorize these facts. Students will therefore need help making the shift to become a more active agent of their learning.

The Mashup

Coaching offers us a framework for making the shift to next gen learning in schools and colleges. Taking on a coaching mindset and adopting coaching practices will ensure we put students at the center of their own education. It requires that we honor the wholeness of students and the strengths they bring to the learning experience. And it will force us to zero in on learning as the central activity and the learner’s goals as the central outcome.

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