Coaching and Diagnosis: Part 1

Essay • 3 Jan '22
Josh Goodrich

Coaching & Diagnosis

Part 1: Solving Problems & Setting Goals

The central idea of Instructional Coaching is deceptively simple. As a coach, we watch a teacher in action, help them to select a 'high leverage' change (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2016) - a teaching strategy that will make a big difference to the learning of their students - and work with them to enact this change in the classroom.

The reality is more complex: if the problems teachers faced were always simple enough to be tackled by a single high-leverage change, they wouldn't really be problems at all! Sometimes, we can help teachers to change through focusing on a single step; often, they require more. Knowing how to diagnose what a teacher can do to improve the learning of students and the most effective way of helping them to make this change is the heart of great coaching.

It's worth drawing an analogy with how we design curricula for students. The most effective method isn't (just) to ask teachers at the end of every lesson: "What is the next most high-leverage thing that you can teach?" Instead, we combine this in-the-moment responsiveness with a carefully pre-planned curriculum. I believe that we should move - at least in part - towards a curriculum-design approach to coaching.

Why does reading this matter? It's difficult to understate how important I think Instructional Coaching is as a tool to ensure that all teachers can continually improve. But, I also believe that we need to work harder on helping coaches to get this right. If we approach coaching with the idea of a single step in our minds, we are likely to fall at the first hurdle. These posts are an attempt to build a more nuanced approach to coaching diagnosis.

A note on terminology

Throughout these posts, the following concepts will be detailed and exemplified. At this point, it's worth briefly introducing them:

  • Learning Problems: Learning problems are central challenges that all teachers face around instruction, the classroom environment, behaviour management, resource and curriculum design and other discrete elements of teaching. These are sometimes also known as persistent problems (Kennedy, 2016b)
  • Teaching Goals: Teaching goals are concrete elements of a teacher's practice that they can seek to change in order to overcome learning problems, for example the goal of developing a successful routine for silence
  • Steps: Steps are specific, granular actions that teachers can take in order to achieve teaching goals. For example, using a countdown ("Silence and eyes this way in 3,2.1 etc.,") when asking students to become silent. Sometimes, a single step is sufficient to achieve a goal; often, multiple steps must be combined
  • Change Sequence: A Change Sequence is a series of steps that a coach plans and schedules in order to help a teacher achieve a teaching goal and overcome a learning problem. In other words, a road-map to lasting teacher change.

Post 1 - Solving Problems & Setting Goals

  1. Two teachers; two diagnostic approaches
  2. How can we diagnose the foundational learning problems that teachers face?
  3. How can we turn learning problems into teaching goals?

Ready to get started? To begin with, we will look at a couple of cases:


1. Two teachers; two diagnostic approaches

Paul

Paul is a first-year science trainee. He's had a successful training year, particularly with his KS3 classes. As with most teachers, however, Paul has a nightmare class. With 9B, his confidence evaporates. He dreads their lessons, often feeling anxious for hours before they begin.

Paul's coach watches him teaching a lesson on the atomic structure of metals, and makes the following observations:

  • Paul's explanations can be unclear and confusing: "If I push my microscopic finger into these atoms they'll float around."
  • Paul's explanations are interspersed with lots of whole-class, closed questioning: "Hands up if you would describe this as neat rows..." Students begin to use this as an opportunity to call out answers, or to begin private conversations. The constant stop-start can make the lesson feel disjointed
  • Student behaviour becomes increasingly disruptive as lessons progress. One student is repeatedly (fake) sneezing. Others are replying to this with their own sneeze-based commentaries. Paul has to repeatedly stop teaching to ask for silence, but struggles to ever achieve full focus.

Paul is aware of these issues and is upset and demotivated: he feels he is failing with this group.

We'll contrast Paul's case with Gillian's.

Gillian

Gillian - an English teacher of five year's experience - has been working with her coach for most of the half term on the use of pair-talk to increase the 'ratio' (Lemov, 2014) of student participation and thought in her lessons. At first, students were very unwilling to talk in pairs. In her early coaching, they focused on developing routines and strong culture for pair-talk. In more recent coaching, Gillian's class seem to have turned a corner: routines were slick and effective, students engaged in prolonged, focused discussion around two comparative poems. Gillian was able to circulate the room, giving students feedback on their ideas and gathering these for later discussion.

Last lesson, her coach noticed that when students went back to working alone after the pair-work, they didn't seem to be including the ideas discussed with their peers and the class. While pair-work was generating deeper ideas around the poems, students were not using these ideas later on. The coach decided to address this by working with Gillian to improve her procedures around redrafting after pair-talk. Specifically, to:

  • Ensure students capture new ideas for use later in the lesson by asking them to take a specific number of notes during pair discussion. Afterwards, note down the best ideas on the board for students to use later.
  • Ensure that students use new ideas in their own work by highlighting the importance of using the ideas of their classmates when they complete their final re-draft: “We are going to improve our work based on what we just discussed in our pairs and as a class. You need to use at least five ideas from the class to make your writing even better, ticking these off the list as you go."

Sometimes a small change will do the job, and sometimes it won't!

The conceived wisdom in Instructional Coaching is that when we coach we are hunting for that "highest-leverage" next step to set a teacher (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2018). I don't think this idea is wrong but it is easy to confuse with something else: that there is always one single action which - on its own - will make a manifest difference to the learning of students.

Paul's coach has identified some deep-rooted problems. There are at least two reasons for this: first, Paul's explanations are unclear and interspersed with distracting questions. Second, disruptive behaviour is making teaching challenging.

When coaching teachers with multiple issues, it can be difficult to know which direction we should take. Let's say the coach decides to focus on addressing low-level disruption. It's not immediately obvious if there is a single step that will solve this problem. The same problem applies to the issue with Paul's explanations. Perhaps, the reality is that there isn't a single change that will immediately rectify the issue. Helping Paul may well be a more prolonged process than helping Gillian.

Knowing the right ways to approach teachers like Paul and Gillian is a matter of effective diagnosis.

Fig 1. The diagnostic model that we will explore in the rest of this blog series.


2. How can we diagnose the foundational Learning Problems teachers face?

When we work with teachers to change their practice, there is always a genuine risk that the changes they make will harm rather than benefit student learning. Ensuring that we are helping teachers to change in a beneficial way is a matter of ensuring that we are responding to real learning issues. As coaches, we must be clear about a direct link between the change we seek and robust evidence underpinning how students learn.

We can aid this by basing our diagnosis on an evidence-informed model of the mechanisms underpinning learning. In Dan Willingham's "simple model" of memory (2009) - pictured below in an update by Oliver Caviglioli (2020) - the central mechanisms of learning are modelled in a way that can be helpful to coaches.

Fig 2. Willingham's simple model of memory

The environment (E.g.,classroom, resources, learning content, teacher talk, other students) is the only aspect of this model over which teachers have direct control. It is our only source of leverage over student learning and behaviour. Every other element on the model, from attention to working memory, learning to remembering, can be indirectly controlled by ensuring that teachers make precise, purposeful adjustments to their environment. Through making these adjustments, we aim to influence the processes that drive student learning (attention, working memory, thought and recall). Through taking action to alter their environment, teachers can influence:

  1. Attention: "Attention is the gatekeeper of learning." (Mccrae, 2018). The classroom environment is dense and distracting, confusing and complex. If student attention isn't focused on the right aspects they cannot learn. Teachers can influence this through orienting attention, managing student behaviour and other distractions and through motivating students to pay attention
  2. Working memory: our working memories, the site of conscious thought, have limited capacities. If we overload them, students will be unable to process information in a way that leads to learning, even if their attention was exclusively focused on that information. Teachers can help to avoid this by planning their lessons and communication to ensure students focus on a few ideas, processes or pieces of information at a time
  3. Thought: "Memory [learning] is the residue of thought" (Willingham, 2009). When students successfully think about the content in our lessons, they learn. Teachers can help to ensure this by designing lessons based around opportunities for students to think deeply about content, through simplifying content to enable successful thought and through ensuring students think about the right aspects of content during learning tasks, rather than about complex, novel or confusing task design
  4. Memory: "Learning is a persistent change in long-term memory, not just a temporary increase in student performance." (Fletcher-Wood, Bignall, Calvery, Goodrich & McCrea. 2020). Teachers can help to ensure long-term learning by creating regular opportunities for recall [remembering] and the practise of key content. Likewise, despite our best efforts, sometimes students encode erroneous information to long-term memory: unless teachers can diagnose and address this, future learning may be hampered.

Before we ask teachers to make changes to their environment, we must ensure that these changes are aimed at solving the most foundational learning problems students face. The environmental factors listed below are a set of examples rather than an exhaustive list, and are ordered from most to least foundation:

  • Most foundational - Attention: Students can only think about what they attend to; they can only learn what they think about; they can only recall or practise what they've already learnt. Problems with student attention are therefore most foundational; successfully directing and managing attention is how we initiate learning. Environmental factors that can cause attentional issues are: a chaotic classroom environment, problems with student behaviour, problems with student motivation, teacher-student and/or student-student relationships, underdeveloped behaviour and learning routines
  • Working memory: Before students can successfully think - and therefore learn - we need to ensure that the quantity or challenge of the content is appropriate. Environmental factors that can cause working memory issues are: content that is too challenging, substantial, confusing or distracting
  • Thought: Before students can retrieve learning from the long term memories, initial encoding needs to take place. Students need to think about the right things, at the right times, to learn. Environmental factors that can cause thought issues are: lesson or task design that encourages students to think about the wrong elements, confusing task design, inappropriate (too hard, too easy) challenge levels, and low-accountability lesson design, instruction or classroom management
  • Least foundational - Memory: finally, once students have successfully encoded new learning, retrieval and practice are necessary conditions of lasting learning. Environmental factors that can cause retrieval issues are: insufficient opportunities to practise, insufficient opportunities to revisit old content, insufficient attempts by the teacher to determine whether students have learnt content correctly, or hold incorrect ideas and misconceptions.

How can a focus on learning problems help to coach Paul and Gillian?

Paul's explanations are not always clear. His questions often act as distractions. Students are disrupting the lesson, often starting with shouting out answers to questions but progressing into off-task discussion.

Paul's issues all seem to stem from his management of student behaviour: a chaotic, distracting classroom environment makes learning difficult. This feels like a foundation issue with attention. In addition, confusing explanations lead to addition attention issues. An important question is: are student behaviour issues causing the problems with his explanations or vice versa? If his explanations were clearer, would students begin to behave better?

In Gillian's lesson, the coach didn't identify any issues with the attention but noticed that students weren't using key ideas in their independent work. In other words, they weren't held accountable for thinking hard about key ideas from the lesson. This can be characterised as a thought issue, and seems to be the most foundational learning issue in her classroom. If Gillian's coach identified more foundational learning problems, it would be wise for them to move away from the thought issues and address these first.


3. How can we turn Learning Problems into Teaching Goals?

Fig 3. We move from exploring how to identify a learning problem to transforming this into a Teaching Goal.

While learning problems are helpful guides to begin thinking about how to improve teaching, we cannot afford to stop here. Asking Paul to improve student attention, or Gillian to better ensure student thought is unlikely to lead to them getting better. Teachers need support in understanding how to achieve these by providing concrete goals for them to focus on.

Coaches can address this through transforming learning problems into teaching goals. A teaching goal is a more specific sub-section of the problem: teachers can work on it for a period of time, make progress and even be said to have 'finished' working on this. For example, while managing student attention [learning problem] is overwhelmingly large, asking Paul to improve his systems for achieving and maintaining silence [goal] feels a little more manageable.

The challenge for Paul and Gillian's coach is deciding which goal to select. Paul could just as easily work on the clarity and precision of his explanations as on his behaviour management.

If coaches have a variety of potential goals to choose from, how can they select the right ones?

  1. Motivation: First comes teacher motivation. While coaches are in a privileged position to help teachers make good decisions about where to focus their efforts, teacher learning cannot occur without motivation (Kennedy, 2016). If there is a choice of several possible goals, motivation is therefore a key factor. In Paul's case, he is upset and embarrassed by his perceived inability to manage the behaviour of his group. While focusing on clear and precise explanations may be equally efficient, Paul feels that addressing the behaviour issue is a more pressing concern. What Paul wants matters. It's a wiser coaching choice to help Paul focus on achieving and maintaining silence, over working on his explanations
  2. Coherence: As with students, teacher learning is best assured by following a coherent curriculum, so that teachers can build strong, stable mental models. If we have a choice between moving away from an area that we've been focusing on or staying put, the option that preserves curriculum coherence is worth selecting. Take Gillian: she's been working on building good quality pair-talk with her class. The principle of coherence suggests that we should stick with this for the time being, even if there are other ways that we could help her to increase student thought that may be similarly effective

Conclusion

In part 1 of this two part series, we've focused on the effective coaching diagnosis:

  • We looked at Paul and Gillian, two teachers at different stages of development
  • We examined issues with the prevalent idea of 'highest-leverage' in coaching
  • We looked at a method for helping coaches decide on the most foundational learning problem
  • We looked at some principles designed to help coaches transform learning problems into teaching goals

At this point, our coach still has some work to do. We know that a key idea within Instructional Coaching is the idea of granularity: the importance of enabling teacher change, one precise, specific step at a time. Paul and Gillian's coach has not yet progressed to the level of the single, specific step.

How should coaches decide on the next steps to set? What if - as in the case of Paul - a single step is unlikely to be sufficient at addressing his issues? How can we help coaches move beyond the idea of single Steps and towards the idea of a coaching curriculum?

We will focus on this in part two.


References

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get Better Faster. John Wiley & Sons

Fletcher-Wood,H. Bignall, B. Calvert, J. Goodrich, J. & McCrea, E.(2020) in The Learning Curriculum 3.0, Ambition Institute

Kennedy, M. (2016a) How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching? February 2016, Review of Educational Research 86(4)

Kennedy, Mary. (2016b) Parsing the Practice of Teaching, Journal of Teacher Education 2016b, Vol. 67(1) 6–17

Mccrae, P. (2018) Expert Teaching. What is it and how might we develop it? Institute for Teaching

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion. Jossey-Bass

Lemov, D. (2014). Teach like a champion 2.0. Jossey-Bass

Santoyo, P.B. (2018). Leverage Leadership 2.0. John Wiley & Sons

Willingham, D. (2009). Why Don't Students Like School. Jossey-Bass


More resources
Introducing the Steplab Certificate in Coaching Leadership
Harry Fletcher-Wood
Steplab Coaching Hubs
Ania Townsend
Building Support Systems at St Luke's
Alex Evans
How can PD Leads support busy teachers to become great coaches?
Rachel Sewell
Making Coaching Work at Woodham
Sarah Dickinson, Anya Thomas
See all

About Steplab

Supercharge teaching in your school.

Steplab is a professional learning platform for schools that harnesses instructional coaching and data-driven insights to systematically improve teaching.

Learn more