Coaching & Diagnosis
Part 2: Single Steps & Change Sequences
In these posts on diagnosis in coaching, I argue that we should move away from a focus on the next highest-leverage step, and towards the idea of a coaching curriculum.
In part 1, I introduced the two differing cases of Paul and Gillian and argued that:
- Effective coaching is about deep diagnosis. Before we consider action steps, we need to ensure that we've got a fix on the fundamental learning problems students face
- We then need to work out the teaching goal to tackle. In other words, the optimal focus for a teacher to address the learning problem at hand. If there are multiple routes to addressing a learning problem, we can use the principles of Motivation and Coherence to select the most appropriate.
Before reading part 2, it's worth digging into the first post, here.
In this post, we will continue looking at the issue of coaching diagnosis, with an attempt to answer the following question:
How can we help coaches move beyond single steps and towards change sequences?
- As coaches, what theory of teacher change should we base our diagnosistic approach on?
- How can we use this theory of change to create bespoke coaching sequences for the teachers we work with?
- How can we easily determine how much support a teacher requires?
How can we help coaches move beyond single Steps and towards Change Sequences?
Fig 1. We've identified a Learning Problem and a Teaching Goal. Now, we need to decide on specific steps to set.
1. What theory of teacher change should we base our diagnosistic approach on?
We will focus on Paul. His coach identified a learning problem emanating from a distracting classroom environment. They explored two potential goals to address the issue - improving explanations or addressing low-level disruption - and for reasons of motivation and coherence, decided to focus on the goal of addressing low-level disruption first.
A single action-step achieved and completed over a week seems unlikely to help Paul build the skills, systems, routines and student motivation required to address systemic issues with low level disruption. Paul's problems with this class run deep and, as I've written about in a previous post , achieving lasting change in the classroom is rarely as easy as giving the teacher a new action to perform and letting them get on with it.
Changing Paul's practice isn't something that can be done with a single action step. Paul's coach will need to create a coaching sequence, a succession of steps that will aggregate into a large scale change. How can coaches do this?
Outlining our theory of change
Many of the Steps coaches work on with teachers are aimed at changing what students do and - ultimately - think about in the classroom. If we ask teachers to use questioning strategies like Wait Time and Cold Call (Lemov, 2014), we are aiming to alter the quality and quantity of student thought. If we use positive behaviour management strategies, we are aiming to change how students feel and act.
Yet, changing not only what students do but what they think is not as simplistic as the above paragraph implies. It's not as easy as we do this, students do that. For teachers, using a strategy in the right place, at the right time is a major challenge; ensuring that this has the desired effect on students is more challenging still.
To ensure that coaches help teachers to successfully influences student learning, we need to be clear about our theory of change. Which process should we follow to ensure that changing teacher actions successfully influences their students?
The overall aim of teaching is to cause student learning. As learning is invisible, our locus of control is student action. Teachers influence their environment to cause student behaviours that we know are likely to lead to learning. How can we help teachers ensure this?
- Teacher Knowledge: Step one is to consider what teachers know: the quality, accuracy and depth of teacher mental models is a critical foundation for any change in their actions. If we want to help change what students do, we need to begin with what teachers think
- Teacher Action: After working on teacher mental models, we need to support teachers to enact these as classroom behaviours. If we want to change what students do, we need to change what teachers do
- Student Knowledge: Before a teacher can act to successfully change student behaviour, they need to influence what students think and feel. If students aren't motivated to change, or are unclear about the rationale, bringing about a change in their behaviour is unlikely. In practice, this looks like 'launching' the intended change, explaining the system, expectations, underpinning philosophy and rationale. As Lemov (2019) argues, "Students in a high-performing classroom understand the dynamics of personal and group accountability." If we want to change what students do, we need to change what students know
- Student Actions: Once the students understand the expectations and rationale, teachers can begin to influence behaviour. If they do this in a way that helps students to build habits surrounding the change, this cycle has been maximally successful.
Key Idea: Changing Student Behaviour = Teacher Knowledge → Teacher Action → Student Knowledge → Student Action
2.How can we use this theory of change to create bespoke coaching sequences?
Paul's Change Sequence
Let's look at the theory of change in action.
- If Paul doesn't have a clear mental model of how students can behave if successfully managed, and of what successful classroom management looks like, he won't know what he's aiming at. As Kennedy (2016) points out, teachers that have nothing to compare their practice with are likely to think that their way of doing things are the only, or the even the optimal, way. [Teacher Knowledge]
- Paul needs to develop systems for - and systematically practice - noticing where and when these expectations are (and are not) being met. He needs a routinised 'tracking' system for capturing this. [Teacher Knowledge → Teacher Action]
- Paul needs a clear, positively-framed signal that he can use to achieve silence in the classroom. For example, "Pens down and eyes this way in 3, 2, 1". [Teacher Action]
- Paul needs to know the sanctions and systems that they can use if students are non-compliant. What are the school policies? How can he contextualise these for his class? [Teacher Knowledge]
- Paul needs to rehearse using his tracking system to monitor where students do and do not meet his expectations for silence. He needs to practice a clear 'self-interrupt' where he will pause and record students that are not compliant at this point [Teacher Action]
- He needs to script and practice quick, private 'reset' conversations with disruptive students: "James, I asked for silence and you called out. That's a demerit." [Teacher Action]
- At this point, Paul should have lots of the knowledge he needs to manage his class more successfully. It's time to communicate this to his students: he needs to script, rehearse and deliver a re-launch of the class behaviour systems, communicating that continued disruption is affecting everyone's learning, what the new expectations are and how the class will be held accountable. [Teacher Action → Student Knowledge]
- Paul will need to rehearse key aspects of any new routines with students, particularly the routine around quickly achieving silence [Teacher Action → Student Action]
- After Paul begins to achieve success with the new systems (particularly learning when and how to use sanctions effectively) he needs to learn positive narration strategies to wean himself off using compliance-based behaviour management [Teacher Action → Student Knowledge]
- Finally, he may need to learn how to reset and relaunch the system if students slip back to old ways. [Teacher Action → Student Knowledge → Student Action]
When addressing a problem, we should look for root causes. If we don't, our solutions often don't last. It's easy, sometimes tempting, to go straight into sanctioning students when things seem to be going wrong in the classroom, but lasting change often begins with addressing what teachers think. Our theory of change points coaches to look deeply into what might be causing a teacher's problems.
Key Idea: We begin by changing what teachers know, their mental models. This eventually moves into what teachers do, their classroom actions. At some point we have to communicate this to students; at this point, teacher action begins to influence student action.
Scheduling a Coaching Curriculum
How long could it take to work through this sequence? Some elements would almost definitely take an entire feedback meeting; others could be combined. Paul's coach chose to schedule the curriculum as listed below. Like all curriculum maps, this should bend and stretch to the requirements of the learner: if Paul is set an action step and doesn't achieve it, the sequence may need to be extended; if action steps don't work as intended, it may be necessary to go back to the drawing board.
- Coaching Session 1: 1 & 2 - what are our expectations and how can we monitor them?
- Coaching Session 2: 3 - rehearsing a signal for silence
- Coaching Session 3: 4 & 5 - What sanction system will we use, and what is the routine for tracking this?
- Coaching Session 4: 6 - How should we sanction disruptive students, and when is the right time to do this?
- Coaching Session 5: 7 & 8 - How can I launch the new system so that students are clear about how it will work? How can we rehearse key elements?
- Coaching Session 6: 9 - How can I use positive management strategies to move away from sanctions and build a positive culture?
- Coaching Session 7: 10 - What do I do if students slip back into old habits?
There's an open question here about when Paul should begin practise these changes in the classroom. The first four coaching sessions take place before he learns to launch the entire new technique with his students. Should be use them in his classroom anyway? There is no right answer here: there are aspects that are vitally important to practise as early as possible (monitoring where students meet expectations) and other aspects like sanctioning students that may backfire before an effective student launch ("Why are you sanctioning me today when you didn't last lesson?"). Knowing when to help Paul execute these in his classroom is down to the contextual expertise of his coach.
Paul's coach has decided that a large number of changes is required in order to help Paul achieve his goal. This does not mean that he will ask Paul to make these all together. Paul's experience of working with his coach still needs to be granular: he needs to be able to focus on one small step at the time. Coming up with a curriculum plan is an important step towards towards effective coaching, but only if Paul works through it at a suitable speed.
In the early days of my work as a coach, I may have thought that turning Paul's classroom issue into a half term's worth of coaching was wasteful. I've changed my mind. It takes time to build teaching skill; we are talking, after all, about setting Paul up for the rest of his career. He can continue developing and applying the knowledge and skills covered here in a variety of classes and across a variety of domains.
Gillian's Change Sequence
Gillian has been working on a developing effective pair-talk. In response to a recent coaching observation, she's now focused on ensuring that students are accountable for using the ideas from paired discussion in their independent writing.
Why might achieving Paul's goal take weeks, while Gillian can potentially address her issues in a single coaching cycle? It's all about what Gillian already knows, and has already done with her class.
Let's look back at our theory of change:
- Teacher Knowledge: When they first began working on pair-talk, Gillian and her coach worked at developing her mental models about the right (and wrong) times to use such techniques, for example the idea that pair-talk is best used after the students have been taught some knowledge, rather than as a mechanism for solving novel problems
- Teacher Action: They worked through a variety of Steps around the effective use of pair talk, from how to launch the technique with her class to what she can do to address students who are unwilling to participate
- Student Knowledge: Gillian has launched, explained and scaffolded the use of pair-talk with her class. Her coach commented on how rehearsed the students were in the mechanics and routines. Her students know what is expected of them, and have experienced the benefits, so a brief explanation of additional tweaks to expectations and routines is likely to suffice
- Student actions: As a result of the previous work Gillian has done on building her knowledge and shaping student behaviour and culture, small tweaks should be enough to successfully influence students to change how they write.
3. How can we easily determine how much support a teacher requires to achieve a goal?
What is the real difference between teachers like Gillian and teachers like Paul?
What's similar about Paul and Gillian? They're both working to important goals in their teaching. Gillian wants to nail the use of pair-talk in her lessons; Paul wants an effective system for achieving silence in his classroom. Yet, there are some important differences in how their coach works with them. This is worth unpacking.
It feels as Gillian is close to the end of her work on her goal; she's launched a technique with her students, embedded key routines, improved her knowledge and skills. Potentially the last piece in the puzzle is to ensure that students are held to account to improve their independent work based on what they take from the paired discussion.
In Gillian's case, a single precise Step is sufficient to address her issue because of all the work that has already been done. Gillian's background knowledge in this area is deep, meaning that further learning is easier. She's already worked hard on embedding related routines and on building the correct student culture: an additional change can slot smoothly in. On the other hand, Paul is far closer to the start of his journey towards effective classroom management: his background knowledge is shallow and he's not done much preparatory work on behaviour management with his class.
A Diagnostic Equation
Background Knowledge + Background Practice = level of coaching support required.
A teacher's Background Knowledge is the knowledge required to purposefully and effectively make lasting changes to their practice. This includes knowledge of their students, themselves, their school systems and practices, the curriculum and appropriate teaching strategies. This knowledge combines to form a mental model.
If a teacher's Background Knowledge in an area is robust, teachers require less supplementary coaching support before a lasting change can be made. On the other hand, if we decide that support in this area is required, we must coach a teacher around their background knowledge before we can begin to work on their classroom actions.
To determine the level of a teacher's Background Knowledge, we can ask ourselves:
To achieve a lasting change, what does the teacher need to know about:
- Their class?
- The curriculum / the lesson content?
- Specific teaching strategies?
- The science of learning?
To help identify this, coaches can ask themselves:
- How can I use my coaching session to determine this? What questions can I ask?
- For all the things are are unknown, where's the best place to begin?
A teacher's Background Practice is the work they've already done on implementing change in a related area, including systems and structures for themselves and their students that support and surround a change. If this is well-developed, less additional work is required before a specific change can be enacted. Because the scaffolding is already built, we can head straight to the top floor and get to work.
To help determine the level of a teacher's Background Practice, we can ask ourselves:
- Teacher Action
- How many things must the teacher be able to do before they can make this change?
- Can they already do (some of / all of) them?
- What is a sensible order for any new actions the teacher needs to take?
- Student Knowledge
- Is there a helpful student culture in place?
- Is a student relaunch required?
- How can the change be communicated to students?
- Will the teacher find this easy or hard?
- Are appropriate systems for accountability in place?
If we decide that support is required, we may need to take a longer route to achieving an important goal, focusing on supporting teacher actions and building appropriate student knowledge. After all, if we plan a short route to our destination that hits a brick wall half way, we may as well have taken a longer, clearer path.
Key Idea: By thinking hard about a teacher's Background Knowledge and Background Practice, coaches can get a fix on the most appropriate route for helping teachers to achieve lasting change.
One of the prevailing ideas in Instructional Coaching is the principle of highest leverage, the idea that coaches should select steps that will address the most urgent challenges around helping students to learn (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2016).
I think this idea needs updating. In this series of posts, I've argued that:
- Effective coaching is about deep diagnosis. Before we consider next steps, we need to ensure that we've got a fix on the fundamental learning problems students face
- We then need to work out the teaching goal to tackle. If there are multiple routes to addressing a learning problem, we can use the principles of Motivation and Coherence to select the most appropriate
- At this point, we will be in a position to select an appropriate next step. What's more likely, though, is that the route to lasting teacher change requires building a change sequence
- It's vital to base our work as coaches on a theory of teacher change: when teachers make successful changes to their practice, this requires a change in Teacher Knowledge, Teacher Action, Student Knowledge and, finally, Student Action
- Using our theory of change allows us to ensure that when helping teachers to solve classroom problems, we tackle root causes rather than surface issues
- To determine the level of support a teacher requires, coaches can use a simple diagnostic equation: Background Knowledge + Background Practice = level of coaching support required.
The narrative of selecting the next 'high-leverage' step for a teacher isn't wrong, but it is too simplistic. Helping teachers to make lasting change is tough; if we understate the importance of coaches developing deep expertise, we risk them failing to be up to the task.
Hopefully, the tools and ways of thinking provided in these posts are useful in helping coaches to think more deeply about diagnosis.
Elsewhere, I've written about Responsive Coaching, the idea that the coaching mechanisms we use in our feedback must vary according to the requirements of the teachers we work with. In this post, we looked at Responsive Diagnosis, the idea that as coaches we are responsible for mapping a route to change that is bespoke to the teacher we are working with.
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