How can coaching improve teaching and learning?

The following combines a paper and presentation shared at the 2012 Mentoring Conference at The University of New Mexico on October 25th.

Educational reform has been on Americans’ minds for over 150 years (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). It remains a hot topic as some reformers voice concerns about the poor standardized-test scores, graduation rates, and career-readiness of students in the United States (U.S.) (Council on Foreign Relations, 2012). These reformers suggest that this is a potential national security issue that requires immediate action. Consequently, most efforts to improve the U.S. educational system focus on improving the quality of teachers through recruitment, removal, or retraining, but Hiebert and Morris (2012) identify these methods as mostly ineffective.

Why is simply improving teachers an ineffective method of education reform? First, it seems to be addressing a somewhat manufactured crisis. We are not suggesting that the issues raised in U.S. Education Reform and National Security (Council on Foreign Relations, 2012) ought to be ignored, only that they be put into historic perspective; some of these are issues the U.S. has been dealing with for several decades without catastrophic consequences. Second, replacing teachers ignores the fundamental issue inhibiting education reform - culture (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Better teachers will not change the system because the system is rooted in our culture. In fact, until the U.S. has an education system dedicated to making gradual, documented improvements to teaching from within, any efforts at education reform are doomed because what education looks like is so ingrained in our society.

This is why we think a comprehensive mentorship approach could benefit education reform. Instead of improving teachers, we can empower teachers to improve teaching. By fostering a generational mentoring mindset, the experience and wisdom of the profession could be passed down and improved upon. In order to overcome the power of the culture, mentors and protégés would need to be encouraged to:

  • be aware of the entirety of what goes into teaching and learning; 
  • accept that there are things to improve in our teaching; 
  • make the adjustments necessary to improve student learning through improving teaching; and
  • document our efforts so others may study and improve upon them.
With these points in mind, Grand Valley State University's Department of Mathematics altered the student teaching experience from the traditional  observation and feedback to a coaching model designed around the ideas of Knight (2007) and Duncan (2006). Both of these approaches are rooted in the meta-analysis of Joyce and Showers (2002) that shows coaching has a significant impact on improving teaching when added to typical professional development programs.
Making our preservice teachers aware of the entire Teaching-Learning Cycle is a foundational goal of our first course for secondary-level student teachers in mathematics. Culture plays such a tremendous role in our education system because almost everyone has spent a significant amount of time on the student-side-of-the-desk. People view teaching as mostly about instruction because that is what they saw from their vantage point as students. Few students are aware of the hard work effective teachers put into assessment, evaluation, and planning outside of the lesson. In fact, many of the most effective teachers work so hard at these external aspects, that they make the instruction look easy - so easy that students think, "I could do that," without realizing everything that teaching entails.

Therefore, we spend an entire semester focusing on the Teaching-Learning Cycle. The student teachers create a portfolio of their work that addresses each phase. Furthermore, one of the three observations we make of their teaching is outside the classroom in order to reinforce the idea that teaching is more than simply instruction. Student teachers are offered an opportunity to meet and discuss issues related to designing assessments and evaluating student work. They are also able to ask for more support in planning lessons or units. Each observation, whatever phase it focuses on, requires an action plan that asks the student teacher to identify an area of teaching they wish to work on improving.

Prior to 2006, GVSU’s Department of Mathematics used a fairly conventional approach to supervision of student teachers. This entailed observing a student teacher in the classroom three times over a semester and providing feedback on what went well and what needed work. The student teachers were evaluated on the progress they made in implementing the areas of improvement identified by the supervisor.

In 2006, with the aid of The Learning Network, a professional development organization associated with Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc., several of the GVSU Mathematics supervisors decided to implement a mentorship model designed around the Literacy Coaching approach. This effort was lead by two faculty members who read Duncan’s (2006) book and discussed how its ideas might be implemented with student teachers interning in secondary mathematics classrooms. With some slight modification the basic structure of pre-lesson action plan, observation, and instructional dialogue remained intact.

Duncan (2006) describes action plans as “a tool to focus the support provided by the coach. It allows the coach to see where the teacher needs feedback. It provides the coach with a window into what the teacher already knows and has tried. It becomes a planning tool for their job-embedded work.” Her action plan asked the following questions:

  • What is your current challenge in literacy instruction?
  • What is/are your question/questions?
  • What do you know about that area, and what are you trying?
  • What support do you need?
GVSU faculty adjusted these questions to meet the needs of the pre-service mathematics teachers they supervised:

  • What is my current challenge in teaching mathematical literacy?
  • What do I already know about this?
  • What questions do I have?
  • Which one of these questions do I need to focus on to develop my understanding?
  • How will I develop my understanding?
  • What support do I need to enact my action plan?
  • How will I monitor my progress?
This framework provides a way for the novice teachers to identify areas of improvement and ask for specific support. The student teachers learn that it is acceptable to seek help for the challenges they face, and the mentors are provided with a specific issue to focus on.
After reading a student teacher's action plan, the coach assembles any resources that might relate to the issue and then conducts a lesson observation. During the lesson, the coach keeps notes on what is going on and ideas, questions, and concerns related to the challenge identified by the student teacher. The notes represent a recount of what is observed and any associated ideas – all related to the focus provided by the teacher.

In outside observations, classroom artifacts replace the traditional observation of instruction and student learning. This entails teachers bringing in assessment items to align with standards, students' responses to evaluate, or lesson plans they wish to improve. In order to facilitate discussion and collaboration, student teachers are strongly encouraged to sign up for outside observations in pairs. This mirrors another change in the program, the placement of student teachers during their first practicum experience in pairs in a single classroom whenever possible. Under these conditions, student teachers are able to collaborate on all aspects of improving teaching.

Notes from each observation are shared with the teacher during the debriefing but the coach tends to focus on several key points in order to make the most of the time available. These decisions are mainly made based on what the student teacher has shared in the action plan. Part of the responsibility of a coach is to help the teachers to recognize things that they do intuitively and make them more intentional. Therefore, if a student teacher has written about wanting to improve instruction through use of formative assessment during a lesson, then the coach might be sure to highlight examples from the lesson where the student teacher was engaged in formative assessment but might not be aware of it.
Finally, the student teacher is asked to reflect on the entire experience and consider ways to adjust and annotate the lesson so that they might be shared with others concerned with the same challenge. These reflections and modified lessons serve as an informal assessment for the coach as to what the student teacher attended to during the instructional dialogue. Furthermore, the student teachers’ reflections often support the development of their next action plan.

We have been working on getting the student teachers to use social media in an effort to make their thinking about improving teaching public. The student teachers are asked to blog about their efforts and work with teachers online to improve the profession. They use Twitter daily to maintain contact with us and with each other about what is going on in their classroom and consider ways to make teaching better. And this year we created a Facebook page to house our discussion of The Teaching Gap (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). All of these ideas are intended to accumulate the ways they are trying to improve teaching so that they might be scrutinized and built upon.

While we see our efforts as an improvement over the traditional student teaching approach used before 2006, problems remain. It is no surprise that these are related to culture. The student teachers often see the observation and debriefing experience as a way to improve them as teachers. They look to us to fix them rather than work with them. Furthermore, they are sometimes reluctant to share their ideas with others because they do not see how they could have anything to contribute to the profession. We recognize that our own cultural experiences are adding to these issues which is why we are looking at applying a different coaching model.
While the coaching models described by Knight (2007) and Duncan (2006) rely solely on what Costa and Garmston (2002) describe as consulting and collaborating, the Cognitive CoachingSM model identifies four distinct levels of support that can be provided by the coach: coaching, collaboration, consulting, and evaluating. Regardless of the level of support, the primary role of the cognitive coach is as a non-judgmental mediator of thinking. This is accomplished through three kinds of structured conversations: planning, reflecting, and problem resolving. Thus, the goal of the work is to develop self-directed practitioners who have the “cognitive capacity for high performance, both independently and as members of a community” (Costa & Garmston, 2002). This is in direct alignment with the goals of the university supervisors.
One way Cognitive CoachingSM achieves this end is through the recognition that changes in behavior are not possible unless there is a change in perception, belief, or assumption. A collection of frameworks supports these changes because coaches can be more intentional about what choices to make. One framework helps coaches to be cognizant of the levels of support available and move among them deliberately. The three types of structured conversations offer coaches a map that ensures a productive coaching session. Finally, Cognitive CoachingSM provides an understanding of the five States of Mind: Efficacy, Craftsmanship, Interdependence, Flexibility, and Consciousness (Costa & Garmston, 2002).

Knowledge of the five States of Mind provides coaches with a structure for determining key points for both observations and the discussions that follow. Together, these frameworks can provide university supervisors with explicit tools to support student teachers in addressing the perceptions, beliefs, and assumptions that interfere with their ability to grow professionally and, therefore, contribute to the development of the profession.
The shift from the current coaching model used in the Department of Mathematics to the Cognitive CoachingSM approach will take existing practices and make then more structured and intentional. Furthermore, it reframes the idea of what coaching entails. Instead of relying on the metaphor of an athletic coach, Cognitive CoachingSM embraces the symbolism of the stage coach. The idea is that the coach helps move individuals from one level of cognitive development to another.

Cognitive CoachingSM was initially influenced by the work of Cogan, Goldhammer & Anderson at Harvard Graduate School and the clinical supervision of students in their Masters in Arts of Teaching program in the 1970s. While significant research exists regarding the use of Cognitive CoachingSM between cooperating teachers and their student teachers and student teacher-to-student teacher, there is less research on how Cognitive CoachingSM might impact university supervisors work with student teachers (Edwards, 2011). This could be a rich source of data in the effort to improve teaching in the United States.

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