How can coaches provide opportunities for active learning?
Teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither should teacher professional development. For teachers to transfer new strategies and tools into their daily classroom practice, it is critical that they have opportunities to take part in active learning. This includes rich, fruitful practices such as observing others, being observed and receiving feedback, reviewing lessons and student work, and deep reflection.
Instructional coaching is designed to maximize the amount of time that teachers spend learning by doing as they collaborate with their coach to analyze new strategies, experiment with them in the classroom, and reflect on the implementation. Our research study on coaching in the Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 suggests that when coaching programs provide teachers with more opportunities to study their own practice and try to improve it, they increase the likelihood that teachers adopt new teaching practices at a higher degree of quality.
To realize the full power of active learning in coaching, our research recommends three strategies for coaches:
1. Coaches should select the type and frequency of in-classroom support based on teacher needs.
Based on the nature of the goal that the coach and teacher are pursuing in their collaboration, as well as characteristics of the teacher (including level of experience), coaches need to select the type and frequency of in-classroom support that will be most instrumental to that individual teacher’s growth. Selecting the appropriate support maximizes the amount of quality time that teachers spend engaging in sense-making as they analyze, experiment with, and think about how to improve new strategies.
Tips for success:
- Coaches should consider the unique needs of each teacher before deciding which form of support to provide during a classroom visit (e.g., observing and collecting data, co-teaching side-by-side with the teacher, or modeling instructional strategies and tools while the teacher takes notes). A fourth grade DLP teacher, for instance, described how the type of active learning activities in which she and her coach engage vary based on a number of factors, including the lesson at hand: “Sometimes we co-teach, where she’ll make a point, I’ll make a point and then we jump in and she works with half the class while I work with the other. Sometimes I’ll just say, ‘Today it’s the coach’ [and observe her].”
- Coaches should also be aware that teachers’ needs shift over the course of the collaboration. While in the beginning of the collaboration it might be more appropriate to scaffold learning by modeling practices, as teachers become more independent, other forms of classroom support often become more beneficial (e.g., co-teaching, teacher observing the coach while taking notes).
- In determining the frequency of in-classroom support, coaches should also consider each teacher’s individual needs. A newer teacher who is trying out a new technology tool in the classroom for the first time might benefit from check-ins throughout the day, whereas a more experienced teacher might glean the same benefits from a single visit in a week.
2. Coaches should embed opportunities for reflection in coach-teacher meetings.
Structured reflection is an essential ingredient of successful coaching that supports teacher self-efficacy and confidence, and builds teachers’ willingness to apply new strategies. Rather than simply providing their own opinions or evaluation, coaches should guide teachers in focused self-reflection to help them draw their own conclusions about their practice. One eighth grade history teacher participating in the DLP described it this way: “My coach always asks me a lot of questions; then I usually come to a conclusion based on them.”
Tips for success:
- Coaches can use a number of techniques to guide deeper reflection in one-on-one meetings with teachers, including examining artifacts of student work, asking a series of “why” questions to probe more deeply into a teacher’s rationale for pedagogical moves, or guiding the conversation using factual data collected by the coach during a classroom visit.
- When visiting classrooms to collect data that will elicit powerful reflection, coaches can employ a variety of strategies, including tracking the frequency of student or teacher behaviors, tracking student participation, taking verbatim notes on teacher and/or student speech, asking questions of students, collecting student work, or taking video recordings. The decision of which tool to use should stem from the unique needs of the individual teacher.
One DLP coach described the data collection strategy she used to capture dialogue in the classroom of an early-career middle school math teacher who was overly confident about his classroom management abilities. Over the course of a class period, the coach recorded verbatim the ways and the number of times that the teacher set expectations for students or reminded students to stay on task and the corresponding student behavior. Later, in a one-on-one meeting, she shared the script with the teacher. In response to this objective reflection tool, the teacher analyzed the ways that his delivery of instructions and expectations for students might be impacting student engagement. "I had to take a step back and say, ‘Alright, I think that my classroom management is great, but is it really great? Are the kids actually doing work?’"
3. Coaches should embrace spontaneous opportunities for learning.
Coaches who spend the majority of their time within schools are well positioned to help teachers make spontaneous breakthroughs in their learning by providing informal support not only to teachers who are actively being coached, but to other teachers in the school, as well. Being situated on campus provides coaches with opportunities to build relationships and teacher buy-in, which can lead to chances for active learning for teachers who would have otherwise been resistant to participate in coaching. Likewise, they are available to continue to be on-call for spontaneous, in-the-moment support to coached teachers even after the official collaboration has concluded.
Tips for success:
- Coaches should harness the power of informal communication with teachers. Interactions in the hallways, over lunch, through email, or even over text message or social media strengthen relationships and keep the momentum of active learning moving forward.
- After the official collaboration with a coached teacher has concluded, coaches can maintain connections and continue to offer support as needed. For instance, periodically checking in with formerly coached teachers, sending them tips and strategies in continued newsletters, and making themselves available as a thought partner when teachers have a need for advice are some ways that coaches can help teachers continue the learning process.