Steve Farndon, Ambition Institute, UK
Instructional coaching is not only theoretically promising as the only form of CPD that reliably affects student achievement (Kraft et al., 2018), but its impact is also visible in schools. Through our work at Ambition Institute, we’ve seen maths teachers build success with their most challenging groups by focusing on the design of their worked examples, and science teachers generating rich understanding through carefully sequenced retrieval practice. At a whole-school level we’ve seen the growth of new cultures debating and discussing teaching and learning. Instructional coaching has been central to these developments by supporting teachers to understand and apply new theories of learning to the specific contexts of their classrooms.
However, implementing instructional coaching is not straightforward – this is because it isn’t always clear what makes it work. There are some questions that are worth grappling with that get to the heart of how it supports teacher learning: How do we develop full-time teachers into skilled coaches? How do we define what ‘good’ teaching looks like? How can the school support this work?
This article seeks to support school leaders to make good implementation decisions around instructional coaching by answering some of these questions and providing specific examples of how schools have implemented coaching.
One element that school leaders can focus on when introducing instructional coaching is deliberate practice (Ericsson and Pool, 2016). Instructional coaches can use principles taken from deliberate practice to isolate key features of expert teaching practice, break these down, model them to teachers and design practice activities for their coachee. By practising individual elements of teaching outside of the classroom, coaches can make the process of improvement more manageable for teachers and teachers can get immediate feedback on their performance, supporting them to build fluency without the distractions inherent in working ‘live’ with students. This is potentially important in teacher development because there is evidence to show that even when teachers want to change their classroom practice, they struggle to do so because so much of it is habitual (Feldon, 2007). Receiving instructional coaching has been shown to have much more of an impact on teachers’ performance of specific classroom practices than teachers simply reflecting on what went well and what could be improved (Cohen et al., 2020). Deliberate practice helps teachers to overcome some of the frustrations of wanting to implement new strategies with their students but struggling to overcome their existing habits.
These features of deliberate practice have significant implications for schools. Coaches need to be skilled in providing models of the key teaching strategies that they want their teachers to practise, and they need to be able to design practice opportunities that approximate real classrooms – something that even full-time teacher educators struggle with (Grossman et al., 2009). For senior leaders, the training of coaches is vital: coaches need access to models of what they are aiming for when they coach, and they need time to review and modify these as a group as their coaching develops.
School leaders should ensure that coaches are initially trained on a clearly defined coaching model that they refine over time. Development time should also be protected: in a particularly successful school, coaches have meeting time twice a week before school. They share and review videos of coaching sessions to get feedback from peers, and record and monitor this feedback to support ongoing adaptations to their coaching programme. Coaches need skill in supporting behaviour change through deliberate practice – the ‘how’ of instructional coaching. However, unless this is paired with a clear idea of the target performance that teachers are working towards – the ‘what’ of coaching – the process will have very little impact.
Defining ‘better’ in teaching
It is vital for school leaders to recognise that instructional coaching is not a stand-alone intervention to improve teaching and learning. The purpose of any instructional coaching is to train teachers in something else, using instructional coaching. This therefore means that school leaders need to think very carefully about what they want to teach their teachers. This is central to effective instructional coaching, because for coaches to model, design practice and offer precise feedback, they need to have a clear picture of what good looks like that goes beyond their knowledge gained as a classroom teacher.
Coaches’ knowledge is different from that of teachers because they have to break down the practices that most teachers have made automatic and link each step to deeper theories of learning. When instructional coaches are learning their craft, they are therefore developing two types of knowledge simultaneously: explicit knowledge of teaching practices and linked theories, alongside knowledge of how to facilitate deliberate practice. It might seem possible to speed up the development of knowledge of teaching by providing coaches with detailed reference works that outline this explicit knowledge. In reality this is problematic for two reasons: firstly because coaches’ knowledge needs to go beyond descriptions of strategies to an understanding of the mechanisms underpinning learning; secondly because the techniques as described are likely to need adaptation to suit the culture and context of a particular school. We have found that coaches struggle to balance the simultaneous demands of learning to facilitate deliberate practice and learning explicit knowledge of teaching – even when they have supporting resources. If too many demands are placed on coaches at an early stage, then the quality of their coaching suffers. One solution to this is to narrow the focus of coaching by setting some whole-school priorities.
The organisation and format of these whole-school priorities should be a key focus of senior leaders when introducing instructional coaching. In most cases, tightly prescribing a set of approved teaching techniques is unlikely to improve teaching (Kennedy, 2016a). An exception to this might be in a school that suffers from poor behaviour and a lack of routines – in this case, a set of shared school routines and coaching on these to ensure consistency can have benefits in pre-empting poor behaviour (Kern and Clemens, 2007). However, there is a significant danger in focusing instructional coaching around individual teaching techniques: in doing so, we limit teachers’ ability to use them flexibly to meet the needs of their students (Kennedy, 2016b). Instead, teacher learning should centre on ‘persistent problems’; Kennedy (2016b, p. 10) argues that ‘By focusing on challenges, rather than on solutions, we help novices learn to think strategically about how their actions address a larger purpose, rather than focusing on how to mimic a set of actions that they observe.’ This is particularly true of instructional coaching, where the use of modelling and practice could easily lead to uncritical imitation.
This represents a strong explanation for the effectiveness of instructional coaching; it can lead to the development of more expert mental models. By offering teachers the opportunity to experiment with a range of teaching strategies that address a challenge of teaching that they are facing, they are adding to their teaching repertoire while developing their understanding of how, when and why these strategies might be used – which are features of expertise (Persky and Robinson, 2017). Senior leaders can support this by using school improvement processes to identify a persistent problem that affects most of their students, and therefore their teachers. These usually need to be narrower than Kennedy’s original broad definitions (Kennedy, 2016b) to make them manageable for schools – for example ‘enlisting student participation’ might be narrowed to ‘students giving up when faced with a tricky task’. The first step for school leaders in this process is consulting with staff about symptoms around student learning that they are seeing in their classrooms – these can then be used to identify a wider persistent problem. Senior leaders should then give time for their coaching team to research evidence-informed strategies that help to tackle the persistent problem and generate subject- or phase-specific models that can be used during coaching. In doing so, leaders support their coaches’ development by narrowing down the aspects of teaching where they need to develop explicit knowledge. The risk in this approach is that it reduces teacher autonomy by limiting the focus of coaching to the same persistent problem for everyone. This can be overcome by giving teachers autonomy over the focus of their coaching within the wider persistent problem. For example, a school might be focusing on the problem of portraying the curriculum and, in particular, students struggling to understand complex ideas when they are first presented. In this situation, a Year 1 teacher might ask to be coached on their use of manipulatives, while a Year 6 teacher might focus on using analogies while explaining key concepts in English.
Building a supportive culture
A consideration for school leaders when introducing instructional coaching is how it can create a shift in school cultures around professional development. Where it is implemented well, a focus on ongoing incremental improvement that is the joint responsibility of teacher and coach can build the kind of supportive environment that is shown to facilitate teacher improvement (Kraft and Papay, 2014). This is a circular problem, however, because in order for coaching to be adopted well initially, school leaders need to create a culture where staff feel safe enough to share their classroom practice honestly. School leaders’ decisions at early stages can set the tone: selecting coaches who have the credibility and interpersonal skills to build the trust and rapport needed for successful coaching relationships (White et al., 2015), separating out performance management from coaching responsibilities (Kraft and Gilmour, 2016) and providing sufficient time and resources to support coaching are all important pre-requisites. One helpful strategy for building momentum around coaching is to ask particularly strong and influential members of staff to be coached first. Their selection shows that the coaching is not about supporting struggling teachers, and their positive experience of coaching will hopefully encourage others to get involved.
Perhaps more important than these practical considerations is a genuine culture of openness and learning relating to coaching. We have seen a few things work here; it is important that leaders genuinely engage with all teachers to understand their current ways of tackling the persistent problem identified. This enables open professional dialogue around how the suggested new approaches can be integrated into teachers’ existing repertoires (Robinson, 2017). At this stage, school leaders need to be ready to respond to the views and concerns of their staff, potentially making significant changes to their initial plans to increase trust among staff. A cultural barrier that leaders might encounter is staff resistance to having their lessons visited. This is often a legacy of systems of high-stakes observations. To overcome this, coaches must avoid even suggesting any judgments of teachers and instead take joint responsibility for the success of coaching; it is particularly powerful if coaches are willing to admit that their coaching session may be responsible where teachers struggle to embed new practices.
In schools where coaching is embedded successfully, leaders prioritise it above any other activity. All coaches are clear that it shouldn’t be cancelled except for illness, and school leaders provide time off timetable for teachers and coaches to engage in coaching and for coach development. Cultural aspects continue to be just as important once coaching has been introduced, and leaders need to communicate about coaching and its focus with clarity – re-explaining the rationale regularly and practising this with leaders at all levels, so there is consistency in staff members’ understanding about what they are doing and why. Effective leaders also model engagement with coaching by being coached themselves and openly sharing what they are working on and struggling with – by practising their own teaching visibly and openly, leaders can manage teachers’ concerns about practising teaching outside of their classrooms. Modelling by leaders provides a powerful message that everyone can tweak and improve their practice and builds a culture of experimentation.
The implementation of instructional coaching requires multiple complementary elements to be successful. Senior leaders therefore need to make a significant upfront and ongoing investment to implement it properly; however, the results in terms of teacher development and student learning can more than match the effort involved.
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