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Coach for Thinking More Than Doing

January 20, 2010

Professional learning often involves learning new classroom practices. In fact, the term “best practice” has been codified to mean the highest goal from the perspective of some educators. Teaching is certainly performative, and it is certainly important to learn certain teaching moves, especially early in one’s career. The problem with a focus only on what one does as a teacher is that behaviors change quickly. It is easy to adopt a new teaching practice, and just as easy to let it go. (This is similar to a personal habit that one has attempted to change. For instance, many of us have begun a Monday morning with the changed practice of choosing to eat low-calorie food, and then by Tuesday morning we have changed our practice to one of (again) eating junk food!)

On the other hand, shifts in one’s thinking change more slowly than shifts in ones behavior. That is frustrating when there is a need for a quick response to a problem, but it is important when one is a coach and wants to have a sustained effect. When teachers shift their thinking, it takes more time, but that thinking is more likely to “stick.”

What’s more, the thinking aspect of teaching is often more important when making instructional decisions. When teachers merely decide to use different practices, they are often basing those decisions upon mandates, hunches, or the social influence of their colleagues. On the other hand, when teachers shift their thinking, they do so because they have engaged more deeply with information about students (i.e. data, broadly defined), knowledge of the content of instruction, or insights provided by pedagogy. This kind of learning goes deeper and provides a foundation for any changed practices that a teacher may also adopt.

Coaches and administrators often focus on what teachers do, rather than what they think, because behaviors are easier to gauge than thoughts. Understanding the information, knowledge, and insights that are influencing a teacher’s thoughts (and subsequent decisions) requires time spent in conversation. One can do a “walk through” of a classroom in search of practices in a matter of minutes. It isn’t possible to “walk through” a colleague’s brain in the same way!

I urge coaches to:

  • Begin coaching with conversation.
  • Develop questioning practices that attend to information about students, knowledge of instructional content, and insights about pedagogy.
  • Seek to be a learner, along with teacher partners, in deepening understanding and reflection.
  • Partner with teachers to understand why a practice might be adopted, when the focus does turn to behaviors.
  • Discuss their thinking and decision making with their teacher partners after they have provided demonstration lessons.
  • Think carefully about doing observations, particularly to gauge whether they will unduly focus upon doing and ignore thinking.
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