Doyle and Redwine (1974) found that irrespective of intent, experienced teachers often find it incredibly hard to change their practice. Moreover, Fitts and Posner (1967) found that once we become relatively proficient at a skill, and have made it semi-automatic, we often reach an ‘OK plateau’ whereby our improvement in a task stagnates. This ‘OK plateau’ has been documented in practice by Foer (2012) during his training to compete at the US Memory championships. What is more, Webb and Sheeran (2006) note that simply improving a teacher’s knowledge within a domain is often insufficient to disrupt established ‘cue-response’ associations.
As such, you could be forgiven to think it is perhaps futile to attempt to develop one’s practice after a certain level of expertise or experience has been reached. But you would be wrong. Research by Ericsson and Pool (2006) showed that a specific type of practice, termed deliberate practice, ensures individuals remain within the cognitive stage of learning, and automaticity is prevented from occurring.
Within schools, one of the best ways to ensure teachers remain within the ‘cognitive stage’ of development is to assign them a coach to work with, for them to improve on specific aspects of their teaching practice. The model I propose here for effective instructional coaching focuses on my O.A.R. analogy (Observe, Agree, Rehearse).
No one will alter their practice unless they are discontent with their current level of performance, be that personally or professionally. Furthermore, no one is going to change their practice if they feel that they are being ‘told what to do’, that they feel like an observation is a ‘box-ticking exercise’, or if they believe that the advice they have received focuses more on improving their ‘performance’ as a teacher, rather than advancing student learning.
Therefore, it is crucial that coaching becomes part of the everyday fabric of a school, where the key focus is to improve student outcomes, and where improving teaching quality is seen by all as the best way to achieve this. Importantly, the coaching philosophy must be recognised by all, and senior leaders must be seen to also receive coaching on their teaching for any impact to be maximised. Indeed, Robinson, Lloyd, and Row (2008) note the importance of senior leaders being seen to be just as engaged and committed to improving their own teaching and learning practices, for others to then follow suit. It is for this reason that schools must be seen to row together; we are a team, and the coaching philosophy should reflect this.
The first stage of an effective coaching relationship is to ensure the accuracy and objectiveness of one’s observation.
Within the lesson, the observation should be objective, factual, non-judgemental, and each student and teacher action should be noted with an accompanying time stamp. An example observation proforma can be seen on the right.
I would recommend that each observation is limited to roughly ten minutes in duration. Not only does this allow you to observe enough of a lesson to agree an actionable next step with the individual afterwards, but it also means that you may be able to complete several observations within a single study period, increasing time efficiencies within your already busy schedules.
After the lesson ‘drop-in’ has been completed, I would suggest that observers then look at their record and identify any key points, trends, or specific highlights that they feel could be addressed as a priority. These points should then be saved for an individual conversation with your colleague to take place later.
In practice, I have seen too many coaching approaches and conversations within schools that are simply one-way, directed, and leave an individual who has been observed no room for discussion or challenge. Although this approach may be required when coaching a teacher with no prior mental model of effective teaching, I find that with more experienced colleagues this didactic approach inevitably just leads to ‘speed camera behaviour’. ‘Speed camera behaviour’ is where an individual does what you ask of them whenever you observe them in the future, but reverts to their old practices as soon as you leave the room. This is clearly not the aim of coaching.
As a result, using your observational record, I suggest that you initially ask the individual to reflect and first share their thoughts about their lesson. By offering them this opportunity, you provide them not only with the chance to reflect on their lesson, but the individual may provide pointers to help you guide the next stage of your conversation. After their reflection, you can state your findings, identifying any trends you have noticed, and suggest a possible actionable next step (ANS). Depending on how the conversation continues, this may or may not be the ANS that is then agreed. Again, some teachers who have been observed may occasionally argue that they want to work on an ANS that you don’t believe is the main priority for them. In this case, although you may wish to persuade them that your ANS is potentially more impactful, you must remember that they are the ones that are changing their practice. If they are not committed to improving an ANS, it may be fruitless insisting on what you think is the highest leverage step.
There is a caveat, of course, where teachers are underperforming, as you are likely to have to be more directive with your approach. But for now, and the for the purposes of this blog, we are assuming we are working with experienced, accomplished colleagues who are fine-tuning the quality of their instruction.
Teaching is a performance profession (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2016). Just like any other performance profession, be it music or sport, a professional would not practise a new technique for the very first time in front of a live audience. We must never fool ourselves that we can do this as teachers.
After the ANS has been agreed between an observer and a colleague, the observer should model what the ANS looks like in practice. After the model has been demonstrated to a teacher, colleagues should then switch positions and the person receiving the feedback should give their ANS a go. The observer, who modelled it originally, should then coach the individual until they are satisfied that the colleague has understood exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. Once the model has been successfully completed by the individual receiving the feedback, I suggest that they should ‘lock it in’ by doing it again, ensuring they have a secure mental model of what their ANS looks like in action.
Then, the teacher receiving their ANS must realise this is only the first part of the battle; amateurs practise until they get it right, professionals practise until they can’t get it wrong. Teachers should know the need to go away and independently rehearse their ANS behind closed doors, perhaps on their commute, or in an empty classroom, if they are really committed to developing their own practice.
In conclusion, we must ensure that as teachers we force ourselves to stay in the ‘cognitive stage’ of development (Fitts and Posner, 1967). After some time in the classroom, there are substantial benefits to building automaticity which should be celebrated, but we must also be mindful of hitting our own ‘OK plateau’. Instead, by engaging in a process of deliberate practice, we can ensure we are all focusing on improving a small element of our teaching at any given time.
I must stress again, though, that the coaching model must be used by all, including senior leaders, to generate the buy-in needed to change the coaching culture of a school (Robinson, Lloyd, Row, 2008). Without everyone rowing together, on the same team, and working as colleagues to improve practice jointly, teachers are unlikely to be as inclined to modify and improve their own practices.
Finally, we must recognise that changing habits is hard (Duhigg, 2013), especially for experienced teachers (Doyle and Redwine, 1974). Simply providing more knowledge is insufficient to change established procedures within the classroom (Webb and Sheeran, 2006). Instructional coaching, though, through observing, agreeing, and rehearsing actionable next steps, can lead to significant and rapid improvements within your school.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get Better Faster. Jossey-Bass: New York.
Doyle, W., & Redwine, J. M. (1974). Effect of intent-action discrepancy and student performance feedback on teacher behavior change. Journal of Educational Psychology, (66), 750–755.
Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do, and how to change. Random House: London.
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R., (2006). PEAK: Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: Penguin.
Fitts, P.M., & Posner, M.I. (1967). Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks/Cole
Foer, J. (2012). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. Penguin: London.
Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind. Penguin: London.
Robinson, V.M., Lloyd, C.A. and Rowe, K.J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: an analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 635-674.
Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 249–268.