Who’s on first base?

About five stones and 20 years ago I was a keen sportsman. I spent years training to perfect my technique, to condition my body, often in solitude, sometimes with a partner, always under my own direction. Until one day, I was deemed promising enough to deserve a coach. I drove each week for 3 hours to meet with him, to hang on a few crumbs of questions from him which would inspire the next week of effort until we met up again to review my progress. Nothing, but nothing would prevent me from meeting up with my coach, because with his questioning I got better, and always as a result of my own effort. It felt great.

Nowadays in education it seems hard to have a conversation with someone without it being referred to as coaching. “Got a problem with behaviour management? You need some coaching.” “Not sure how to teach gym? I could coach you.” You know the score. But so much of what we do in educational coaching is actually mentoring: advice and guidance to improve what we do. Not that there is anything wrong with that, in fact far from it, it really helps us to fast track to become the learners and teachers we would like to be. But coaching is different. True coaching is about questioning, drawing out of us the people that we hardly dare to believe we could ever be. Not pushing us to excellence but pulling us up to the realisation of brilliance. 

This is what I learnt today, listening to a brilliant and highly skilled coach talk to a gathering of motivated and innovative headteachers and educators. But as excited as I was about the possibilities for coaching adults in my school, I couldn’t help wondering why we don’t do this with children? Do we want to advise and guide our pupils? Probably most of us do. Or do we want to empower them to develop their thinking through insightful and skilled questioning? I would love to do that, afterall, I am sold on coaching as a skill for life, so why not start young? But if I’m honest, I probably spend 95% of my time advising and guiding children, mentoring not coaching. I believe and have experienced the power of coaching over and above mentoring. I think the time has come for me to think of extending that to my teaching. What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Who’s on first base?

  1. Neil – as a result of your intiative on relacing traditional performance management with a coaching approach to the professional development of adults in learning support roles, I’ve realised that we ought to be adopting much more of a coaching style and approach with 21st Century learners, whatever their age.
    This seems to relate closely to the very limited way in which many ‘educators’ use and apply the full range of Bloom’s Taxonomy with learners. Probably 80-90% of our time is still focused with the lower levels of Bloom’s pyramid of engagement with learning and yet in order to develop the higher levels of metacognition, our role also needs to move up from facilitating and mentoring to the correspondingly higher skill levels of coaching. Perhaps an interesting exercise might be to consider what ‘learning support skills’ are required of anyone who supports the learning of another at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy and what all of that might look like in practice?

  2. I think you’re absolutely right Steve. We are embarking upon a programme to coach coaches across the school, even considering how this may be achieved down in the Foundation Stage (or even further, the headteacher’s office).

    What I have in mind for RHS learners is different from my understanding of mentoring in schools, if by that we mean learning mentors. We have used peer tutoring, especially for ICT, for some time, but (I think) what I have in mind is different from that also, as it too amounts to mentoring.

    I’m really interested in the notion of developing children’s questioning and listening skills to develop empathic, altruistic, leadership abilities as a life skill that they are
    unlikely to encounter elsewhere in their education. Rather than create mini-teachers (mentoring a la “try to edit the movie this way…”, “try this approach with these kind of maths problems…”), I would like to develop the higher order coaching skills that you are talking about here, but pared down into a child’s bite size chunks.

    So for example we have run a conflict resolution programme with Reception,
    which requires an understanding of someone else’s view. The skills there
    might be employable in circumstances that weren’t (for once) initiated by
    conflict but by a (reception aged child ) coachee’s desire to improve. Now
    we could mentor/peer tutor that child to improve. Or another reception
    child could coach them. What would the training look like that a reception
    child would need in order to be able to coach, rather than mentor or peer

  3. I’d be interested in following this up with you Neil. Whilst we’re happily talking about creating a new skills or issues-based curriculum in England, the accessibility of such a curriculum, or its ability to meet the needs of the 21st Century Learner is likely to be restricted by a fairly superficial set of ‘Learning to Learn’ skills. We need to go much deeper into both the ‘what’ children learn and the ‘how’ (let alone the ‘why’) and involve learners irrespective of their age in that part of the process. As you quite rightly say, what this might look like in terms of ‘training learning coaches’ will require us to think beyond current models. I’m really interested in Christine Johnston’s work on the Let Me Learn programme in which learners not only develop an insight into how they themselves learn best, but also an appreciation of ‘what it is about Sam that causes him to learn differently from me’ that goes way beyond a simple VAK label. That opportunity to empathise and understand (in some depth) where a fellow learner may be coming from is surely an attribute and skill that sets effective coaching apart from merely tutoring or mentoring. Similarly it will require a common language of learning to be in place as a prerequisite – and we’re not there yet either!

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