Saturday, January 20, 2018

Get Real! Questions in the Coaching Conversation

Over the years, I have collected stacks of GIR conferencing guides. This week, I went through one pile with a particular purpose: I was looking for some bad questions to use as illustrations.  It delighted me that I didn’t find any negative examples in the stack from the group of coaches I’ve been working with recently.  Digging a little deeper though, I found some examples from an old stack that I hope will be illustrative. As we look at questions that don’t work, we become clearer about what makes a good coaching question.

Here are a few questions that seem ineffective and why I think they wouldn’t work:

Question: “How are you able to check for understanding if you are lecturing?” 
This is code for: You are lecturing too much.  You need to stop lecturing and check for understanding.
Possible solution: Make a recommendation.  It might also be possible to help the teacher get to the same point through a series of questions, if s/he has the background and self-awareness.

Question: “Why don’t you structure students’ conversation?
This is code for: You need to provide structures for students’ conversation.
Possible solution: Ask a more open question, such as “What structures might make students’ conversations more purposeful?” Or you might make recommendations about ways that students’ conversation could be structured.

Question: How can you ensure the information you give students is correct?
This is code for: You included incorrect information in your presentation.  You need to understand the content before you teach a lesson.
Possible solution: Offer resources for upcoming lessons.

Question: What would be the benefit of writing out your day?
This is code for: Writing out your day will help you stay on schedule.
Possible solution: Show the teacher tools that you and others use for scheduling. Then ask what she thinks will work for her.

Question: Did you set a purpose before the lesson? 
This might work if the coach was not there for the lesson, especially if setting a purpose was a goal they had previously identified.  If the coach was there and such a goal hadn’t been set, this question might be a shaming one, however.

Question: Why do we have students self-reflect? 
This sounds like a test question, not an honest inquiry.
Possible solution: Ask about past successes: “Can you think of a lesson where you included student reflection? Did you see benefits from it? Why was the reflection successful?

Question: Why is modeling important in an early childhood classroom?
Another test question. Ask: “Which parts of the lesson will students need to have modeled?”

Question: How many times did you stop students?
This is probably a rhetorical question. Would we really expect a teacher to have kept tabs on this while teaching?
Possible solution: Give the teacher the opportunity to bring up her own concerns about the lesson. This might lead to the teacher asking for recommendations about classroom management.

Question: How many times did you move clips?
This is probably another rhetorical question about classroom management.  I’m not sure if the answer this coach was searching for was none or lots, but this is probably code for either “you didn’t move clips (for student behavior) and you should have” or “you moved them too much.”  If there was an underlying issue with classroom management, addressing that issue with a recommendation or question would be more useful. 

Question: What did you notice about the students when they were on the carpet during the writing lesson?  (followed by) What are some ways to help the students to focus and pay attention?
The coach was probably fishing for the teacher to bring up concerns about students’ attention while on the carpet. Although the question might be considered an opportunity for the teacher to bring up her own concerns, the way it is phrased probably would leave the teacher feeling deflated instead of empowered.  In this scenario, getting rid of the first question and leading with the second would probably be more effective. 

Question: Could the intervention you are doing with Natalie be applied to other students?
This is code for: The intervention you are doing with Natalie could be applied to other students.
Possible solution: Praise the effectiveness of the intervention. Look with the teacher at data to determine others who might benefit.

This leads to some guidelines we can keep in mind as we craft effective coaching questions:


*Don’t ask questions when a recommendation is needed. Gauge your approach based on the teacher’s background and reflectiveness. If impactful solutions are likely to be found with the teacher doing the talking, by all means ask a question. However, if it’s more likely that the coach will be the source of effective solutions, a recommendation is in order.

*Similarly, don’t disguise a recommendation as a question. Make a recommendation if that’s what’s needed.

*Don’t ask questions when the problem was created by a lack of resources (or lack of accessing available resources). Instead, provide or make teachers aware of available resources.

*Don’t ask questions that point a finger of shame. Questioning with the intent to point out what a teacher did wrong asks a teacher to be self-incriminating, and that is not a good feeling.


*Ask real questions. A real question is one where you are truly curious about the teacher’s response, where there are multiple possibilities.

*Ask questions that encourage teachers to reflect on past successes. This is more likely to support growth. Past successes demonstrate capacity, even if the practice is not yet consistent. We are working within a teacher’s ZPD.

*Ask reasonable questions. Are you asking about something you would have been able to notice and note in the midst of instruction? Remember that when you observe a lesson, you have the advantage of being on the outside looking in, so you may notice things that it wouldn’t be reasonable for the teacher to have observed. Reasonable questions can be answered if the teacher plays back the lesson in her mind.  Your extra eyes are valuable and can uncover important needs. Just don’t ask questions that presuppose the teacher will have noticed these same things.

*Ask broad questions to open a conversation and invite participation. Later in the conversation, more specific questions will be helpful.

For practice, you might want to pull out some of the GIR conferencing forms you’ve completed in the past or any other notes you’ve kept on coaching conversations. How are your questions?  Would any have benefitted from revision?  If not, do a happy dance.  If yes, you can do a happy dance, too, knowing you have some examples to practice with so that your questions will be even better next time!

As you revise the key questions on the GIR conferencing form, say the question in your head, or even out load.  Will it sound natural coming out of your mouth? This is your chance to get the language just right.

If we write out a few questions in advance when planning for a coaching conversation, we have the chance to revise the language for best results.  When we take the time to do this, not only does it make these few questions more productive, it gets us in the habit of framing questions in more productive ways.  Then, when the myriad of unplanned questions are posed, there’s a greater likelihood that they’ll also be impactful.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Check out our newly-available book (just $2.99) about keeping early-career teachers in the profession, and hashtag #StayinTeaching when you Tweet to remind us of this goal! The problem-solving protocols in chapter 1 (and appendices) of the book could be used in many contexts for getting at root causes:

This video about asking coaching questions, from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence:

Podcast with Penny Kittle – Engaging Readers and Building Better Writers:

Coaching for routines (think about the questions):

Ideas for teaching media literacy:

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