Friday, September 28, 2018

Conversational Volley in Coaching

Asking questions is a valuable coaching move, the centerpiece of the GIR model.  Questions can provide just enough support to push a novice teacher to consider new approaches or to nudge an experienced teacher forward in her thinking. But if questions are our first communication during a conference, they may put the brakes on the conversation rather than inviting contemplation.  To encourage productive discussion, listen and then “take up” a teachers’ story. 

Tom Newkirk describes this “taking up” as a contingent response and says uptake is “a demonstration of connectiveness” (Newkirk, 2017, p. 83).  A coach who is skilled at uptake makes a teacher feel attended to; the teacher feels like her comments matter.

There may be a tendency for coaches to say, “That reminds me of…..”  Such a response, however, shifts attention away from the teller.  Instead, we want to make a teller-focused comment.  We might say, “It sounds like you…..” or “You must have…..”  Uptake means we acknowledge that we’ve heard the teacher’s “story.” We show that we understand her excitement or frustration. We comment or empathize before moving to analysis.  We receive the information. 

“Receiving” might sound like referencing ideas that were shared or generously summarizing the information. It might sound like, “Let me see if I got this right” (Johnston, 2004).  We reflect back the message in a way that conveys its significance.  We send the message, “I get it.”  A teacher then feels attended to.  Her comment matters – it is not lost.  It is the basis for the conversation.

Through the social give-and-take of coaching talk, ideas are explained and extended.  Once a teacher feels understood, we ask teller-centered questions that lead to analysis.  Follow-up questions help a teacher test her ideas, “What did you notice…..?  “Why do you think…..?”  As the teacher volleys back the conversation, she feels not only understood, but validated.  She feels smart. 

Through repeated uptake, teachers strengthen and internalize their analysis process. This happens through authentic questions. Authentic questions are those we are genuinely curious about.  Such question are gratifying; someone is curious about our experiences and insights.  Authentic questions are focused on the “story” and ask for elaboration.  They don’t feel formulaic.  The opposite is a “display question,” one to which the coach already has an answer. Display questions feel like a pointed finger; like a “let’s see if you are as smart as I am.”  They don’t empower.  So much is in the tone and the follow-up.  A “Why do you think….” could be either a genuine or a display question, depending on the coach’s intent.  If the coach is using the question to drag a teacher to a specific response, the teacher is not likely to feel valued.  If the “Why do you think….” is asked with curiosity, useful analysis follows as ideas are explained, challenged, and defended.  Uptake supports the development of an idea; it supports analysis. 

And good listening invites good listening. A teacher who feels heard is more likely to respond thoughtfully herself when a question is posed. 

When we are in a hurry, we may skip the “uptake” step and jump to questions or recommendations before a teacher is convinced she’s been understood. Taking the time to acknowledge what was heard lays the groundwork for a deeper conversation.

Newkirk suggests that, in the “serve and volley” of conversation, linking the volley to the serve is what’s important.  When we take up a comment by echoing or extending it, we strengthen the coherence and depth of the conversation, building capacity for analysis and change.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Stenhouse.
Newkirk, T. (2017). Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Heinemann.

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

Using student-led conferences to bridge perspectives:

I often use the book, I Have a Little Problem to remind coaches to listen before recommending.  I love the suggestions here for using the book to remind students to listen:

Considering coaching roles:

This “Circle of Viewpoints” activity helps participants to explore a text or event from a variety of perspectives:

Three tips for richer student discussion:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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