Independent learning and coaching

By Iain Henderson

If there were a competition to find a concept most consistently misunderstood or misrepresented in education, independent learning would have a good chance of a gold medal.  Until recently, coaching might well have beaten it.

So what do we mean by independent learning? 

Firstly, it is far, far wider than just learning.  Narrowing the focus simply to learning is self-defeating.  It is about becoming more independent and able to be self-sufficient in all parts of life: independent thinking and coping as well as learning.  The concept of independence per se, or independence in a more holistic sense, seem far more realistic and productive ways to view it.

Secondly, the development of that independence is a carefully supported but often unpredictable journey.  It requires teachers, tutors and leaders to be trusted to have a significant degree of autonomy, making decisions moment by moment in their classroom or in the way that they support those whom they lead, how best to help them both short and long term.

It is not pupil-led enquiry, “go off and learn it yourself”, making the teacher redundant, or the utterly fatuous idea that, since most have the entire world in their pocket (the internet on a smartphone) they don’t need to “know” anything.

 

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What do we mean by coaching?

The terms coaching and mentoring were almost interchangeable for many until even 2 years ago, and while many still don’t know the difference, there seems now to be a growing appreciation of the role of both.  Coaching is a dialogic process in which coaches raise awareness in coachees, shift their perspectives and enable them to take action.  This happens via excellent listening; effective, powerful, open and often challenging questions; and intuition.  Coaches hold their coachees accountable to themselves in completing those actions.  The shift, change, progress or transformation is powerful and lasting by being fully connected to the coachee’s own motivations, values, dreams, fulfilment and passions – what is, in other words, important to them.  There is no advice given, and the coach must often consciously leave aside their own experience in order to be most effective.  Indeed, it can often be helpful for a coach not to be an expert in the area that their coachee wants to improve.

Mentoring is also dialogic, supportive, respectful and developmental, but it requires the mentor to be able to pass on useful suggestions, advice, wisdom, experience or idea.  It is valuable in many spheres, and it is successfully used for new teachers, new subject leads, and new heads.  In some organisations, especially tech companies, reverse mentoring is used successfully too.  This is so that the young newcomers with fresh ideas educate those at the top of the hierarchy who might otherwise be out of touch with the newest trends.

How can coaching help?

There are three obvious ways in which learning how to coach effectively can improve practice and develop independence:

  • You arrange to coach someone in a formal or semi-formal way. That person has something that they would like to improve or move forward, and the conversation may take anything from 5 minutes to 2 hours.  Being able to unlock untapped potential in your peers or students is of great value to them, to the school, and ultimately a big part of the reason why many teachers even entered the profession: they believe in the capacity of others and want to make a difference.  Beware of hearing things like “S(he) needs coaching to improve X” this might be mentoring, or it could be telling with a couple of questions thrown in to make it appear less directive, but it’s not coaching.
  • You have more coaching interactions, where rather than telling people things, you learn to ask questions so they go off and do it themselves. Seeing a student around school and having a moment to ask one question, listen to the answer and ask one more question takes no longer than telling them something.  The impact is greater if they are beginning to think more effectively for themselves.
  • You become more coach-like in what you do. Your heightened sense of the nuances of language when asking questions, your appreciation of the impact of silence, and your intuition about what is unsaid, become significant assets in interactions with parents, students and colleagues alike.  This is, for most who learn how to coach, the way that coaching integrates into their classroom practice.  Harkness teaching is one of many areas where the quality of questioning has a direct and obvious impact, but, as a Biology teacher, the benefit of coaching to the interactions I might have with a group doing a practical on enzymes is equally significant.

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The helping continuum

In improving our coaching training of hundreds of teachers and leaders, both at Wellington and in many other schools, we have made explicit a notional continuum of human helping.  On one end, there is pure directional instruction – “this is what you do”.  At the other, would be coaching in its cleanest form, where there is no advice or guidance, but only questioning.  The best teachers and leaders are to some extent intuitive about where they are along that continuum at any one time, answering for themselves the endlessly repeated question “what do I need to do for this person/group/class right now that would help them the most?”

To illustrate this, the analogy of learning to drive a car works for many.  Drivers need to learn to control the car, the laws of the road, how to read the enormous number of fleeting stimuli every second, and how to respond safely and appropriately.  There is a reason why we learn from a driving instructor: at the beginning, we must know some seriously important information.  The consequences of getting this wrong are so serious that we must have it explained very clearly, and good instructors bring clarity and simplicity to something very complex.  They know when to give which information, how to relate things together, when to slow down delivery or add more detail.

However, the number of possible situations that you can encounter while driving is infinite, because the number of variables is so high and almost all of those are continuous.  Therefore, to rote learn responses is impossible, and the best driving instructors navigate seamlessly into asking questions to enable their pupil to start learning the skills of self-sufficient driving proficiency. They also – and this is a critical parallel with what we might hope to achieve in schools – instil a desire and humility to want to learn further once the test is passed and the ties are cut.

If the analogy is valuable, it shows what we know to be true about education.  It is a lengthy and complex process, in which huge quantities of important knowledge and understanding are developed, and strung together to make connections.  The ways in which we do that must be relevant to the learners in front of us, and we have a desire and responsibility to help them become more self-propelled beyond that as well.