Coaching in The Classroom: When is it Effective? When won’t it work?

Coaching methods are commonly seen in pastoral and wellbeing disciplines to encourage an individual – the coachee –  to come up with their own solution to a problem or issue they may be facing. It also enables that individual to develop resilience and grit and further push them towards becoming a self-sustaining individual who can more readily deal with adversity or challenge later in life.  But can we apply that to the classroom?

At Wellington, we are fortunate enough to have embedded coaching into the philosophy of pastoral life, however, whether this method is an effective tool within the classroom has not been entirely explored.

To test and consider how coaching can be an asset in the classroom, we implemented a lesson study.  In this, Kyle McDonald – Mathematics Teacher at Wellington College – introduced the Shakespeare side of the Literature Paper and used coaching to build the students’ confidence so that they could answer it (read Kyle’s article here)  – neither teacher nor pupil had ever seen the paper before. After the lesson, I asked my pupils to complete an anonymous survey on the lesson. Here is what I found…

Was it effective?

Usually when introducing an exam paper to pupils, their knowledge can seem to dissipate into a neediness.  This is not because they do not have the skillset to answer the question but rather that they do not think about how to apply their skills to an unseen question.  Then, seeing you as the expert in the room, their instant reaction is to ask questions; they spiral into needing support.

There have been many ways that teachers have been trained to defuse this.  My favourite is recognising this as ‘the pit of learning’ – ultimately, encouraging the student to recognise that challenge and struggle is a healthy part of the learning progress.

Here’s where coaching helped.

Stepping back from pupils so that they had a non-subject specialist meant that their mindset of ‘the teacher is the expert/has the answer’ was instantly defused.  The process of the students’ struggle continued but their complaining stopped.  Instead, they recognised that they had to use what they had been taught prior and, via a series of effective coaching questions led by their teacher, they ended up answering their own questions.  They formed a confident structure to answer to begin their approach to the paper.

Interestingly, in the survey, one student remarked that it was helpful because it “taught us exam technique.”  Strange. Especially considering there was really no teacher teaching within that lesson.  Rather, someone to just guide them – in addition to their own previous knowledge.

Overall, 89% of pupils believed it was helpful and would be happy to do a similar lesson again.

When won’t it work?

What about the 11% who did not enjoy it then? Of pupils who did not enjoy the task, the response is debatable as it can be interpreted in two ways: 1) that it was not challenging enough, or 2) that they are used to knowledge being told to them and have fallen into this routine.

Responses from pupils who would be unwilling to have a coaching class again claimed it was “basic revision” and they would “rather learn off the teacher who had exact knowledge.” Some others remarked that it was “not as difficult as other lessons.”   Finally, one remarked the lesson “could have been completed in 20 minutes.”

If 1): From the comments above, we can deduce that the level of challenge for some was not to the usual standard. Therefore, it could bring to question how coaching can be differentiated so that all pupils feel they are valuing from the task.  This is where teacher understanding (having a subject specialist in the room) and subject knowledge is key – coaching questions could move from ‘what is’ (basically retrieval questions) to ‘what could’ or ‘what if’ (evaluative and interdisciplinary questions).

If 2): We could also infer that perhaps this was simply students slipping into wanting to be told instead of wanting to think.  If this is the case, then surely implementing coaching methods on a regular cycle would be the most effective outcome.

As for the pupil who mentioned pace? I’m not convinced. Surely with the new GCSE, slowing pace down every now and then to consolidate is effective for all. At very least, it is clearly helpful for their interleaving.

Consequently, it may not work as effectively if the teacher cannot challenge the top end pupils by having strong subject knowledge.  Or if it is implemented at the wrong time and students misconstrue it as teacher laziness or that they’re ‘not being taught.’

So, to coach in the classroom?

An absolute yes provided it is implemented regularly and thoughtfully.

It is obvious that teachers are the expert throughout the course of every topic/module/scheme but if we want our students to achieve, it should make sense to see the following occur in the classroom:

Screenshot (3)

Coaching is essential as it will be a part of the classroom where student input is the greatest.

How often you apply this cycle is dependent on your subject. In our talk on the dialogic classroom at ResearchED, Carl Hendrick and I made mention that, in English, a healthy application could be every fortnight. For sciences, it could be after every module.  It will depend.  Also, coaching could occur throughout any lesson where necessary – this is just simply about implementing a coaching lesson.

Ultimately, if pupils have learned content throughout that time period then they should be able to apply it with minimal teacher input.  Coaching encourages them to solve their own concerns and provides a healthy learning conversation that does not spiral into neediness.  Spending time to coach in the classroom will also encourage all pupils to reconsolidate their knowledge as well as address any misconceptions through conversation, dialogue and debate.
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