Carnegie Education

Here be dragons - myth busting Instructional Coaching for teachers

"Here be dragons" means dangerous or unexplored places and relates to a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons or other mythological creatures on maps where potential dangers were thought to exist.

Stone dragon image

There is a bit of a buzz around instructional coaching in English schools at present. It is also being used as a mentoring model to support the Early Career Framework (ECF) and an adapted version of instructional coaching has been rolled out to thousands of early career teachers (ECTs) and their mentors in 2021-2.

It is fair to say that this is being met with mixed reviews. Instructional coaching has origins in the USA with probably the most significant proponent of it being Jim Knight (2007), who leads the Instructional Coaching Group. He has been working in this area for two decades. Recently I was joined by Jim Knight, from Instructional Coaching Group and Chris Munro and Christian van Nieuwerburgh of Growth Coaching International in a webinar exploring instructional coaching. In ‘Instructional Coaching: Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy’ we explored its history, purpose and application - with reflections from England, the USA and Australia.

Like other US imports into UK education there are those proponents who act as missionaries, seeding the new ideas into their own and other programmes. There is also a risk that instructional coaching becomes a buzzword leading to some superficial understandings and also potentially a fad – good for the current time, but likely be abandoned when not done well or another new craze comes along.  Myths are created, people gain apparent guru status, and whole CPD programmes are rebranded to meet the new fashion. Indeed, instructional coaching also now features as an apprenticeship for school leaders – drawing on significant government funding to do so.

So, let’s dispel some myths by checking in with the language. Firstly, there is a long tradition of ‘instruction’ being used to mean ‘teaching and learning’ in the USA. In the UK we tend to think of instruction as a command, or a direct communication of information.  As other US terminology, such as ‘direct instruction’ and ‘explicit instruction’ is also now commonly used in the UK we need to note that they add the terms ‘direct’ and ‘explicit’. This demonstrates that the culturally sensitive meaning of the work instruction refers to pedagogy as a repertoire. Secondly the instructional coaching model typically sits somewhere in between what we could tend to characterise as coaching and mentoring.   Instructional coaches in the US are experienced teachers whose practice and training has allowed them to develop specific pedagogic expertise.  As coaches they do not ‘instruct’ but instead they bring their expertise to bear within the coaching conversations.

It is also worth noting that instructional coaching done well has a strong social justice philosophy.  It is about understanding how learning outcomes can be levered in ways that are not limited to improving test scores or judging teaching. It is significant that the greatest use of instructional coaching in the US has been in the teaching of reading, and this goes way beyond phonics or other single pedagogies to creating environments which invite reading and use reading as a key component of inclusion.    

An important part of any coaching practice is the partnership which is created and hopefully sustained. In the case of the ECF this is between a teacher with some experience (mentor) and a novice (student or early career teacher) and is situated in the mentors’ school context. There are two key aspects of this relationship that are significant. We need to reflect on the power dynamics that can be at play in the scenario (deliberate, implied and hidden) and we need to know something about how adults learn as novices in complex practice environments. There is an inherent hierarchy built into mentoring with the risk that this spills out into IC. But it is possible for both partners to gain a sense of parity which is a good basis for collegial working and the development of self-efficacy and emergent practice. Three characteristics of successful collaboration were highlighted in earlier research (Lofthouse and Thomas, 2017) which were:

  • Shared labour for a common purpose - combined effort for a common purpose with a focus on students / pupils and their learning.
  • Parity and the link to productive dialogue - working productively as well as building relationships.
  • A safe forum for professional challenge - making choices about practice which go beyond monitoring of quality and performance management type processes.

At CollectivED we believe that instructional coaching offers this opportunity, but caution against approaches which become formulaic or scripted, and which do not deploy pedagogical and coaching expertise wisely.  At CollectivED we are motivated to support coaching practices that are transformative, enabling teachers to gain confidence as they develop practices, so that they can make unique and vital contributions to the profession.  In medieval terms ‘here be dragons’. While instructional coaching has a sound research basis its widespread adoption in English schools with their own cultures and practices might suggest we need to tread carefully and with a curious stance rather than a gung-ho one.

References and links

Professor Rachel Lofthouse

Professor / Carnegie School Of Education

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.

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