One of my greatest thrills as a classroom teacher was the moment when I would see several students “get it” at once. The “Now I understand!” facial expression never gets old. The lips part, the eyes widen, the head tilts back, and then the learner will often lean forward and write everything down, afraid the understanding will slip away as quickly as it arrived. 

Now that my job involves presenting Jim Knight’s work to educators all over hill and dale, I still search the room for that expression. One of the topics where I see that look most often is when we present the Instructional Playbook idea to educators. With an extraordinarily hardworking audience like instructional coaches, however, the “I get it” look is soon replaced by another expression: panic. “I need to make a playbook now! How can I make this happen by tomorrow?” 

But there’s no need to panic over the Instructional Playbook. The playbook is a friend whose job is to alleviate anxiety, not exacerbate it. Here’s how. 

The Instructional Playbook Defined

The Instructional Playbook is a lean and clean collection of instructional strategies that instructional coaches can use to aid the coach in giving teachers choices in which strategies they use to hit their goals for students. It can also help the coach to teach the strategy deeply to the teacher so that the teacher feels more confident about the implementation of the strategy with kids. 

The Instructional Playbook came about as a result of Jim’s research on The Impact Cycle. In the first phase of the Impact Cycle, coaches assist teachers in setting goals for students by using the Identify Questions to ensure that the teacher has a clear picture of classroom reality and is using that data to choose a goal that will be powerful for students and compelling for the teacher. 

The questions originated in Jim’s research with coaches in Beaverton, Oregon, and make goal setting faster and more effective. 


The Identify Questions

  1. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst lesson you’ve taught and 10 being the best, how close was the lesson to your ideal?
  2. Why did you pick that number? 
  3. What would have to change to move the lesson closer to a 10?
  4. What would you see your students doing differently if your class was a 10?
  5. Tell me more about what that would look like.
  6. How could we measure that change?
  7. Do you want that to be your goal?
  8. If you could hit that goal, would it really matter to you?
  9. What teaching strategy can you use to achieve your goals?
  10. What are your next steps? 


From Knight, J. (2017). The Impact Cycle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. ©2017 by Jim Knight and Corwin Press. 

Question #9 can give some coaches pause because the most common teacher response to that question is, “I don’t know which strategy to use. What have you got?” Because teachers so often rely on the coach to have strategies at the ready for their goals, having a “bank” of strategies handy in the areas where one coaches most often makes sense a great deal of logistical sense. 

The tendency for most coaches would be to create a huge compilation of strategies for teachers, one that perhaps resembles one of the enormous teacher resource binders and boxes that come with any new textbook adoption. The trouble is, hardly anyone ever cracks those giant tomes open when they need a resource because the resources themselves look overwhelming. Pages and pages of support are less helpful than one clean page of information because people under pressure don’t have the time or the psychological space to sift through a massive document to find what they need. 

Thus, the Instructional Playbook should be as lean and clean as possible so that teachers can choose strategies using a tool that doesn’t overwhelm them in an already-overwhelming profession. 

Here’s what an Instructional Playbook looks like. 


The Instructional Playbook

  1. A one-page (and one page only) Table of Contents (TOC) that lists the major categories in the playbook and specific strategies in each category.
  2. A one-page (and one page only) description of each strategy on the Table of Contents that provides the strategy’s definition and purpose, research support, and what the teacher and students are doing when implementing the strategy)
  3. Enough checklists after each strategy so that the teacher can refer back to those checklists during implementation to ensure that they do not leave out any key elements of the strategy. 


From Knight, J. (2017). The Impact Cycle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. ©2017 by Jim Knight and Corwin Press. 

For example, let’s imagine the playbook of a high school mathematics instructional coach. Perhaps the TOC includes categories such as Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Advanced Placement Math Courses. Under each of those four headings, the coach would include strategies that he or she commonly uses when coaching teachers in those areas. 

An elementary school generalist coach may have categories on the TOC such as ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Specials. A middle school technology coach may have categories on the TOC such as SmartBoard Tools, PowerSchool Tools, Special Tech Tools, and Embedding Technology in Lessons. 

The categories need not number four, and they can vary from system to system and coach to coach. That same elementary school generalist coach could instead have TOC categories such as Instruction, Student Engagement, and Classroom Management. They key is that the coach organizes the playbook by the most common coaching areas for their coaching audience and that the tool is as streamlined as possible.

The playbook is an ever changing document. As student needs change, so will strategies to serve them. The playbook should be helpful–an anxiety reliever for both coach and teacher–not a compendium of all possible strategies in all areas. 

ICG Certification: What Scoring Taught Us This Year about Playbooks

As part of ICG coaching certification, candidates can submit as many (or no) entries in the first year of candidacy as they like and submit the remaining pieces in the second year (year 3 is for retakes). One of the most common entries submitted during year one of the pilot phase was the Instructional Playbook. Coaches gravitate toward this idea, and we saw some original and inspired playbooks. The information below involves some of the common misconceptions among the entries, mainly because we realized that our directions were not specific enough, and we rewrote them as a result. 


The Instructional Playbook entry has four elements:

  1. The Table of Contents (TOC)
  2. The one-page descriptions of each strategy on the TOC
  3. The checklists for each strategy
  4. An explanation of the coaches’ coaching audience and how the playbook meet their needs. 

Those items should be submitted in this order for ICG certification. 

  1. The TOC
  2. TOC strategy 1 one-page description, TOC strategy 1 checklists
  3. TOC strategy 2 one-page description, TOC strategy 2 checklists
  4. TOC strategy 3 one-page description, TOC strategy 3 checklists
  5. And so with strategy 4, 5, 6…on until all of the strategies on the TOC are covered
  6. Finally, the coach will describe the coaching audience and how the playbook strategies match their most common needs. 


One of the most important elements of the playbook is that it provide choices for teacher in choosing a strategy to hit a goal. Without choices, the teacher is less likely to feel like a partner in the coaching relationship and will not feel what Jim calls a sense of “responsible accountability” for strategy implementation. If the teacher is only given one strategy to use for a goal, and problems ensue with that strategy (and problems almost always ensue when learning something new), the teacher can say, “I was just doing what you told me to do. This isn’t my fault. You figure it out.” And one could argue that the teacher is right. Choice (even among limited choices) gives the teacher a sense of responsibility for the decision and thus a higher likelihood to “dig in” deeply to solve implementation problems.  

In some cases, submitted playbooks listed only one strategy under a category on the TOC. Because teachers need choices, the TOC should involve choices for teachers in each category. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

Creating a digital version of the Instructional Playbook is a terrific idea for instructional coaches. It allows for easy modification and updates, and it makes the document shareable with stakeholders to alleviate the mystery sometimes surrounding, “What exactly does the coach do when they’re in those classrooms?”. What we found with digital playbooks when scoring was that digital versions may not necessarily be the easiest format for teachers to navigate when examining strategies. Sharing permissions can shut the teacher out (at least temporarily) from the materials, and wifi problems are an ongoing source of frustration for us all. 

Starting with year 2, we will require that all playbook entries for certification be uploaded in text format (as a single and complete Word or PDF document) because accessing and navigating online playbooks was problematic during the scoring process. Coaches may want to consider printing their online playbooks for teachers as well to avoid wifi and other access problems to keep potential frustrations at a minimum during coaching conversations. 

No candidate scores suffered as a result of these issues because the directions did not specify these elements as specifically as they should have. We scored them solely based on what we asked them to do, not according to how we decided to revise the directions. The candidates in our pilot cohort have been amazingly patient with us as we figure out these issues along the way. They will be the ones most responsible for a leaner and cleaner certification process moving forward. 

Jim’s Instructional Playbook idea has taken our workshops by storm, so much so that our team is writing a book on the subject that we hope to release in Spring 2019. As with football playbooks, the Instructional Playbook is a tool that includes plays (strategies) that the coach has “run” (used) over and over in practice so that, when Game Day comes (when a teacher sets a goal), the coach can go to the right plays in the right moment.