This three part blog series looks back at how the Instructional Coaching Group developed and refined their model for instructional coaching through research spanning more than two decades. Part I of III.
The story of instructional coaching begins during my first year of teaching at Humber College in Toronto. As luck would have it, I was teaching an introductory communications class that the current students had failed at least three times already. I desperately wanted the students to succeed, but I didn’t know how to help them, so I turned to Dee La France.
Dee La France partnered with anyone on our campus who was interested in learning more about working with students with learning disabilities. She showed me how to teach my students how to learn, and as part of the process helped me implement the learning strategies curriculum developed for students with learning disabilities by researchers at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. As it turned out, Dee served as my coach before the term “coach” was widely used in such a context. She helped translate the learning strategies curriculum into action by planning lessons, co-teaching, or doing anything else she could think of to help me and my students succeed. And the exciting thing was that as my students became more confident writers, they also became more confident about themselves as individuals.
After seeing my students succeed, I was so excited about the learning strategies curriculum that I decided to fly to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, to attend the training in how to become a certified Strategic Instruction Model Professional Developer offered by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning so I could teach other teachers what Dee had taught me. I returned to Toronto, eager to spread the word about research on how to teach students how to learn, but, sadly, each workshop I gave was an abysmal failure.
The workshops failed for many reasons, but largely because the nature of workshops by themselves rarely leads to implementation, the attitude or “way of being” I brought to my work seemed to turn off my audience, and I hadn’t yet learned the art and craft of presenting. Because I had studied the research and seen successful implementation of the practices, in my excitement about sharing this with others, I made the assumption that everyone would be as excited as I was and would adopt the practices seamlessly. Soon, I discovered the complexity of sharing knowledge.
I began to wrestle with the question that has driven the past three decades of my research:
What is the best way to share proven practices with teachers so that their students experience better learning and better lives?
Fortunately, I was studying at the University of Toronto, where the dean happened to be the world’s leading expert on educational change, Michael Fullan, and he agreed to further guide me through an independent study of his work. After I had read all of Fullan’s own work, he introduced me to other writers, who subsequently have shaped how I understand change. Among others, he encouraged me to read Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, Seymour Sarason, Susan Rosenholtz, and Peter Senge.
After my intensive reading and study with Fullan, I made the decision to enroll as a PhD student at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. In my first research study, “Another Damn Thing We’ve Got to Do: Teacher Perceptions of Professional Development,” I examined why a nasty conflict had erupted between teachers in a workshop after I asked an otherwise simple question: “What might keep you from implementing these practices?” To come up with an answer, I interviewed teachers after the workshop, and identified the following key themes as interfering with each individual’s ability to learn:
- interpersonal issues
- their history of professional development
- teachers’ low expectations for workshops
- the school district’s culture
- my way of being as a presenter
One of my most important findings didn’t make it into my paper—the one-to-one conversations I had with teachers changed the way they saw me. After a second workshop with the same teachers (after I had met them one-to-one), their openness to my presentation was completely different. This discovery would lead me to write a paper on the power of one-to-one conversations. Of course, this was just the beginning.
Part II of The Evolving Story of Instructional Coaching: A Summary of Our Research will continue relating the path down which the experiences, learning, and research of these early days would take me, and eventually, the rest of the Instructional Coaching Group.