In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will have presented at the conference, or those who will be presenting this year. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

Dr. Pedro A. Noguera, the Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education at UCLA has presented at two of our Teaching, Learning, and Coaching Conferences. During both presentations, he moved us with the strength of his convictions, his intelligence, his scholarship, and his passionate commitment to children. His presentations inspire his audiences, including me, to try to be better.

Prior to last year’s conference, I talked with Dr. Noguera about many issues related to education for all students. 

JK: Would you please say a few things about your work? 

PN: A lot of my work and scholarship has been focused on the big problems facing American education. Problems in educating kids, problems in creating schools that serve children well, and so – everything from the achievement gap, to the plight of vulnerable children, to the need for greater equity in our schools.

JK: Do you want to mention some of your publications? 

PN: I wrote a book called City Schools and the American Dream, which was focused on trying to understand why almost every major, and almost every minor, city in the country has schools that don’t work well and what could be done about it. Another book, The Trouble with Black Boys, focused on why black boys stand out as being over-disciplined and often underachievers in schools and what could be done about it. And then my book Excellence Through Equity is all about solutions, such as equitable practices – that is, serving all kinds of children. 

JK: Our audience is primarily instructional coaches. Their focus is primarily on pedagogy, and to that end they typically set goals related to one of three areas: achievement, engagement, and what you could call behavior; that is, creating a safe environment for kids. 

The engagement goal is not just about students doing what they’re supposed to be doing, it may be described in several ways, including behavioral engagement, cognitive engagement, emotional engagement, a sense of belonging, a connection with the school. I know you speak passionately about the importance of engagement. Could you say a little about what you mean by engagement and why you think it’s so important?

PN: I believe engagement is important on a number of levels. Most important, we need to see clear evidence of students at work while they are learning because we need to know what their needs are, and you can only see that it if you see them while they are at work – learning – that is, getting feedback on the quality of the instruction they are receiving. For example, do the kids understand what the teacher is teaching them? So it is essential to make the connections between teachers and learning clearer and stronger. 

I also think engagement is important because a lot of kids are bored and alienated in school. We know that when schools focus on achievement, it usually comes at the expense of engagement. So we need to find ways to get kids excited about learning – to motivate them. And that means again that we have to focus on how do kids learn. Unfortunately, in a lot of our schools, we don’t teach kids the way they learn; instead, we expect them to learn the way we teach, and if they don’t learn, then we blame the kids. So we need to be teaching very differently. For example, we need to make instruction much more hands-on, much more interactive, and give teachers the ability to create classrooms where students are at work, so they can actually differentiate support for the kids, which you can’t do if teachers are doing all the talking.

Achievement is the outcome we are after. So it’s not that we don’t want to assess kids –  we have to assess kids to know if they are learning – but we should be focused on the means to achievement, and the means is to get kids working … getting them learning, writing, reading, and doing math problems. That’s what we mean by engagement. This is what John Hattie talks about in his own work – how to make learning visible.

We need to get teachers to be much more attentive to learning, rather than see teaching as something they do to kids. Learning needs to be seen as much more interactive and reciprocal.

JK: Getting back to your focus on equity, wouldn’t you have to develop almost a literacy around it to avoid the risks of implicit bias and a whole host of things? What would be part of an equity literacy?

PN: I agree, but I think the real issue is how we operationalize the definition of equity. For me it’s about serving the needs of all kids – recognizing that academic needs are related to social needs and addressing both, or at least being aware of both. If you agree with that – and I think most educators do – then it requires us to look at the patterns. And when we look at the patterns, when we look at the schools, we see that we’re reaching some kids and not others. So we need to ask what’s going on for those kids we’re not reaching that we could change. 

Sometimes students might need more one-on-one support. Sometimes they might need things to be explained to them differently. Or it might be a language issue that is preventing them from accessing the material being presented to them. If we don’t ask the question of why they aren’t learning, then we end up with kids putting in time at school, but not showing evidence of learning. Sadly, we have a lot of kids putting in seat time, but not finding school meaningful.

JK: So the focus has generally been that when kids are not learning, the problem is the kids. But what you’re saying is that when kids are not learning, the problem is the way we are approaching them. 

PN: Right. But I also think that it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that it’s just the teacher’s fault. We need to spend time to help diagnose the problem, and when children aren’t learning, when there’s no progress, we should be asking why and try to find the most appropriate way to intervene. And that’s what we don’t do enough of – we don’t intervene early, and consequently we see kids being pushed along, and ending up graduating poorly prepared or not graduating at all.

JK: So why do you think we don’t do it? 

PN: I think it’s because we are seeing teaching and learning as disconnected, reinforced by the emphasis on high-stakes testing. That is, we’ve been fixated on test scores, but not on how we get kids learning. That is, we are not looking for the evidence that counts. Once you start to think that way, you want to use assessments as a tool, not as a way to rank people. That is, we’ve been ranking people with our assessments, and not figuring out, “OK, how do we use assessments to give teachers meaningful feedback for what they need to do differently to help kids?”

JK: I believe a big part of the problem is the way we use power. We use a directive top-down model of power that doesn’t work with something like learning. 

PN: I agree. We’ve had top-down accountability in terms of power, but what we need is mutual accountability, where each stakeholder is clear about what he or she is accountable for, including the student, the parents, and the teacher. But there’s also lots of feedback along the way, so when the teacher or the student says, “I need more of this” or “I need more of that,” we need that information because at each step along the way there needs to be some opportunity to give feedback on learning. 

JK: Given your focus of your work, what do you think is important for coaches to be thinking and doing?

PN: The best coaches are looking at both teachers and students. How does this teacher present the work and what impact is that having on kids? Which kids are the teachers reaching, which kids are they not reaching, and what strategies will enable them to reach the kids that are struggling? Looking at these issues is where I think coaches are important. In addition, I think coaches sometimes need to model for the teachers, using terms like, “I heard…,” “… try this,” so it’s more learning by doing, not just by telling. 

JK: So, what if you are a teacher or a coach and the system isn’t working for kids, what can you do?

PN: Well, I’d take advantage of the fact that they’re probably not looking at you either and do things on my own that make the class a more dynamic place for learning. Because if you are not getting the support you need from the administration, hopefully you have the freedom to do more to get the kids motivated.

JK: What is a metaphor for coaches? 

PN: The metaphor I use all the time is cooking. How do you know if someone is a good cook? Well, the food tastes good, the guests come back for more, it’s good for them, etc. Similarly, when a person is teaching well, it shows in the reaction of the kids. It shows up in the evidence of the learning, it shows up in the kids’ desire for more, and in the interactions in the classroom.

JK: Our conference theme is courage. Please tell me a bit about how your presentation relates to the concept of courage.

PN: In the context of schools, to me courage means thinking outside of the box, trying things that capture the imagination of the kids. For example, a first-grade teacher brings in a hermit crab to class and asks the kids, “What questions do you have about the crab?” The students ask all kinds of questions, and then the teacher says, “OK, I want you to draw a picture and write about the crab.” For two hours, the kids are totally engaged about the crab, and the story about the crab. Afterwards I asked the teacher, “Why did you bring in the crab?” And she said, “It wouldn’t have been the same without the crab. A picture wouldn’t have done it.” I don’t know if she got permission to bring in the crab (laughs), but to me this teacher showed courage in tapping into the curiosity of the children – which is key – and trying things that brought the material to life for them.

JK: Are there other things you wanted to share that I haven’t asked?

PN: I would like to return to the equity issue. A lot of times the strategies we use for kids that we think of as having lower ability dumb down the material for them, make it simplistic, and we focus on conformity, doing what the teacher says. Unfortunately, in doing so, we fail to recognize that many of those kids are capable of higher-order thinking and, in order to do that, they need to be challenged, stimulated, just like all kids do. This means giving power to the kids and allowing for some degree of noise, because when some people are learning, they ask questions, they talk to each other. So, when we start teaching kids the way they learn, the classroom becomes a place where it is safe to ask questions, safe to make mistakes, and safe to work together.