Conceptual Analysis: What Coaching Activities Actually Improve Instruction?

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Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Focusing on Teacher Learning Opportunities to Identify Potentially Productive Coaching Activities,” by Lynsey K. Gibbons of Boston University (MA) and Paul Cobb of Vanderbilt University (TN). The article, which appears in the September/October issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

Instructional improvement initiatives in many districts include instructional coaching as a primary form of job-embedded support for teachers. However, the coaching literature provides little guidance about what activities coaches should engage in with teachers to improve instruction. When researchers do propose activities, they rarely justify why those activities might support teacher learning. Drawing on the preservice and in-service teacher education literatures, we present a conceptual analysis of learning activities that have the potential to support mathematics and science teachers to improve practice. We argue that our analysis can inform research on mathematics and science coaching, coaching policies, and the design of professional learning for coaches.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: Both authors were engaged in the MIST study, where we partnered with several large urban districts between 2007 and 2015 to investigate what it takes to improve the quality of mathematics teaching and student learning on a large scale. As part of this work, we collected data each year to document how the districts’ instructional improvement strategies were playing out in schools and classrooms and made actionable recommendations to each of the districts about how they might revise their strategies to make them more effective. In the context of this work, it soon became apparent that the research base on content-focused instructional coaching was thin and provided little guidance on the types of activities in which coaches might engage teachers to support them in developing ambitious and equitable instructional practices. This gap in the coaching literature motivated us to identify potentially productive coaching activities by conducting a conceptual analysis of the existing teacher education and professional development literatures.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: When we began the MIST study, instructional coaching was an increasingly common form of support for teachers’ learning. Coaching is an expensive endeavor – both financially and in terms of human resources, as accomplished teachers are asked to step out of the classroom and become responsible for supporting the learning of other teachers. We needed to understand what effective coaches do to support teachers’ learning if we were to support districts in getting a good return on their investments.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: Professional learning opportunities for teachers – including instructional coaching, as well as pull-out professional development and other forms of teacher collaboration – are components of a larger system of supports for instructional improvements. A new challenge for coaching includes considering how to assist coaches to reorganize their practices, so that they are supporting teachers’ development across the entire school or department. The success of school reform is dependent, in part, on building the capacity of individuals; however, support for change must also attend to the system as a whole and build collective capacity. We need to better understand how the work of coaches is organized to move from only working one-on-one with teachers toward also working with groups of teachers. How are coaches’ time and work organized? How do principals support coaches to work across the system? How do they facilitate groups of teachers’ learning and take into account what is similar or different about what each teacher needs to learn and develop? What is best worked on in classrooms, one-on-one with the coach?

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: Gibbons works closely with district leaders to design and research teacher learning. Along with colleagues, Gibbons is examining how elementary teachers engage in the complex work of using key discussion practices to achieve equity-related and discipline-related goals in mathematics, science, and English language arts. This research also involves investigating efforts to cultivate organizational contexts that create and maintain strong school-wide professional learning structures. These structures, called “Learning Labs,” allow for school leaders to engage teachers in strengthening their practices, alongside their colleagues.

Cobb is involved in a partnership with an urban district that focuses on improving the quality of one-on-one mathematics coaching. As part of this work, he and colleagues are codesigning and coleading a series of professional development sessions for coaches with district mathematics leaders. One novel feature of this work is the coaches’ use of data from practical measures of the quality of classroom instruction when, for example, negotiating improvement goals with teachers.

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