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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

How Can Coaches Use a Cycle of Inquiry to Establish Themselves and Help Others?

By Peter DeWitt — May 09, 2021 10 min read
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Instructional coaches, learning specialists (Australia), and leadership coaches often look to a coaching cycle to help those they coach improve in a given area. For instructional coaches and learning specialists, it may involve using a cycle to help a teacher improve classroom management. Instructional coaches and learning specialists may also help teachers understand whether there is a heavy emphasis on direct instruction in the classroom and help them find a balance by using collaborative-learning strategies like reciprocal teaching, jigsaw method, or Talk Moves.

When it comes to leadership coaches, they may use a coaching cycle to help leaders find a balance between management and instructional leadership. Leadership coaches can also help leaders collaborate more with teachers or engage more families in the school community.

Coaching cycles often focus on a goal and then the execution of strategies based on research. All of this is important, but what about before the coaching cycle begins? What about when an instructional coach or leadership coach is just getting established? What about all of those important elements that coaches, both instructional and leadership, as well as learning specialists, need to consider before the coaching relationship even begins? Important considerations such as:

  • Remote vs. in-person instructional and leadership coaching?
  • Developing relationships with someone who doesn’t want to be coached?
  • Individual vs. group instructional and leadership coaching?

Delinger-Kane and Rosenquist (2019) recently found in this mixed-methods study that district and building-level coaches often have duties that end up taking them away from working with those they are supposed to coach, which means consistency and deep impact become an issue. What this means is that there are so many important considerations for instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches before they even begin a coaching cycle that I believe it’s important to use a cycle of inquiry both in how they approach coaching and during the process when they begin attacking a goal with those they coach. What this also means is that instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches need not just focus on learning and curiosity with those they coach, but they also need to focus on learning and curiosity as they establish themselves as coaches.

Inquiry Cycles for Coaches and Those They Coach

Over my experience as a coach, and as a result of research and learning for a full-year asynchronous course I created and advise on coaching, I developed a cycle of inquiry that I believe instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches should use as they establish themselves, at the same time they use it during their coaching relationship with those they coach.

For our purposes, I will define how coaches use it themselves as the “main story” and how they use it with those they coach as the “supporting story.” I know this runs counterintuitive to the way coaches think because in most cases they put others first before themselves, but it’s important for coaches to first go through a process before they bring others through it. Like any good drama, there are often two stories going on simultaneously, and then toward the end of the drama, we witness how the two different stories come together as one. That is what happens as coaches move through the coaching process.

There are six aspects to the cycle of inquiry, which is pictured below, that I have developed through research, and each step will be explained below.

Cycle of Inquiry

Those cycle of inquiry steps are:

Develop:
Main Story - Before instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches engage in a coaching relationship, they need to develop a few different areas. Those are:

  • Development of a definition of coaching – Too often what happens in school is that there is not a common definition of coaching for instructional and leadership coaches or learning specialists, nor do they have a formal role established within their school or district. This creates many issues, including those found in recent research by Delinger-Kane and Rosenquist (2019). For instructional coaches without a formal definition of coaching, they often get used as quasi-administrators, which sometimes hurts their credibility with teachers. In my experience, coaching is a form of professional learning and development where a coach, who often has experience in the role of those they are coaching, develops and engages in a cycle of inquiry that simultaneously focuses on student and adult learning.
  • Develop relationships – Before anyone will be coached, they need to know they can trust those who are doing the coaching. Developing relationships are key.

Supporting Story – Those being coached have to begin developing an idea about where they want to focus their efforts. Sometimes that involves using reflection documents, and other times it means having conversations with those they work with to help them home in on an improvement area.

Explore:
Main Story - After instructional coaches, leadership coaches and learning specialists do the work of defining how coaching looks within their school, district, or division, they need to begin exploring what coaching the coaching process might look like. We need to stop building the plane while flying. What this means is that coaches need to develop an understanding of what kind of coaching they can do. Will it all be in person or will they include remote coaching? Will it be individual or group coaching?

Supporting Story – Those being coached have to explore what learning looks like within their classroom or school. This is also where those being coached take that goal they are considering and explore what it looks like within their context.

All coaches may use learning walks and walk-throughs, something I clarified in this YouTube video, to explore big topics like knowledge dimensions, Depth of Knowledge, student engagement, and instructional strategies with those they coach. This is a really important process to engage in before entering into a cycle of inquiry.

Inquire:
Main Story - In this part of the inquiry cycle, instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches need to go through a three-step process to gain an understanding of how their coaching will work with those they coach. This is often a process that needs to happen fairly quick when a new coaching relationship begins. For example, a leadership coach will need to go through the three part process to help them establish their focus for all coaching or they may need to do this with every leader they coach.

The three main steps in the inquire section are:

  • Purpose statement – What is the problem being framed? Where does the instructional coach, learning specialist or leadership coach see a challenge? For example, a leadership coach may develop a purpose statement based on a problem they are having proving their impact as a leadership coach. After all, Delinger-Kane and Rosenquist’s research shows that coaching is often not impactful because coaches spend so little time working directly with those they coach and spend more time working on management duties.
  • Inquiry question – For example, this is where the leadership coach writes a question based on their purpose statement. An example might be, “The purpose of this inquiry is to define three ways I can consistently help a leader become more impactful.”
  • Theory of action – This is the last part of the inquire section where the coach defines a theory of action. An example of a theory of action may be, “If I develop three consistent strategies to directly assist leaders focus on learning, then I will be able to gather evidence to show that leadership coaching can be impactful to student learning.”

It’s important to keep in mind that inquiry doesn’t just have to focus on a new goal toward improvement to add to our plates; it can focus on an area to de-implement as well. According to this research study, de-implementation is the process of “abandoning existing low value practices.” Instructional coaching and leadership coaching do not have to focus just on doing more but can focus on taking things off the plates of leaders and teachers as well.

Supporting Story - In this part of the story, the instructional coach, learning specialist or leadership coach helps those they coach develop a theory of action.

  • Purpose statement – What is the problem being framed? Where do those being coached want to go deeper? This is where the coach and those they coach write the purpose statement they want to explore.
  • Inquiry question – This is where the coach and the educator being coached write a question based on their purpose statement. An example might be, “The purpose of this inquiry is to explore three cooperative-learning strategies in the classroom.”
  • Theory of action – This is the last part of the inquire section where the coach and those they coach take the last two steps and define a theory of action. An example of a theory of action may be, “If I develop three cooperative-learning strategies in my teaching, then I will see an increase in student engagement.”

Plan:
Main Story - Using a program logic model, which is pictured below, an instructional coach, learning specialist or leadership coach will plan out the steps needed to put their plan into action. A program logic model, an example of which is included below, is a strategy we use to help us understand what the process of improvement looks like and what we may need when we go through it. What is their theory of action when it comes to their own coaching? What resources do they need? What are those three activities that will help them be more impactful and when will they engage in those activities? What is the ultimate impact they are hoping to achieve?
Supporting Story - The coach and those they coach move on to a planning stage together, where they use a program logic model. This is where instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches, as well as those they coach define what resources they need, the activities they need to engage in, and what evidence they will collect to understand impact when it comes to the goal of those being coached.

Screen Shot 2021 05 04 at 4.54.09 PM

Implement:
Main Story - After understanding the steps to improvement that are needed because of what they learned from doing the program logic model, instructional coaches, learning specialists and leadership coaches then move into implementation. They begin engaging in the activities that they established when developing the program logic model about their coaching goal.
Supporting Story - This is where the instructional coach, learning specialist or leadership coach work with the person or people being coached on implementation or de-implementation.

Implementation is the fun part because it’s the game time when those coached get to put all of their learning and previous discussions into action and gather evidence to see how well it’s working. Evidence may be an increase in student engagement, fewer surface-level questions, and an increase in deep and transfer-level questions. For leaders, it may be an increase in the amount of dialogue they have around student learning or creating a deeper culture of feedback within their school.

Reflect:
This is where coaches and those they coach review the evidence they collect.
Main Story - The coach needs to collect evidence to understand their impact as a coach. Did they actually help the person or people being coached have a deeper impact?
Supporting Story - The coach and those being coached work together to gather the evidence to understand the impact of their actions. Did the person being coached engage in actions that resulted in deeper impact?
This is also where our two stories of the coach’s cycle and the cycle of those being coached comes together. They reflect on the experience, celebrate the hard work they put into it, and move on to discussions about where they will go next.

In the End
We don’t need any more drama after the year of the COVID-19 pandemic that we have all experienced. This is where instructional coaches, learning specialists, and leadership coaches can help those they coach create a new story in their positions. It’s about de-implementing as much it’s about implementing.

If we have learned anything during COVID-19 it’s that we have to find a balance between academic and social-emotional goals for students and adults. It means that we need to go from crisis teaching and leading to stepping back to understand what we have been through and how we can bring curiosity back to our positions and lives. A cycle of inquiry will help coaches and those they coach reestablish themselves.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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