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Six Experienced Coaches and their Practice

Professor Rachel Lofthouse from Leeds Beckett University conducts very useful research into the process of coaching in education. In her latest article “Coaching in education: a professional development process in formation (Professional Development in Education 2019, Vol 45, No. 1, 33-45) she reports on a study of six experienced coaches and their practice, demonstrating the significance of relationships and dialogue in coaching. This article helps us understand more about the nature of the conversational space that best supports a coaching partnership.

In Lofthouse’s study, six coaches were paired in a sequence of public conversations on the basic question “why bother with coaching in education?” These conversations were then analysed to draw out key dimensions of coaching.

As participants explored the question, some commonalities emerged. The first was the sense of expectation in coaching – ‘the expectation that the coach and coachee(s) would enter into a dialogue and that this dialogue would create the opportunities for something to be learned or changed as a result”. Another was that coaching had structures or protocols underpinning it. These varied from a particular observation/coaching cycle to a particular questioning technique, to employing protocols of lesson study. These structures were more than habits developed over time, as they were being developed in a disciplined way by each coach in practice.

Yet another commonality was in the way coaching was described. It was described as ‘a space’ where coaches listened to and were attentive of their coaches, allowing them to open up and do their best thinking. Coaching allowed both coach and coachee to share, learn and find solutions, with expectation that dialogue would be both exploratory and reciprocal. Coaching was also seen as an authentic professional learning process, embedded in real educational contexts.

The aspect of coaching which coaches discussed most was the relational aspect. It was noted that often there is a power imbalance at the outset of the coaching relationship and adaptations need to be made over time to create a sense of inclusion, so that a genuine partnership can be built. Effective coaching relationships were seen as those where the coach and coachee discussed the genuine concerns and practices of the coachee. This was achieved in part by building trust over time, in part by listening skills and ability to create a non-judgemental space and also with new evidence being brought to bear, such as video footage. Successful practice usually involved some sort of co-construction of new knowledge, with ideas generated in the moment and built cumulatively during the coaching process. There was also a sense that while effective coaching relied on these relational characteristics it can also itself generate them over time.

The collaborative and generative nature of the coaching partnership emerged as an important aspect of effective coaching. A theme of this article is what Lofthouse calls the ‘collaborative dualism’ of coaching, where ‘much of the productive work is done through dialogue based on curiosity, listening, creating spaces in conversations, the sharing of experiences and expertise and reciprocity’. This dialogue enables coaching, when sustained over time, to go beyond being a short term instrumental process. Here the dialogue – an in-the-moment mix of curiosity, listening, exploring and sharing, becomes reciprocal. There is co-construction of new knowledge through collective inquiry, collective responsibility and joint work. (For more on Lofthouse’s concept of co-construction in coaching, read this article.

Finally the paper suggests that if coaching can sustain the participants’ collaborative generative attention it can create an effective environment for professional learning and change. At this level, the coaching process is involving inquiry into one’s own practice and similarly understanding more about other practice. It increases the agency of the coachee and thus could meet the criteria for genuine ‘transformative’ professional learning.

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