The Interplay between theory, research and practice in Coaching in Education

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Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
How and why did you find yourself in this particular field of research?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
Coaching in Education is something that I’ve been interested in for some time. I used to work in the education sector, with the professional development arena. I was very interested in in the kinds of interventions that led to changes in the classroom and having looked at a broad range of interventions it seemed to me that coaching was one of those interventions that allowed for implementation of initiatives. And then when we started using more coaching in educational settings it became more important for me that these interventions were evidence-based which meant that we had to encourage research into coaching into education and also do some of our own research into that area.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Have you been surprised or gratified by the data you have collected?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
I wrote a book back in 2012, it was called Coaching in Education: Getting Better Results for Students, Educators and Parents – so that’s what we have been interested in: getting the results. What I’m grateful for is that there is more research now into this area. It’s still a new area for research and I would say that coaching in education it falls under the umbrella generally. There is quite a lot of research into coaching generally and coaching in education is a subset of that. And I am pleased to say that since 2012 there has been even more research into this area and there is now quite a significant body of research into coaching in education.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
In a recent editorial in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice you mentioned the interplay between theory, research and practice, tell us what you mean by that…

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
I am particularly interested in this concept of the interplay between those three things and the reason is because coaching is an applied intervention. So the practice part is important but as I was saying earlier, we want to make sure that the practice is informed by research – and that’s what I mean by evidence-based coaching. So, when I talk about the interplay between theory, research and practice the word interplay suggests that it’s not a clear one-way travel between these three things. The way I see it, practice is the most important aspect because this is where it’s making a difference for learners. And I think the practice starts to do two things:
(1) the practice starts to raise questions and those questions are questions that could be research topics and should be researched and also by putting these interventions into practice educators can start to theorise, they can start to say ‘ every time we use coaching in this way this seems to happen’ and that’s a theory and those theories are important for us as well and these theories can also inform further practice but also raise further questions. So this idea of interplay is essential and I think that educators are the right people to be the theorisers, to be theorising, but also to be the researchers, as well as the practitioners. So, educators are really at the heart of this as they are the ones putting this interplay into practice in the best interest of learners.
(2) One of the words I have been using recently, it’s a word I heard at a recent conference, Professor Lea Waters mentioned it, is ‘pracademic’ and I really like the idea of pracademic, one because it sounds a bit like paramedic which is a nice word, but more so because I think that here at Growth Coaching International, where I am Director of Research, I’d like to see my role as straddling both the research side of things – but also the practice. The academic side and also the practice side.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Lets drill down into the whole question of research into coaching in education, what would you say are the particular challenges of conducting research here?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
yes, so the rea we are interested in is education and particularly for me I am quite interested the primary and secondary sectors and so there has been quite a bit of research into these areas and I would say some excellent research – much of it done here in Australia, and quite a lot also coming out of the Unites States and the United Kingdom – these pieces of research have taken place in schools and that’s an important factor and that’s where the challenge comes from as well. Because of ten when you think about research it’s done in laboratory conditions when you are able to constrain extraneous factors, so probably currently there are 2 challenges that I see: (1) when you are working in a school it’s a busy environment and the priority has to be the work of the school so sometimes it’s difficult to try to create control groups, which is what we try to do in scientific laboratory research; gathering data can be difficult; there are challenges around parental consent; consent of students themselves so these are those kinds of challenges existing around working within schools so when I do this kind of work, or when we work with others, it’s important that we do so respectfully so that we go into schools recognising that they are professional workplaces and the priority has to be the learning of the students – so there’s that set of challenges.

The other is a more interesting one which I want to spend a bit more time on, the other challenge around coaching and doing research on this is that for me there are three elements to successful coaching in educational settings: One element is about the process – for us here at GCI the process that we talk about is the GROWTH process. Another aspect of successful coaching is a set of coaching related skills - so those skills we can observe and you could say we can measure – those are the skills of listening, asking questions, summarising, those kinds of things. And the third element which I think makes the biggest difference, is what we talk about as the Coaching Way of Being. Now when it comes down to trying to research that or measure whether educators or students are using that Coaching way of Being, that’s a difficult one. And so where some of the research has been criticized is when others are coming along and saying ‘Ok, you did a piece of coaching work in schools and you are saying that student wellbeing increased as a result of it, that engagement increased, you are saying that teacher motivation increased…’ - those are the kinds of finding that are coming out - but critics are saying ‘is that because they were coached or is it simply because somebody is taking an interest in how they are doing?’ And that’s a fair criticism and form a research point of view I’m not sure how we overcome that at the moment but in terms of what we are about and what we are passionate about in this area sometimes my response is ‘does it really matter whether it’s the coaching itself or the fact that someone a professional or another student is taking an interest in us?’ So that’s a more complex but interest challenge that we face in this area.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
Christian, a couple of practical questions – first, can you tell us about schools where coaching is making a real difference to school leaders, to teachers and to students?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
I guess that’s what we are all about – both at Growth Coaching International but also with my research hat on – ultimately it’s the difference it makes to educators, to learners and to everyone involved in this undertaking. So probably it’s the most enjoyable part of my role is actually going out and seeing schools where these kinds of things are taking place, and also seeing schools where this kind of excellent work is taking place. So I am going to mention three schools, just to show the breadth of work that’s going on and also to show that this is happening in various sectors. These case studies are available online so that listeners may want to find out more they will be able to read up more on these case studies.

So the first is Comet Bay College where James Hares and Nancy McNally used coaching with a particular focus on improving professional practice. Their work was wonderful and we picked it out as a case study for a book which I edited called Coaching in Professional Contexts. And what is really remarkable about their work is that they are interested in developing a whole school approach to classroom observation. So that’s a really interesting area. I think it’s peculiarly interesting because I go and visits schools both in Australia, but also the UK where I live, and there is something remarkable about saying to a teacher that he or she is going to be observed. It’s amazing the kind of reaction you get. And therefore coming up with a coaching approach to observation to create a safe space for a professional to reflect on their professional practice – that’s a powerful intervention. So the Comet Bay College case study is an interesting example of that.

Another case study that we reference is the Hennessey Catholic College and their interested in using coaching to unlock the potential of their school. And what they do is use coach training to transform the culture of their organisation. And again in research terms this is something I have been quite curious about – the extent to which training people to become coaches may have an impact on the way that they interact with others, on their leadership style, on their own engagement, on their own motivation, and this is something that I did a price of research on with a colleague Chloe Tong back in 2013. We actually trained some secondary school students to become coaches and interestingly our focus was not on those who received the coaching but on those that we trained to became coaches. So the Hennessey Catholic College case study is an example where coach training was used as a way of transforming the school culture – so I think that’s a really interesting example.

And the third example is Mosman Preparatory School where they put in place a Strength-Based coaching program in year 5. Clive Leach and Suzy Green have written a Chapter in the book Coaching in Professional Contexts about integrating coaching and positive psychology in schools, and this is a wonderful example where this strength based coaching program for year 5 children, increased both engagement and hopeful ness.

So it’s stories like these – real stories in real schools – that encourages us. And this is where, coming back to the idea of the interplay between theory, research and practice, these case studies emerge from research – there is some research to say that these kinds of interventions are helpful. These schools are putting them into practice and though the practice we are able to theorise – that these kinds of interventions are able to lead to these kinds of results and again this takes us back into this loop of doing further research, maybe on a grander scale across a larger number of schools in different contexts. So I think for all these reasons it’s the impact it has in schools that probably excites me the most – and probably excites the listeners to this podcast the most. That’s why I am always interested find out more. My colleague John Campbell and I are working on a new book called the Teacher’s Handbook to Coaching, Mentoring and Positive Psychology in Schools and again we are looking for excellent case studies because we want to make sure that what we are writing about is rooted in practice and will inform practice.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):
So, considering all that, my other question is what are some of the ways in which schools might get started with integrating coaching in their school life?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
I think that’s a wonderful question – here at Growth Coaching International we have developed what we call the Global Framework for coaching in education and within that we have identified four portals or four areas in which coaching can start to make a quick different. It’s a question I get asked a lot ‘where do we start’ – and I think the answer to that questions lies within that school because they should start with the area in which they are most interested and where they think it will have the biggest impact.

So let me share with you what these four areas are:

  • The first area is around professional practice, so if the school is interested in enhancing the professional practice of educators that’s a good area to start and any intervention in that area will be sufficient.
  • The other area will be Student Success and Wellbeing, so they could focus on coaching interventions that focus directly on the learner, providing them with coaching, training them to become coaches.
  • Another important area, of course, (to focus coaching) is the Leadership of that educational institution, so we could focus in on that area and the kinds of interventions we could focus in on are: providing educational leaders with access to coaching; providing them with training; and peer coaching between educational leaders.
  • And the forth area, and the one that I think requires the most attention currently, is the area of seeing how coaching can be used to connect with the educational community and that’s an area that requires further research – but thinking about how coaching can be used to connect with parents, governors, members of the community.

Leigh Hatcher (presenter):

My final question is more a personal one – you obviously have a wealth of experience and knowledge and passion – you enjoy this too…?

Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh:
I love this work – I grew up in Lebanon during the war years and as a young student I could never underestimate the power of education. Having had a good education despite everything that was going on just gave me so many more opportunities. So what I am passionate about is supporting schools to create the best possible learning environment for their students.

van Nieuwerburgh, C. (Ed.) (2012). Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents. London: Karnac.
Briggs, M. & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2011). Ways of working. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 4(2), 163–167.
van Nieuwerburgh, C. J. & Passmore, J. (2012). Creating coaching cultures for learning, in C. J. van Nieuwerburgh (Ed.) Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents (pp.153–172). London: Karnac.