Questions: the Coach’s Tool

This week, I had the opportunity to spend two days, coaching coaches. Visiting instructional coaches in Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem Oregon, I had the opportunity to observe instructional coaches conducting pre and post observation conferences, as well as, conduct observations of classrooms. In some cases after the observation, I role-played with the coaches how I would conduct the conference and then they conducted the actual conference with the teacher with my observation. As we debriefed, many of the coaches shared with me a renewed understanding of the importance of the questions that a coach uses.

For example, a coach who was concerned how to mention the off task student behaviors that she observed found that when she asked the teacher, “what she saw during the lesson that made her feel most comfortable and most uncomfortable”, the teacher shared the off task behaviors and opened the door for conversation. When I stopped a coach in the middle of a pre-conference after the teacher said for the second time that she wanted the lesson to go smoothly and asked “what is smoothly”, the coach gained a much clearer picture into the teacher’s agenda.

Performance Learning Systems is preparing an updated version of our three day coaches’ training (for more information email me at sbarkley@plsweb.com). It includes an extensive review of the research on coaching. What follows is the research summary of the role of questioning.

Research shows learning comes not from having experiences, but from reflecting on those experiences (Knight, 2007; Rodgers, 2002). Supportive yet challenging questions can encourage reflection (Barkley & Bianco, 2005; Gimbel, 2008). Wang and Odell (2002) suggested, “Mentors need to know how to question and help novices pose questions about prevailing practice and identify the assumptions underlying one another’s teaching” (p. 521). Dunne and Villani (2007) stressed the importance of asking questions that focus on student learning and student work and that encourage the novices reflect on their practices.

Helping professionals have long realized the potential of active listening as a crucial skill for nurturing growth and learning (Tate & Dunklee, 2005). While little research has been conducted on the use of questions in a coaching/mentoring relationship, a substantial body of knowledge concerning the use of questions in the educational process does exist (Buehler, 2005; Schroeder et al., 2007). It is likely much of this information can be extended to peer coaching situations. Udelhofen and Larson (2003) concluded dialogue and discussion are the primary tools of effective mentoring. Browne and Kelley (2007) suggested the ability to ask the right questions is a crucial to creating effective dialogue

Research shows how a question is asked influences its effectiveness (Bell & Smith, 2004; Dillon, 1997; Wang, 2006). Clarity of educators’ questions correlates positively with student achievement (Jarolimek & Foster, 2008). Bowman and McCormick (2000) found that with effective coaching, teachers could improve their level of clarity in asking questions.

Through the use of carefully framed open- and closed-ended (yes/no) questions, mentors can increase the probability of eliciting the kinds of responses desired (Dunne & Villani, 2007). Certain topics require close-ended questions to elicit factual or specific answers, while open-ended questions are more useful for encouraging evaluation and interpretation. Wang (2006) cautioned close-ended questions “…cannot be used to extend the scope of a conversation because a questioner restricts information, which is introduced” (p. 544). Listening carefully to the answers will enhance mentors’ knowledge of new teachers’needs and concerns (Dunne & Villani, 2007).

Research shows employing pauses and probes to obtain more complete answers is beneficial (Davenport, 2003). “Silence following a question can make a coach feel uncomfortable, but that may be time in which the teacher reflects” (Feger, Woleck, & Hickman, 2004, p. 16).

Research shows when questions stimulate novices’ thinking, rather than leads them to an expected answer, they are more likely to understand on a deeper level (Jarolimek & Foster, 2008; Knight,2007). Follow-up questions that refocus or redirect students’ incorrect or incomplete responses enhance student achievement (Dantonio, 1990). It is likely the same tactic aids learning in a coaching/mentoring environment.

Research shows good mentoring sessions allow novices to ask questions of the coach/mentor. This is best accomplished in an accepting and noncritical working relationship (Knight, 2007). In addition to questions that assess knowledge and understanding, other questions help coaches to explore values, promote creative thinking, and help evaluate situations (Morgan & Saxton, 1991). The most crucial point is that successful questions must be planned, not improvised (Dillon, 1997). Barkley and Bianco (2005) suggested effective listening is more than passively hearing another; active listening requires asking questions and paraphrasing the speaker’s content. As Katch (2003) suggested, asking effective open-ended questions sometimes requires teachers to give up their need to control the discussion and instead listen, for understanding. Active listening, in contrast to passive listening, involves an interactive dialogue in which the listener not only hears the speaker, but also paraphrases, summarizes, clarifies, or otherwise elaborates on the content and feelings revealed by the speaker (Ivey & Ivey, 2006).

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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