The Wonder in the Question

The questions we use during a coaching conversation can unlock powerful potential in our teachers to make a shift towards innovation.

Co-authored with Amy Feaver, Innovation Coach for Hopewell City Public Schools, VA

Who knew there was so much to know and wonder about insects?  Students in a Hopewell City Kindergarten class were all a buzz during their Socratic Seminar as they uncovered their observations about insects.  Seeing bugs through the eyes of a Kindergartner as they notice and wonder was a reminder of how we, as adults, are so limited by our life experiences.  And that couldn’t have been more evident than when one learner said “I notice a Superman signal.” During a follow-up coaching conversation, it became evident that this teacher was not held back by false limitations, but rather was able to describe a whole range of possible learning strategies she might explore with her students. As coaches, we just needed to give her the space and ask the kinds of questions that would invite that exploration.

Hopewell City Public Schools is fully committed to deeper learning and continuous improvement.  Their team of Innovation Coaches are dedicated to addressing the urgent need to make school relevant to the world our students now live in, and are making huge strides to change the way we teach and learn.  They recognize the journey includes the exploration of strategies that amplify the impact of teacher coaching. So, they are teaming together to leverage instructional rounds with video and PDSA cycles to refine their coaching practices.  This started with two Innovation Coaches, a Kindergarten teacher and her energetic young scientists.

In the first part of our day, the coaches joined the Kindergarten teacher to observe what the students were doing.  The teacher was interested in incorporating communication and collaboration opportunities into her lesson. It was also important to her that the activities were meaningful, engaging and relevant to their current PBL project.  The students started in a Socratic Seminar, where they were asked to act like scientists, to notice and wonder. Then they moved to collaborative groups, allowing the teacher to pull small groups. The coaches observed, looking for specific evidence in support of the teachers interests and objectives.  They focused their observations on the students entirely: what were the students doing? What were they talking about to each other? What aspects made the lesson meaningful and engaging? Following this visit, the coaches met to plan for their coaching conversation with the teacher. During that time the expected outcomes were articulated, talking points were considered, and the group decided to ask the teacher if she would be comfortable having the conversation video recorded so the coaches could watch it and unpack it together to improve their skills.

As viewed by an outside observer, the conversation progressed as planned, sort of.  The coaches shared lots of ideas and for the first 5 minutes did most of the talking.  There was a noticeable change in ownership of the conversation at three different points.

  1. When the teacher was given permission to try the strategy in just one subject area until she felt comfortable with the strategy before trying it with different content.
  2. When one of the coaches named specifically how the teacher listens to the interests of her students and uses that intentionally to build relationships and increase engagement.
  3. When one of the coaches prompted with “I wonder what it might look like at the end of the month.”

At each of these points, the teacher became the primary contributor to the discussion.  The “I wonder…” prompt lead to a significant shift toward instructional strategy as it opened up minds to what could be.  Once the teacher shared what she wanted, the coaches began to help her bounce around HER ideas. The brainstorming oscillated back and forth between global ideas and granular details, until they landed on a refined idea with two actionable steps:

  1. Prepare 2-3 students to research and share a unique and interesting picture of an insect to use as inspiration for another “I notice, I wonder” Socratic seminar.
  2. Prepare 1 student to act as a facilitator to parrot back statements for the teacher to capture on the anchor chart.

Following the coaching conversation with the teacher, the Innovation Coaches had a chance to debrief and they pulled up the video so they could see from the perspective of the outside observer.  One of the coaches made this observation: “[I]t was interesting to see the amount of talk time versus listening time from both the coach and the teacher. I had an epiphany that I was talking too much! I had never realized that I was so bent on giving suggestions and sharing my knowledge, and watching the video really helped me to see that I needed to allow more space for the teacher to talk.   The other interesting thing that popped out to us was that there were a couple of pivotal moments when the teacher’s body language showed us she was making some realizations”.

As the coaching team unpacked the conversation on the video, it became evident that allowing time and space for the teacher to talk gave her confidence in coming up with her own ideas.  The Innovation Coaches reflected that it was the questions the coach asked that made all the difference in creating this spark. The questions that drove the conversation forward and led to the teacher “owning” the work were open-ended, thought provoking, and most importantly came from a place of true curiosity on the part of the coach.  They weren’t “advice in disguise” or a question worded to steer the conversation in a particular way. As one coach reflected: “The key is to ask the right questions.” The video helped shine a light on this coach behavior that has high impact on learning and teaching.

Instructional coaches have a unique opportunity when it comes to pushing innovation forward in our schools. Teachers need more support than ever as Virginia moves progressively towards a culture of deeper learning.  In order to make this shift from traditional schooling to innovative practices, teachers need far more than the occasional professional development, modeling of lessons, or top-down training. They need to be heard, understood, and empowered to think critically about their instructional design. Coaching conversations can unlock powerful potential in our teachers to make this shift towards innovation.

How might you leverage video and the expertise of your colleagues to refine your questioning skills?

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