The Science of Coaching Teachers

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

The Science of Coaching Teachers

What happens when we apply an understanding of how people learn to the way we coach novice teachers?

By Jim Heal and Amber Willis     May 27, 2022

The Science of Coaching Teachers

Matt Gibson spends a lot of his time thinking about how people learn. As a fifth grade math teacher and instructional coach in New Orleans, Gibson has become increasingly interested in effective teaching informed by cognitive science—otherwise known as learning science—and how it can help teachers improve their practice.

That’s thanks in large part to Gibson’s participation as a coaching fellow at the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators. The center is a member of the Deans for Impact “Learning by Scientific Design” Network, a collaborative of 10 educator-preparation programs—some at colleges of education, others at alternative certification institutions—that work from a simple premise: knowing how to teach should begin with understanding how people learn.

The network set out to redesign coursework and clinical experiences to ensure future teachers were better equipped to apply learning science principles to their practice. Now in its third year, its mission has expanded beyond pre-service teachers to include better coaching and support for novice teachers once they're in the classroom as part of the practicum or student-teaching phase of their program.

The team at Deans for Impact has seen firsthand how novice teachers can improve by working alongside high-quality instructional coaches to hone their skills with learning science in mind. Through real-world examples and videos, let’s explore what happens when instructional coaches like Matt Gibson use learning science to help a novice teacher grow.

A Coach’s Journey

Deans for Impact workshops begin by building coaches’ understanding of learning science principles and associated “teacher actions” (i.e. the subsequent moves teachers make), which they then apply to their own instructional coaching.

When we asked Gibson about this experience, he recalled how he was introduced early on to the idea of engaging students in effortful thinking: a teacher action grounded in the learning science principle that the more deeply we think about an idea, the more likely we are to retain that information in our long-term memory and be able to retrieve it at a later date.

Principles like these have implications for the instructional choices educators make, and for Gibson it was no different. For instance, he had long known that higher-order questions mattered for student learning, but now he knew why: because those are the questions that prompt students to think effortfully about content, which means that information will be more likely to stick.

Connecting these dots began to change the expectations Gibson had of novice teachers and of himself—a process he described as playing out in parallel:

“Just as I saw teachers do a lot of thinking for students, I realized I was doing a lot of thinking for teachers when I coached them,” Gibson told us in an interview. “So I started to consider ways I could ask teachers to think effortfully about what I was asking them to implement—something as simple as, ‘What impact will this have on student thinking?’”

The Science of Coaching in Action

With effortful thinking questions like these fresh in his mind, Gibson set about working with a novice teacher completing his training at the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators named Michael Murry. Gibson’s aim was to help Murry think more deeply about his instructional decision-making—a process that was to be grounded in learning science.

What follows is a series of excerpts from an actual coaching session between Gibson and Murry. You’ll first read excerpts from an interview we conducted with Gibson about what was going on in his head as a coach at each moment in the session; you’ll then have the chance to see through the videos how he applied learning science to the choices he made along the way—setting an example for Murry to use in his teaching.

Click each image to see the excerpts and videos.

The All-Important ‘Aha!’

From here, Gibson and Murry entered the rehearsal phase of the process, practicing questions that would direct students to think effortfully about the right content, and preparing Murry to reteach the lesson with that in mind.

Refining one’s practice in this way is a crucial coaching step—but it can only happen once conceptual understanding has been established or shifted. To use Gibson’s term, these are the “Aha!” moments you look out for as a coach—that instant when you see someone making sense of something critical to their approach for the first time.

Murry’s “Aha!” occurred the moment he moved the site of thought away from himself as teacher and instead considered what it would take for his students to engage in effortful thinking. He summed up this shift through a useful metaphor: “It’s like the expression, ‘You can lead a horse to water…’ You can lead a student to the answer but they will only fully understand an idea when they think about and experience it for themselves. As my coach, Matt helped me to think about my practice in that way, which helped me to do the same for my students.”

This is what it means to apply a learning science lens to what goes on in classrooms. To understand how learning happens is to grasp both the “what” and the “why” of teaching and learning. As Gibson told us, “Even after 13 years in the classroom, learning about learning science principles really changed me as a coach and as a teacher. It gave a name and a rationale to a lot of things I had already thought about. It allowed me to put it all together and say, ‘OK. That’s why we do this.’”

Matt Gibson’s journey into learning science gave him fresh eyes with which to see the richness of his practice. As a result, he is now able to help a new generation of teachers like Michael Murry to do the same.

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