Creating a conversational tone in coaching conferences helps communicate a peer to peer process that encourages teacher reflection. Open questions are helpful in setting this tone. Steve defines how open questions help identify the teacher’s agenda (thinking) behind a focus point for the observation.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:49 Conferencing to set the stage for coaching conversations. Effective coaching conferences create teacher reflection and that is the source of continuous teacher growth. Pre-conferencing sets the stage for teacher reflection and for a coach’s observation. Open questions generate conversations. A conversational tone in conferencing helps build peer to peer explorations and collegial efficacy. What follows is a recording of a presentation that I did for mentors and mentees. My goal was to encourage peer coaching as a part of their relationship.
Steve: 01:49 For me, the most important part of this process is the pre-observation conference. And it’s really interesting because, when people are working in, in coaching jobs and they get stressed for time, very often, the pre-observation conference is the one that ends up being skipped. And I’m suggesting instead, it’s better to not do the observation than it is the not do the pre. Do the pre, and if you don’t have time to do the observation, you can do a post-conference where what you’re working from is the teacher’s data. But the pre-conference sets the teacher up to be observant herself during the lesson on that small particular piece that we ended up zeroing in on. If I do the pre-conference well, very often, the reflection that takes place in a pre-conference actually has the teacher changing or modifying the lesson.
Steve: 03:02 So in the pre-conference, there’s two things that I’m looking to achieve as the mentor or coach, in other words, the person who’s observing. And the first one is, I’m looking to uncover the teacher’s agenda. And by agenda, I’m talking about the bigger picture, the thinking process that the teacher has, perhaps in the design of the lesson. Looking at the outcomes, what are the pieces that are, are most important to the teacher? So a mentor and mentee who are doing some peer coaching back and forth with each other across the process, they will continually increase their understanding of each other and that agenda will become more and more defined. If you’re asking me to come into your classroom and collect some specific piece of information, the agenda helps me understand how that piece of information I’m collecting fits back into that bigger picture.
Steve: 04:15 Now, that specific piece of information is the other part that I’m looking to uncover here and that’s the focus. A major difference between an evaluation observation and a coaching observation. When an evaluator comes in to do an observation, because of the purpose of the evaluation, the evaluator has to pay attention to everything. Matter of fact, the evaluator has to avoid getting focused on some small part, because that can actually throw off the accuracy of the overall evaluation. A Coach on the other hand comes into my classroom and the coach is gonna disregard the majority of what’s going on in my classroom as they zero in on that focus. So you could do a peer coaching where all I’m asking you to do is to watch the interactions between one student and myself, or maybe that student with other students and with me. And everything else that’s going on in my instruction is not a focus for you.
Steve: 05:37 I describe that when you clearly define the focus, it means that if, while I’m being observed, I noticed that my peer coach is writing down, I actually know what it is they’re writing down. Because what it is that they’re recording goes back to what it is that we agreed upon back in the pre-conference. Now, questioning is an important skill in the in coaching conferences overall and especially important in the pre-conference. So I want to look at questioning from two different vantage points. Open questions and closed questions. And I like to think of open and closed questions as existing on a continuum rather than just being open or just being closed. So I can have questions that are very open and I can have questions that are very closed and then I could have some questions in the, in the middle that we could begin arguing about as to whether they’re open or closed.
Steve: 06:53 And those questions in the middle, are usually influenced by the environment that’s been established. So the person hearing the question is hearing it as open or hearing it as closed because of the environment. Now, I describe open ended questions as questions where the answer controls the direction. So if I’m asking open ended questions, then your answer is going to decide where we’re going, and I’m following you. When I’m asking close ended questions, the question is controlling the direction of the conversation. So close ended, the person asking the questions is controlling the direction. Open-ended, the person answering the questions is more controlling, the direction that the conversation is going to take. Often when I’m going open with my questions, I’m looking to uncover the student thinking, perhaps opinions, problem solving, or creativity. That term creativity showed up quite a bit in the comments that the folks who were working in the chatbox made. The critical thinking process is built around open ended questions.
Steve: 08:27 When I’m looking to engage class discussion, I’m likely to be using open ended questions. And then any time I’m looking for identifying emotions, feelings, more of a counseling approach. So as this school year is getting started there’s a major increase in people’s attention to students’ social-emotional needs. And that often means teachers using open ended questions as part of an uncovering students’ experiences and how students are processing those experiences. When I switched that over to close ended, I I’m generally dealing with a right or wrong. One way to do something, sequence or a skills are often close ended. Testing is often close ended. And whenever I’m looking to keep control. So if I have one student off task in the middle of the lesson, I’m not likely to go to that student with an open ended question.
Steve: 09:43 I’m likely to be using a close ended question, hoping to get a a quick fix with my with my authority. Having a problem with a student ongoing, I’m likely to arrange a one on one conversation with that student at another time and now I might switch back to my open-ended looking at problem solving that’s being more driven by the student and taking more of a counseling approach. So when I take those two and put them next to each other, if you were to explore, is there a right or a wrong here, there isn’t a right or wrong. It’s situational. So sometimes we’re working with a new teacher. One of the issues I’ll raise with the new teacher is today’s lesson a more open lesson or a closed lesson?
Steve: 10:49 And then all I’ll do is record the teacher’s questions and give the list of questions back to the teacher at the end of the observation to identify, did the teacher have the right kinds of questions for what they wanted to have happened today. Was today meant to be a lot of practice and repetition on a skill, but because the teacher asked a few open ended questions, the students got into the discussion and there wasn’t the sufficient time for the repetition and practice. Or was I looking for creative problem solving today but the teacher’s closed ended questions provided too many clues to students and the students didn’t need to dig in as deep in doing the critical thinking. I want to draw your attention to the words that are underneath that open phrase there. Because that really describes what you’re looking to walk away from conferencing with.
Steve: 11:54 The idea that the coaching conferences are about thinking, they’re about problem solving, the creativity and they’re based upon discussion. So when we get to a post-conference, it sounds more like a discussion rather than a report.
Steve: 12:21 Just the way teachers use open ended questions to engage students in generate student agency, open questions in conferencing, communicate that the teacher being observed is in charge of the peer coaching engagement. Mentors, building peer coaching into their mentoring practices, especially where the beginning teacher coaches the mentor, help to create a coaching collegial culture in a school. New teachers experiencing peer coaching can build a growth mindset and collegial efficacy that can support maximum student learning throughout their careers. I encourage you all to coach and be coached. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 13:23 Thanks again for listening, you can subscribe to Steve Barkley, ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.