All of us are at different stages in our learning of a new skill from being unconsciously or consciously unskilled to being conscious or unconsciously skilled. Tom Gordon, the originator of Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training identified theses stages. They provide a helpful understanding for those of us coaching and being coached.
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[00:00:00.570] – Steve [Intro]
Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.
[00:00:32.330] – Steve
Foundations for Instructional Coaching – Episode Three: The Four Learning Stages – Gordon’s Ladder. This episode continues my exploration of the foundations for Instructional coaching, where I examine some of the early authors, presenters and experiences that influenced my work over the past 40 years. In episodes one and two, I looked at JoEllen Killian’s, “Heavy Coaching” and the Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers work with coaching as an element of professional development. In this episode, I’ll look at Tom Gordon’s four learning stages. My hope is that folks who are early in their instructional coaching careers will gain some insights from those of us who go back many years. Very early in my work in coaching, I was introduced to Tom Gordon’s four learning stages: unconsciously unskilled, consciously unskilled, consciously skilled, unconsciously skilled. Tom Gordon was a clinical psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers and developed a model for communication that was built into famous programs in the 1960s: parent Effectiveness training, teacher Effectiveness training, and Leadership Effectiveness training. The Four Learning Stages describe the process that people generally went through when learning the communication skills and applying the communication skills into their practice. Unconsciously unskilled level was sometimes called unconsciously incompetent.
[00:02:38.650] – Steve
In other words, the person doesn’t know that they’re missing the skill that is now made available to them. The next level – consciously unskilled. Now the person knows about the skill and they know that they don’t have the skill. They know what it is, but they can’t use it or implement it. The next level is called consciously skilled. Here you can implement the skill, but only with strong conscious focus. It often seems clumsy and unnatural as the person is practicing the skill at that conscious level. With sufficient practice, a person moves to the top level of Gordon’s Ladder called, unconsciously skilled. At this point, the person can use the skill with automaticity, at times not even being consciously aware that they are putting the skill into practice. You’ll find links in this podcast lead-in to Gordon’s Training International, where you can find more of the history of Tom Gordon’s work, as well as a blog around the four stages. In my early coaching work, I explained the value of coaching by identifying that all of us are at all the levels on Gordon’s Ladder with respect to different skills and that a coach can assist anyone in movement on the ladder.
[00:04:33.170] – Steve
I can find out about a skill that I didn’t know about so I move from being unconsciously unskilled to being consciously unskilled. Being aware, the coach can now guide my conscious practice in a safe environment that can lead to my internalization of the skill and becoming unconsciously skilled. Across my years in coaching, I found many applications of Gordon’s ladder within my coaching work. Here is an example where I apply Gordon’s Ladder to coaching when people are going through the implementation of a change within their school.
[00:05:28.200] – Steve
Often, instructional coaches are part of a school improvement plan, part of implementation of a curriculum or instructional process change for the entire staff. I found it helpful for coaches entering into that process to take some time and identify where individual teachers are in this change process and I’ve come up with these categories to kind of help you think it through. There’s some teachers who are unwilling, some are who are unaware, some who are getting ready, some who have started and some who are developing. The unwilling are sometimes easy to spot because they’re telling you right out, straight ahead, I’m not going to implement it. I’m not going to do that change. Other times, the unwilling people sit quietly in staff meetings and professional development only to go back to their classroom and stand firm and not make any change. The teachers who are unaware I like to describe using Gordon’s Skill Development ladder. Those folks are kind of down at the bottom of the ladder here at a spot called unconsciously unskilled. They don’t know that they aren’t implementing or they don’t know that the process or strategies that they’re using aren’t gaining the same level of effectiveness as the strategies that the change process is looking to implement.
[00:07:10.490] – Steve
There’s another group of teachers I call, getting ready. These teachers on Gordon’s Ladder fall into this area of being consciously unskilled. So they know they aren’t doing it and they know they’re going to need to change, but they aren’t ready to implement that change now. Sometimes, I work in states where they have the language of those teachers are “fixing.” They’re fixing to implement, they’re fixing to bring about a change but not taking the action. The teachers who are started are the teachers who are at the level of being consciously skilled. So those are folks who can implement the change, but they can only implement it when they are conscious. And generally all of their energy and all of their thought process is into implementation, which certainly in the early stages is jagged. It doesn’t have a flow. And that’s because we can describe at that point that the teacher is actually in the learning dip. And it’s hard for a teacher because she looks out and sees her classroom is less effective than it was before she looked at implementing the change. Now, teachers who are at the stage that I call developing, are teachers who have turned the corner in the bottom of the learning dip and they’re beginning to come up the side of the dip.
[00:08:50.530] – Steve
They are beginning to see the payoff in student engagement or student learning from the changes that the teacher has implemented. So let’s take a look then at what kind of support encouragement and feedback do individual teachers in each of these spots need? And we’ll save the unwilling group for last. The unaware teacher almost sounds silly to say – what they need is awareness. They need an opportunity to move in Gordon’s Ladder from being unconsciously unskilled to consciously unskilled. They need to become aware that what is happening in their classroom is not what needs to happen. And so that awareness might come from visiting other teachers classrooms, it could come from the coach modeling in that teacher’s classroom, it might come from a PLC look at student work and the teacher realizes that her students are not producing the learning that is being produced in some of the other teachers classrooms. The teacher who is getting ready – I often describe that the support or encouragement that person needs might be called a polite kick in the pants. It’s a little shove. They know that they have to take action in order to start the learning. But there’s a tendency to hold back on taking the action and it takes that little push on the coach’s part.
[00:10:34.330] – Steve
An example if you can imagine a teacher sharing with you that she knows she needs to differentiate the centers in her classroom because of the spread of student levels, but that differentiation just takes so much time. And that’s when the coach steps in and says, you know, it does take a lot of time, and on Tuesday morning I could take your class for the first two blocks of time and why don’t you pull two of your centers and differentiate them? And either one, the teacher will carry out the task, the teacher will see the payoff from having made the change and that becomes the motivation. Or the teacher will now say, well, actually, I’m not sure that I know how to do this. And you’ll now uncover that that’s the issue that’s prevented the person from getting started. And now you can provide the knowledge and assistance that the teacher needs to get started. The teacher who has started again is the teacher who’s gone into the learning dip. That teacher at one point, needs empathy. They need to know that I understand that as you’re implementing this, it isn’t working, it isn’t being successful, and I appreciate your willingness to stay at it.
[00:11:56.550] – Steve
The feedback often that those teachers need is feedback on the fact that the teacher is making the change. The teacher behaviors are appropriate even though the student behaviors haven’t begun to switch yet. Now that change occurs, then for the developing teacher, the developing teacher, having moved on the learning dip and started to come up to the other side, is beginning to identify changes in student behavior. So now the feedback that the coach can do is to pick up spots where students are changing and sharing that information back with the teacher. So you can imagine a coach going to the teacher and saying, while the kids were in the collaborative groups today, here’s some conversations I heard from this group and this group. And the teacher gets reinforced by that information that the changes he’s implementing are having a payoff. Lastly, if we look at the unwilling teacher, the statement that I make is that coaches don’t work with the unwilling. So first of all, let me identify the reason being that the unwilling teacher is going to fall on the evaluation or supervision spot on this continuum. And those things are outside the purview of the instructional coach.
[00:13:26.010] – Steve
Now, I smile because instructional coaches light up real big. It’s not that I don’t do anything with the unwilling teacher, but I need to work through a process that brings the administrator, the coach, and the unwilling teacher onto the same page. So if the principal asked the coach, would you go work with Mrs. Unwilling? My response is, got it. Does she know what you want her to do or to change? And if the principal says she does, I’m ready to go off to talk to the teacher. If the principal says I’m not sure, as a coach I’d want to say let me know as soon as you’re sure and we’ll get started. In other words, it’s unfair for the coach to be in a position to work with that unwilling teacher who doesn’t recognize that a change is being required from the supervisory process. If I go to meet then with the unwilling teacher, I want clarity on two parts. One, does the unwilling teacher know what the administration is asking her to do or change? And then secondly, if she’s clear on it, is she planning to do it? So if she’s planning to do it, I’m all in.
[00:14:44.460] – Steve
And now the teacher doesn’t fall into that unwilling category. If she’s not planning to make the change, it’s really not the spot for the coach to be spending time that’s likely to have a payoff. And it really requires administrators to be carrying out their supervisory function.
[00:15:13.830] – Steve
Just a reminder that the four stages of learning apply to our coaching skills. That’s why coaches want to have coaches. Let me know any thoughts you have concerning Gordon’s Ladder and the applications to your coaching and training work. Remember, you can always find me at barkleyypd.com. Thanks for listening.
[00:15:42.490] – Steve [Outro]
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com