In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Joellen Killion to discuss the concept of mental models and how they shape coaching and teaching.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:19 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:43 Joellen Killian’s Mental Models of Coaching. When attending Jim Knight’s coaching conference, I had the opportunity to hear Joellen Killion present on mental models of coaching and I was anxious from the moment that I heard her to try and arrange for a chance to her to join us on this podcast and we’ve got the chance today. So, welcome Joellen.
Joellen: 01:12 Thanks Steve, I appreciate it.
Steve: 01:15 I’m wondering if you could just for starters, kind of give folks a generic description of the term mental model.
Joellen: 01:27 Mental models is a concept that was popularized by David Schon and Peter Senge and fundamentally it describes how we see the world. It includes our assumptions and our beliefs. It shapes the way we speak. It shapes the way we act. It shapes the way we think. And so each of us has this frame. Some researchers might call it a frame of reference. Each of us owns one. And it’s influenced by our experiences. It’s influenced by our relationships, our upbringing. All of these factors come together to shape the mental model that we each hold about the world.
Steve: 02:16 It sounds – as a way that I’ve described difficulties for some teachers to deal with change because the change you’re asking them to implement doesn’t align with the mental model that they have of the teacher role. Is that accurate?
Joellen: 02:38 Yes, exactly. So for example, if a teacher views himself or herself as very teacher centered and holds an expectation that students are quiet, that they are always in a receptive mode versus an active constructive mode. When the change requires teachers to change his or her mental model about what teaching is, that change becomes additionally difficult for the teacher.
Steve: 03:11 So if you’re approaching that kind of change, you really need to get in and understand the mental model of the teacher and work from that to bring about the change. Would that be accurate?
Joellen: 03:24 Yes. It’s crucial to identify the assumptions a teacher holds — to identify what those beliefs are that are interfering with an adaptation or refinement of practice. And once we’re able to figure those out, once they’re visible and known, they are much easier to reconstruct when they are unknown, it’s difficult to begin to reconstruct those mental models.
Steve: 03:57 So you’re describing three different mental models for coaches that you’ve labeled as a head, heart and hand. And I’m wondering if you’d take those kind of one at a time and give us a descriptor.
Joellen: 04:16 I’d love to. So when a coach holds a mental model that he or she is really focused at the head-space, that coach is one who uses, very often, a lot of technical, rational, deliberate approach that’s step-wise in action. And the coach may approach an interaction with a teacher from a very linear process. First this, then this, then this, then this and that kind of step-wise approach helps a coach see that most of the actions teachers are required to take do fall in a very linear kind of process. First you’re going to learn this, then you’re going to do that, then this will happen and that will happen. And very often what we know from our practice is that some people don’t see things as linear. They see things as mucky, as circular, as less step-wise than a coach operating from that very mind oriented process. A coach might for example, explain to a teacher here’s the rationale for this change and expect that the rationale explanation is sufficient to cause the teacher to change his or her practice. And if the teacher is not head-oriented, then that approach the coach is using will be insufficient.
Steve: 05:58 And my guess is that the coach who’s processing that way will go get more information and pile on some more.
Joellen: 06:11 And more research. Here’s what good practice is and if you know this good practice and you know that this has a high effect size for example, and you know that this process is deemed as the instructional framework we use in the district, once you know it, you should automatically be able to do it.
Steve: 06:32 So they may actually be increasing the teacher’s resistance as they push on in their preferred model.
Joellen: 06:40 Absolutely. Resistance and frustration.
Steve: 06:45 Yeah. You want to pick one of the other two?
Joellen: 06:48 Yeah, I’d like to talk about the hand part. The hand of approach to coaching — the hand mental model that a coach may hold is one that is embracing action. The more I do, the more that will support the teacher. So this coach operating from the hand approach, may be very active in providing resources, modeling, demonstrating, giving the teacher things, providing an example, let me show you, let me lead you in this process. Let me tell you the the way to do this so that you are able to follow all my actions. It’s a very action oriented — very often the coach doing most of the work.
Steve: 07:39 So is the coach’s tendency in that setting to think that they can make it easier for the teacher to change by the coach doing more?
Joellen: 07:48 Yes, yes, yes. And the more the coach does, the more the teachers sees how difficult the work is, how complex the work is and that then may interfere with the teacher’s ability to even have any sense of confidence or competence to be able to pick up those practices. So when coaches operate from that hand level, they are usurping the role and responsibility of the teacher to be engaged in the change.
Steve: 08:21 I’m also getting a sense of coach frustration when I do more and more and more for you and you don’t respond to all that I’m doing.
Joellen: 08:32 Indeed, indeed. There is a mismatch as sure as you’re noting. There’s a tremendous frustration on both the teacher and the coach part. So when the coach does more and the teacher does less, that creates a situation where both the coach and the teacher are paralyzed in action.
Steve: 08:55 Okay. And how about the heart?
Joellen: 08:57 The heart one is one of the most difficult ones because the heart one is really emotion and relationship driven. A coach truly holds a belief that the more you like me and I like you, the more I’m able to demonstrate I care for you, the more I’m able to rescue you from having any kind of the emotional response that I can always bolster your positive reaction, the more that relationship base can support you in building confidence, competence, and success. And in this approach, the coach very often is hesitant to take on difficult conversations or provide any kind of information or share responses with the teacher that might be received as unpleasant or unappreciated because the coach has really driven by wanting to be liked because operating from that premise, if you care for me, if I show you I like you, that will be the best basis for us to move forward.
Joellen: 10:17 And it’s truly a difficult space. I see so many cases where coaches are stuck in this space and will not give up rescuing teachers emotionally and that causes teachers to never have to face the difficult reality, the dissonance that prompts change.
Steve: 10:41 I’m getting the sense that a teacher can resist a change with that coach by just suggesting that the coaches actions are distancing the relationship that would cause the coach to back off and ease up and go lighter.
Joellen: 11:01 Yes, absolutely. This is where the “coach heavy”, “coach light” really comes into play. The coach stays in that “coach light” domain so as not to create any kind of discomfort or dissonance, which you and I both know are necessary for change to happen.
Steve: 11:22 It’s interesting — I just got a question on my website this past week from a district administrator who’s working with technology coaches and the district’s looking to add two more positions because they have a belief that that’s what is going to make a difference for them as a district. But the history — they’ve had, the coaches they’ve had for two years, and the person wrote to me, I would have thought after two years that they would have so much request for their work that their schedules would be jam packed. And that’s just not the case. So where do I need to be — where do I need to be looking? And the thought that went through my mind is well, it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. And if you gave him two years to develop relationships, which is basically what the person was saying, you probably are now caught in your own trap that you laid out for yourself.
Joellen: 12:24 And that heart — building relationships, building relationships, building relationships — when coaches lead, they cannot work unless the relationship is built. They can spend five years building relationships and never have a single change in student success or teacher success.
Steve: 12:41 Yeah. So what thoughts do you have or advice for coaches as to how do they get a read on teachers’ mental models of what the coaching program is supposed to be to assist the coach in looking at how they respond and work with a teacher?
Joellen: 13:09 I think the first suggestion I have is listen carefully to what the teacher’s asking for and not always be fully responsive to what the teacher is asking for, but to acknowledge that what the teacher is asking for is an insight into what the teacher thinks the teacher’s mental model will be. I strongly encourage coaches to be aware of their own mental models as the first line of action.
Steve: 13:44 Yep. That makes a lot of sense.
Joellen: 13:46 Being very clear about what’s driving them to approach their work from the way they are approaching it. And then to recognize that the way they lead out a teacher is first to have flexibility to work across multiple mental models and also to help that teacher be aware of his or her mental model and allow the teacher to work across multiple mental models. So for example, if we have a coach that operates from heart position and a teacher who operates from the hand position, then we want the coach to recognize the teacher’s asking for action, provide some limited action, but then also use those actions as a way to help explain, move to the headspace, explain what’s happening, deeply reflect on what the actions might be causing — what that teacher’s actions might be causing students to do to help that teacher become aware at that head level, what that interaction is. That causal relationship between teacher behavior and student behavior.
Joellen: 15:07 So I think I would say let’s get clear on our own mental models. Let’s understand as much as possible the mental models of the teachers we work with. But let’s really push to be flexible across that range of mental models to really push change.
Steve: 15:28 Joellen, is there likely a connection between the mental model a teacher has for him or herself as a teacher with the mental model they would have in looking at the coach?
Joellen: 15:46 Oh, I definitely think so. I definitely think so. So again, going back to a coach or a teacher who might hold that hand mental model, that teacher might expect a coach to do more for him or her. When the coach is trying to transfer responsibility to the teacher, the teacher may be resistant because the teacher believes the coach’s job is to do for me rather than support me in learning how to do it myself. So that mismatch, almost a misconception of the role of the coach held by the teacher, adds confusion and some kind of — in a sense a dissatisfaction with the service that the coach is providing.
Steve: 16:44 Yeah, the one that’s the one that’s racing through my head is, I’m a coach trying to work with a teacher to have the teacher gets students to take more responsibility for learning. And my approach besides what I’m doing, would all be running against the model that that hand or hard teacher perhaps even might be might be holding for themselves as a teacher, let alone back for me as a coach.
Joellen: 17:14 Yes. Yes, yes, yes. And you know it’s funny because as I listen to coaches — the coaches I’ve worked with over a period of time, their mental model is so clear to me, they’re asking me for the same support over and over and over and over and over again. A coach operating from a heart says “I just am not able to build a relationship with a teacher to be able to suggest that a practice is not working as well as it could” or “I’ve explained it and explained it and explained it in the teacher’s still not responding”. Or the coach who says, “I brought this, I took this, I did this, I did this”, and the teacher is still not responding. So that awareness, that appreciation for the fact that yes, I own these beliefs and assumptions and they are malleable if I am aware of them.
Steve: 18:22 I’m making a connection in some of the verbal skills training that I do with dealing with resistance from anyone you’re working with. I have people identify whether the resistance is coming from the head, the heart or the, or the stomach. So if it’s the stomach, it’s emotional and you’re listening and responding with empathy. If it’s the heart, it’s an ego resistance and you’re needing to build up and support the person’s ego. And if it’s the brain, it’s likely this mismatch of — actually that would be where my mental model would come in. The model that they have of themselves in operation isn’t aligning with the role that I’m asking or wishing them to take on. So, I’m seeing interesting parallels there in reading the other person and recognizing that I tend to get stuck in my preferred style of first responding.
Steve: 19:30 So I’ll meet people who can spot an emotion within a hundred miles and respond to it. But they’re missing the intellectual argument that the person’s giving up — where someone else and I’ll plead guilty here — you know, when you cry, I get the emotion but a few of the lighter ones I’m off having this whole head discussion realizing I’m missing and I need to listen a little closer as to where that resistance is coming from. I was wondering, is there a conversation that coaches and principals should be having in the coach principal partnership that look at this a mental model?
Joellen: 20:16 Well and I think if we help principals be aware of mental models and of course principals have their own mental models who — and they very often are operating from a head, heart or hand space as they are coaching coaches, as they are helping coaches become aware of where some of their challenges are and how to address those challenges, principals can help coaches become increasingly aware of their, of their mental models as they’re listening to coaches explain challenges they’re having. They might probe for what the coach believes is his or her role or identity in the situation and maybe encourage the coach to branch out beyond the sort of current mental model to try some new approaches. And so when principals become aware of this, they can use this whole idea to help expand coaches awareness and even encourage actions that sit outside an individual coach’s normative practice.
Steve: 21:36 I’m a recalling of phrase that I frequently use with teachers that if you look at your natural teaching style, there’s a group of students who are a perfect match to learn with you. But the real challenge then as a teacher is to be conscious of what I do naturally and can I step back and begin to look at adding things to my practice that aren’t as natural, aren’t as comfortable for me, but that expands that group of students that can more easily learn and work with me. I’m kind of making that same click that that would fit here for a coach. If I know myself and I know this group of staff that I’m going to be able to work with it more or less an unconscious role for me, how do I now expand to consciously look at working with the preferences of others?
Joellen: 22:36 Yes. And you know, it’s the willingness to work in a space of discomfort. And many coaches, especially coaches who are brand new to coaching, who are getting their wings, so to speak, who are a little intimidated by their new role to begin with, will have a really difficult time feeling comfortable working in discomfort. And so they default even more to what’s comfortable for them. Just by the very nature that they’re new in their role, they stay in their comfort zone often way too long. And when they do that, they lose the opportunity to influence practice. And so one of the things I’m increasingly aware of as I work with coaches, is to help them become more comfortable being uncomfortable and recognize that even in their discomfort, they may be prompting and promoting change even though it’s uncomfortable for them.
Steve: 23:44 Yeah, they’re going to be causing discomfort for the teacher but part of that has to be that I take on my own discomfort for us to go there together. Yeah, neat. I’m wondering, is there any recommendation you’d want to make for reading, followup material that folks might want to look for?
Joellen: 24:09 You know, there’s a lot of resources on mental models and “The Fifth Discipline” is probably one of the best resources to look at mental models. One of my favorites — it’s an oldie but goodie actually. There’s two of them are Donald Schon’s books, “The Reflective Practitioner” and “Educating the Reflective Practitioner”. Those are two resources I have fallen back on again and again and again to look at this notion of what it means to be someone who has come to consciously aware of his or her mental model and to begin to stretch it and grow it. So those are three resources I recommend. I know there are many others, but I happen to like these oldies but goodies because I think they are so foundational in our work.
Steve: 25:07 Yeah, “The Fifth Discipline” was going through my head as I was following your conversation along. So that’s a great start for folks. Well, thank you very much.
Joellen: 25:18 You’re welcome. It was great to chat with you, Steve.
Steve: 25:22 Have a great day — bye.
Joellen: 25:24 You too — bye, thanks.
Steve [Outro]: 25:26 Thanks for listening folks. I’d love 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.