In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Jim Knight to discuss teacher autonomy and its importance to successful coaching.
Read Jim’s article, “Why Teacher Autonomy Is Central to Coaching Success” here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:19 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: 00:45 Teacher autonomy and coaching. A conversation with Jim Knight. I’m excited today to have Knight join me on the podcast. Jim and I go way back in working in the area of coaching and we’ve had several opportunities to learn with and from each other. So welcome Jim.
Jim: 01:06 My pleasure to be here, Steve. I have enjoyed now for – I’m thinking 20, 25 years, our learning partnership.
Steve: 01:15 25 is the number I came up with when I was trying to think about it.
Jim: 01:18 So it’s great to have another conversation and I always try to find ways for us to talk so I’m grateful for this one.
Steve: 01:25 So Jim, I just got excited when I read your recent piece in Educational Leadership teacher autonomy. I’ll put the link in the lead into this podcast, but it was titled “Why Teacher Autonomy is Central to Coaching Success.” And I’m wondering if you want to start with kind of given your definition of teacher autonomy and then, is there something recent in your insights that that pushed this to a an area you wanted to write about?
Jim: 01:59 Well, I would say first off, that it’s actually an article I’ve been writing probably since we met. You know, I’ve been looking at what’s the nature of the relationship between one professional and another and what kind of conversation makes the most sense. I was really influenced by Paulo Freire’s work a long, long time ago. And then Peter Block was a big influence and then other people like Riane Eisler and others to think about positioning our conversations as partnerships. And to me, one of the things about coaching is it’s not a thing where you just go through the motions and you just have to knock it off and get back to your job. Coaching should be an authentic – a real conversation around getting better. And in many ways I think coaching is a disruptive activity that changes the nature of conversations around learning. It moves from sort of just going through the motions stuff. “Well, let’s go to the workshop and if they get one good thing that’s great” to real genuine focus on what’s learning. And to me it’s part of a process of changing the culture of learning in schools.
Steve: 03:04 So I feel strongly that if we want the schools our kids deserve, we have to treat teachers as professionals. And a huge part of treating teachers as professionals is to honor their capacity to make decisions for themselves. And so that’s – I’d say that’s in essence, what it’s all about. In terms of defining teacher autonomy, I think it’s that there are things, you know, it’s not to say everything’s up for grabs. It can’t be a choice to show up at 11 o’clock and teach your classes cause you’re not a morning person and you can’t be a toxic force on teams. You can’t be bullying kids. You can’t be choosing not to learn. So there are lots of things that have to happen then there’s going to be schoolwide expectations that have to happen. But the bulk of the matter is when it comes to deciding what happens in the classroom, if we just tell people what to do, I think it’s flawed for a whole host of reasons. And I think honoring teacher autonomy, it’s going to get better outcomes both for wellbeing, for kids and for achievement for kids too.
Steve: 04:04 So Jim, I frequently speak to the issue of remembering for coaches that you’re coaching a professional. And I described the difference in that is that if I were looking at a trade, I might teach you the right way to do something and then coach you to do it the right way. But if I’m working with a professional, I’m working with a person who is really in an area where they study a lot, they learn a lot, and then they have to conduct experiments with their clients. So the way an attorney experiments with a case or a a doctor experiments with the patient, the teacher’s experimenting with learners.
Jim: 04:51 Yeah, I would say the finding characteristic of professionalism is discretion. The ability to make decisions. We go to a doctor because we want the doctor to look at all the data she can gather and make a decision about what’s best for our health. We don’t go to the doctor so she can, you know, plug a little thing into our body and give us a printout. There may be an element of that, but ultimately the professionals make a decision based on their expertise. They have to make a discretionary decision. It’s discretion maybe more than anything else that defines what a professional is. So if we take away the person’s ability to make discretion, that is to make decisions in the moment about the complexity they’re facing, we treat them like they’re unskilled laborers, not like they’re professionals.
Steve: 05:38 And with that then comes the – actually the loss of responsibility and accountability for the outcome.
Jim: 05:49 Right. If I’m just doing what I’m told and it doesn’t work out, it’s not my fault. I just did what I’m told. If you want people to be responsibly accountable is the term I use in the article, they need to set a goal that they’re committed to and they need to base it on a clear picture of current reality. They need to be learners. It’s a deeper level of change when it’s responsible accountability. Talk a little bit about the concept of coaching being goal-driven. Well that’s just an interesting thing you should ask that because I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. My friend and colleague John Campbell – he quotes somebody else I think. But his phrase is, “if there is no goal, it’s just a nice conversation.” And we’ve spent an awful lot of time analyzing how coaching works.
Jim: 06:33 And if you look at the book Instructional Coaching, I don’t really talk about goals there. Instructional coaching is really about learning how to implement practices. But we really found that unless a goal, the teacher’s not that motivated and you don’t have an objective standard of excellence. So having a goal, you know, if we say, I want to make sure that all my kids can write a paragraph and we try to implement a practice, if we implement that teaching practice, let’s say it’s formative assessment and we don’t do it in a very good way, they’re not going to be able to write the paragraph. And so the goal becomes an objective standard for excellence. I don’t have to say you’re not doing it the right way or the wrong way. The goal does it. And then a student focused goal is more compelling for a teacher because they want their kids to succeed.
Jim: 07:18 And so then they’ve got a goal that matters to them. We call it peers goal – powerful, easy to implement, emotionally compelling, reachable, which is really the smart stuff. We can measure it. We have a teaching strategy to hit it. And then student focused, not teacher focused. It’s going to work. What we found is when you have a teacher focused goal, you don’t get the same degree of sustainability. That is, they try for a while, then they don’t stick with it, but if you have a student focused goal, I want my kids to feel psychologically safe in school. I’m going to know when I get there, they’re more compelled to do it. Now, recently, maybe it’s just recently for me, but there’s, there’ve been a lot of publications around the concept of habits and you’ll hear people say, “well, I don’t focus on goals. I focus on habits.” But my thinking is, they’re not mutually exclusive terms.
Jim: 08:02 In fact, I think there’s at least three things going on. One of them is we do need to develop habits. Another one is we need to learn how to do things, and another one is we need goals to shape and direct the work we do. So let’s say I wanted to run the Boston marathon, which right now is quite undeniably humanly impossible. Let’s say that was my goal. Well, that goal brings focus to what I do. And then the habit might be that I get up every day and I run for however long I need to run, but I make a habit of running every day. And then the learning part is I read about what’s the kind of best kind of food, what kind of shoes should I wear? Should I run the whole thing? Should I do a run/walk where I walk every once every 10 minutes for one minute, how should I lean my body?
Jim: 08:45 And so all three of those things come into play. I need a goal to shape what I’m doing, to give me direction. I need to develop habits, routines so the thing is sustainable, but I also need to learn and integrate stuff into what I do. And same thing with the classroom. There may be some habits you do, maybe the way you, you begin the class might be habitual or the way you respond to conflict in the classroom, the way you correct students is probably habits, but there’s going to be learning and there’s going to be – but for coaching, you need a goal because you need a finish line. You need to know what you’re striving for and you and you also need, you’ll also need that external standard of excellence and a commitment. And a goal’s gonna probably increase commitment on the part of the teacher.
Jim: 09:24 So I’m still working that out. I think there are times when you have to learn something, like when I coach coaches, the first thing we’re doing is let’s just figure out the impact cycle. Let’s just figure out how to do it. And I can see if you’re doing gradual release that you’re going to learn how to – let’s figure out how to do the I do it, we do it, you do it. Let’s just get that part figured out. But ultimately at some point, and to me, the goal is an essential part of coaching and the goal is what really drives you forward. You have to figure some stuff out first, but eventually you’re going to have to shift – probably shift to a goal. Now, one more thing – Christian van Nieuwerburgh, who you know and I know has written about coaching in Arabic cultures in his coaching, in that book, he doesn’t talk about goals. He says goals aren’t a part of that because the culture isn’t really a goal driven kind of culture, which I thought was kind of fascinating. But nonetheless, that’s how I see it. There’s goals and learning and there’s habits and there they’re all important.
Steve: 10:17 So I’m mixing a new word in with my work with that now as looking at at hypothesis. So in my backwards planning process, the goal means I decide what it is I want as the learner outcome. I think that matches up with what you’ve just described. Then I form a hypothesis of what the student behavior is that would cause the student to master or reach that outcome. That that’s my goal. And then I have another hypothesis which is, what’s the teacher behavior that’s going to get the the student behavior for me. And so as I’m working with the coach through that process, I’m identifying what it is I need to get kids to do that’s going to cause the learning and then what are the behaviors I can take on as a teacher that are likely to cause that to happen? And so as I lay the process out then, the coach is helping me first to change my behavior, then to identify whether or not my behavior change is bringing about a behavior change in the student. And then lastly is that behavior change in student moving the student to the success, which was the goal I started working from. I’m finding that people dealing with the hypothesis term, lets them understand that they’re getting feedback not on whether or not they’re doing it right, but they’re getting feedback on whether or not the hypothesis is at all accurate.
Jim: 11:54 Yeah. I think that places the emphasis in the right place, at least it’s where we would place the emphasis now, which is on the change in students. In other words, you could really do a great job in planning a program, but it could have no impact on kids. And so, if you create that hypothesis about what students should do, we would probably just call it a student focused goal and then you can try things out in an attempt to do it, you’re going to have to make some kind of guess at what it is. I think that’s pretty similar. It’s kind of like the design model of improvement. You know, we’re gonna establish a prototype or for us, it’s a process when we study coaching and we’re going to try things out and we’re gonna make adaptations.
Jim: 12:38 I think what’s central to both of our ways of looking at things is the teacher has to be able to make adjustments. It’s not locked in and guaranteed. We found, usually the first thing doesn’t work that well. You know, and if you just put all your eggs in that one basket, there’s a good chance it’s not gonna work. If you don’t modify it to make it fit. Like, maybe you got the wrong practice or maybe even, your identified student hypothesis as you call it is the wrong thing. So you need to be able to make adaptations. And I think that’s the key thing. You know, if you, you establish a goal, you need to make adjustments and hit the goal however you define those terms.
Steve: 13:13 Yeah. What I found out I had to go to was separating what I’m calling student outcome behavior from student production behavior. So the outcome behavior tells me that the students reached the goal. So, you know, I can measure the reading comprehension or the writing clarity or the the level of a student’s performance on a musical instrument. The production behavior are the things that students do prior to being able to achieve the outcome that are going to get them there. And then the part that I find really critical, and it’s almost moved me away from having to talk about differentiation anymore, is that there’s always going to be some students for whom either that wasn’t the right production behavior or it wasn’t the teacher behavior that got this production behavior. So now I have to be making my modifications because I’ve set that goal for all kids to get there.
Jim: 14:12 Yeah, I would say that’s probably, honestly, I just been thinking about this the last couple of days, but I would say that’s that distinction between habits and goals. So we have a goal – I might like your term, process, better than the habit because not everything is a habit. Habit is kind of an outcome. You’re striving for it. But yeah, I think that’s a really good distinction.
Steve: 14:33 Jim, you talked about the problem with compliance and I wondered if you want to respond to that a little bit more?
Jim: 14:42 Okay. Well in the article, I distinguish between commitment and compliance. And I say to get commitment, there has to be an element of choice. So if I can’t choose, I am probably going to get at best compliance and Heath and Heath in their books which is probably the nicest accessible summary of this research, but unless I care about the goal, I’m not really going to do it. So we say you have to have an emotionally compelling goal. The goal has to be – it’s what you think about when you drive home. You know when the coach and the teacher set the goal, you want the teacher to go, “oh man, if we could deal with that, that’d be great.” And when you’ve got that kind of goal. and then what the coach is doing is just helping the teacher hit the goal. There’s no like, I’m trying to talk you into anything. But if the teacher doesn’t care about the goal, then then it’s an annoyance and interferes with their capacity to teach.
Jim: 15:30 They’ll say something like, I’ll just, you know, “I can’t wait to get back to just doing my job” and they’re not going to do a very good job. They’re going to do the bare minimum. They’re going to do what they have to do to not get fired or not get in trouble. So that’s compliance versus commitment. Commitment is a goal that really deeply matters matters to the teacher without that commitment on the part of the teacher. And people will use the term buy-in. But I don’t think that’s the right term. I’m not trying to get buy-in. What I’m trying to do, and the best example of this is Miller’s Motivational Interviewing book in therapy, but what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to get – unpack what it is this teacher really wants to work on and then help her or him hit that goal.
Jim: 16:12 And then I’m not trying to talk them in anything, I’m just helping them hit this goal. Now, on the other hand, coaching is a dialogue so that the teacher says, “my goal is that my kids have their shoes tied. This really matters to me.” I might say, you know, I’m not sure shoe tie edge is your number one goal here. Here’s what I think, but I don’t tell the teacher what to do. I position it as a dialogue. We’re thinking together, but my job in many ways is to help the teacher hit a powerful goal that they deeply care about. Powerful goal, one that will make a lifelong difference for kids. And because the teacher cares about that goal, kids will benefit. And I’m just helping him or her hit that goal. I’m providing an active service, really help them get there as opposed to I’m trying to fire them up and get them all excited about my goal. You know, again, John Campbell says, “I’d much rather have a less than perfect goal that’s chosen by the teacher than a perfect goal that I forced on the teacher.” And I think that’s the deal.
Steve: 17:06 I’m laughing because last year in January, I was in a school and the administrator had me sit in on the PLC meetings during the day. And when I met with them at the end of the day, I asked him how he would feel about the PLC’s changing their goals. He reminded me that it was January and asked me why I would suggest that. And my response was, because they don’t care at all about the ones that you’re asking them to work on now. And you know, back at the beginning of the year, they knew the quicker they got a goal, the sooner they get to go home. So they picked a goal they thought the principal would like or they picked a goal they thought was easy to measure. But you couldn’t get a commitment because the goal wasn’t important enough.
Steve: 17:56 Right.
Steve: 17:56 Jim, what do you think is the important role that the coach plays at the start of this process to to get the teacher to to identify a goal.
Jim: 18:09 So see, for us, and this is a little different maybe than some other approaches, but for us, the first step is to get a clear picture of current reality. And so for us, video is really important. We don’t force video and video pulls you away from – I shouldn’t say it pulls you away, but it doesn’t keep the focus entirely on student achievement. But we don’t focus entirely on student achievement anyway. But video is important. If you don’t do video, you can interview the students, you can look at student work in various ways. You can gather data in the classroom and share the data. But we found, and just our informal experience with our two different studies we did, one wasn’t Beaverton, Oregon, one in Othello, Washington. We found that observations don’t work that great because the teacher doesn’t have a clear picture of the class.
Jim: 18:57 And so when you share the data, they’re kind of like, “ah, I don’t think so.” It’s not that they’re being resistant, they just literally don’t see it. So video, maybe even video in combination with student work is a way to get – but without a clear picture of current reality, it’s going to be hard to get a goal the person’s committed to. Then once we have – they’ve somehow got a clear picture of current reality, one that we have sort of four different ways. Then we go through a kind of a solution focused approach to coaching where we say, “okay, on a scale of one to 10, how close was that class to your ideal?” Or if they don’t like scale questions, we’ll say, “you know, the classic solution focused question, if a miracle happened and this class was exactly what you’d want it to be like, what will be different and how would you know what will be the first thing you’d see?”
Jim: 19:42 Something like that. And then once we’ve got them exploring the difference, then we try to help in partnership. Moving to questions like, what will be different for the students? How would you know? How would you measure that? Do you want that to be your goal? Would you really care about that goal if you can hit that goal? And then once we’ve got the goal, then we start to look at options for strategies. And often then, the instructional coach has to say, “do you mind if I share some ideas I was thinking?” Because the instructional coach’s job is to know what good teaching looks like and help the teacher learn it. And so that collection, that teaching practices could be from any number of sources. There’s lots of them out there. We’ve got one. But it could be Marzano or how do you, it could be our high impact instruction.
Jim: 20:24 It could be Doug Lemov. Well how do you really give you more a framework, not the specifics, but any rate they’ve been doing some kind of professional learning or teaching probably. And the coach needs to know that and says, “well, let’s talk about what we might be able to do.” Maybe, they won’t know and maybe the coach will say, “look, I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re going to do what you want to do. It’s a great goal. Why don’t I go off and do some research? I’ll come back and then we’ll talk about it.”
Steve: 20:48 So Jim, when the teacher is watching that video at the front end, are they more focused on what the students are doing and then describing what they’d rather the picture look like or what the desired picture of what the students are doing or are they paying more attention to the teacher?
Jim: 21:09 So we’ve got two forms and you can download them on instructionalcoaching.com and one of them is watch yourself and the other one is watch your students. And so the watch yourself is looking at things like the way you ask questions, how many different students are responding, your ratio of interaction, whether or not you use checks for understanding and the watch your students is things like the kids look engaged and there’s a whole host of different things. And what we’ve found is when I wrote Focus on Teaching: About Video, what we found is the teachers need that form where they miss a lot of stuff. And in many ways what the coach does initially, is to go through that form and just those two forms, watch yourself, watch your students. But what we found, I don’t know what your experience has been Steve, but we found when when the teacher sits down, they usually start by talking about changes they want to make.
Jim: 22:06 They’re like, “I really need to change my questioning. I really need to have kids have more activities. I’m doing too much talking, I need more student talk.” And then then the question we ask is, “well if you change your questioning, what’s going to be student different for the students?” Because we want to go back to that student focused goal. But initially, they’re about changes they want to make. But we do give them these forms. We don’t say you have to show up and tell me what your numbers are on the Likert scale, but give them the forms as a way to sort of think deeper about the video. And I think you and I talked about this in Learning Forward in St. Louis a long time ago and what we’ve found is it’s best to watch the video separately, not together. If you watch it together, the conversation is kind of stilted. So we give them the forms, we say, “oh, watch the video,” I’ll watch it, we’ll get together. And then we walk through the questions we’ve got. Now the questioning is, you know better than I do, is always different every time. It’s an adaptive conversation, but there’s a sense in which the purpose of this conversation is to end up with a powerful student focused goal that the teacher really cares about it.
Steve: 23:09 The key that I’ve been keeping in my mind as I go into all these conversations from a coaching mode is to refrain from telling the teacher what I’m thinking until I know what the teacher’s thinking. So that drives my questioning because I know that I’ve got to uncover the teacher’s thinking. So it doesn’t mean I won’t tell you what I’m thinking. I won’t tell you – maybe even if I disagree with you, I may share with you my disagreement, but I’ll go into the conversation knowing your thinking and knowing the thinking that I’m gonna share with you runs counter to it. I find as long as I keep that in my head, it keeps me questioning the teacher long enough to understand where they’re coming from and that allows the movement of the process further ahead.
Jim: 24:02 Yeah, I would say that we do pretty much the same thing. We might come at it a little differently, but the first thing I would say is, the classroom is complex. And so I think to take a humble approach is the logical approach because no guarantees, you know, anybody that’s taught for a while knows that you can try stuff, but it’s not necessarily gonna work. So I feel when I share what I have to say, I can say like, “I don’t know if this is gonna work, but let me sort of throw something I’ve been thinking.” And I think you would – if you saw a teacher going down the wrong road and you didn’t speak up, you’d do them a disservice. But you can do it in a way that – our phrase is to position the teacher as the decision maker.
Jim: 24:47 And so we say, “well, do you mind if I share some things I’m thinking? What do you think about this? Here’s what, how I see it.” And I don’t want them to feel like I’m trying to talk them into it. I want them to feel like we’re exploring this together and mutually, and then you know, we can leave it open and it’s just like two people trying to figure something out as opposed to, “oh, I figured out” – you know, once you move into advice, it stops being a dialogue. And then I want them to agree with me because I forgot it all figured out. That’s the cool thing about doing model lessons is when you do the model lesson, you go, “oh, now I know what this teacher’s talking about.” The class looks a lot different in front of the class teaching than it does sitting on the outside watching it.
Steve: 25:27 It’s interesting. You and I both responded to the same comment on Twitter last week about about reflection and and feedback. And that whole process is just got me convinced that feedback that the teacher is not – the best case scenario is the teachers requested the feedback because of the goal they’ve set in this scenario we’re developing, but at a minimal, the teacher sees that the whole purpose of the feedback is tied to their tied to their reflection. And so the ability to coach to get that whole reflection process started, I think, is most critical.
Jim: 26:21 Best thing I’ve read about that is Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall’s book, Nine Lies about Work, where they essentially hold the feedback out to dry and they say that we think our feedback is better than it is, but we are, we’re not usually getting reliable data in the classroom. People when you say to them, do you mind if I give you some feedback?” They kind of go into survival mode and that doesn’t help them grow. And then you combine that with the cognitive coaching approach to dialogue. That’s how we would do that. We said, “rather than me telling you what I think you did right and what I think you did wrong, why don’t I share my ideas, you share your ideas and we’ll engage in the dialogue.” And usually, it’s built around some third point. Like we want to focus on student achievement or student engagement or [inaudible] show kids feel safe in school or they have hope. And so then people will say, “well, what about how this research shows feedback has a 0.75 effect size?”
Jim: 27:20 Now I haven’t gone back and read all those studies had he looked at with the meta analysis. But that’s a different kind of thing. Like if someone is teaching me how to pronounce my Spanish correctly, then I want feedback. But that’s because that’s a technical thing. So it’s one thing to teach me how to write a complete sentence. It’s another thing to teach me what I should – how I should be moved by poetry. And so when you got something where the outcomes are are black and white or technical, is the terminology I use, then feedback makes a whole lot of sense. When I was coaching hockey, I would show the kids exactly how to skate backwards. I’d show it to them, I’d model for them, I’d have them practice, I tell them, “this is what you did right, this is what you did wrong.” But if I was coaching another coach on how to motivate students, I wouldn’t say, “here are the five things you need to do. Let’s break it down.” And so the complexity is where it becomes different when it comes to feedback.
Steve: 28:19 You just hit the word. If the exciting part of teaching is the complexity of it and then the exciting part of coaching teaching is that it’s almost like you’re multiplying the complexity of teaching when you step into that coach’s role.
Jim: 28:35 Yeah. So what I did is, last year, I wrote this article on zero learning zone. And the sort of the main idea of the article is, we are better people and we have to have more fulfilling lives when we’re learning but we do all these things to block our capacity to learn. And and so I’d say what goes along with the autonomy article, is what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create the environment and reignite people’s desire to learn because they’ll be more fulfilled as educators and they’ll have a bigger impact on kids’ lives. And so, what we’re really trying to do is foster learning at the professional level and at the individual level. But if I tell you, here’s how you need to do it, and I figured it out, you need to do it exactly the way I [inaudible], It’s probably not gonna foster that level of learning and it’s probably not going to work because it’s too complex to think one size fits all. As Eric Lee said, “it’s one size fits one when it comes to teaching.”
Steve: 29:31 Well Jim, thank you so much and I’ll look forward to the next time we we connect on one of these.
Jim: 29:38 Me too.
Steve: 29:39 Take care.
Jim: 29:39 All right.
Steve: 29:40 Have a great day.
Jim: 29:40 You too, thanks.
Steve: 29:41 Yep. Bye-bye.
Steve [Outro]: 29:41 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.