Across the years as I worked as a trainer, staff developer, and coach to teachers and administrators I have pointed to the need to support educators by making complex things simple while respecting the complexity. Unless an instructional strategy or facilitative technique is described in a sequence of steps (simple) the person looking to learn the strategy cannot begin. Without respecting the complexity of the teaching or leadership practice, the learner may quit the learning process rather quickly as stumbling blocks arise.
This dilemma is illustrated well in the Joyce/Showers research around implementing new teaching practices.
Studying a theory and hearing how it’s done, watching it being modelled, and practicing in a controlled setting provide the “simple” start. The participant can execute the strategy in the workshop setting. But, the carry-over to implementation in the classroom at a level that impacts student learning (complex) requires coaching support.
I keep this important element in mind when I am asked to provide training for instructional coaches or to teachers leading PLCs. Coaches can study the importance of pre-conferencing in the coaching process. They can observe my modelling of conferences and practice with other members in the workshop. (The simple steps) Implementing those skills in a school where a coaching culture does not exist or where some teachers believe the money spent for instructional coaches could have been better invested in lowering class sizes throws the new coach into the complexity. I encourage schools who request training from me to invest in personalized coaching extensions from me or within the system. The recent experiences with virtual coaching have increased the viability of these coaching options.
The importance of recognizing complexity was reinforced as I read Adam Grant’s Think Again. He addresses the topic while exploring the problems that arise from media reports that simplify complex issues or complex research findings. The public walks away holding on to a simplified heading often not reading the explanation of the complexity of the issue. He reports how the same study regarding the cognitive consequences of coffee consumption was reported under these headlines: (Think Again page 172)
Forbes– Here’s more evidence that coffee is good for your brain
Bustle– Coffee guards against mild cognitive impairment, study says
CBS Atlanta– Increasing coffee intake harmful to the brain
India TODAY– Here’s why that extra cup of coffee is bad for your brain
Grant suggests that a headline like this better illustrates the complexity.
Yesterday’s coffee science: It’s good for the brain. Today: Not so fast…….
Such a headline tells me I need to read the article to understand the complexity. The illustration below shows the common direction of the crowd.
For me, the complexity of teaching and learning creates the pleasure I find in coaching. It sparks my curiosity and opens the door for dialogue and reflection. There is rarely a simple conclusion when a teacher raises a question in coaching. Maybe a simple starting point, then with the coach, the teacher explores the complexity and learns. And the coach learns too.
In a podcast I recorded with Tom Schimmer, he touched on this complexity as we discussed feedback to students.
“No matter what you do in feedback, if your students don’t take your feedback and don’t use it to advance their learning, you can’t call it effective. I’ll often tell teachers, you actually can’t say, “I give my students effective feedback, but they ignore it.” You just can’t. What you can say is, “I give my students feedback and they ignore it.” That you can say, but you can’t call it effective because to be called effective, it must trigger a learning response. That’s the point. Does it elicit more learning? Are you triggering more learning?
Simple– there are guidelines to effective feedback that are part of teacher/instructional training. Just google ‘effective feedback’ and you’ll find many lists of guidelines. Guidelines are a good place to begin my exploration and practice.
Complex– “To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interest at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.” Dylan Wiliam
When we appreciate the complexity of teaching and learning, seeking observation and reflections from colleagues is a natural expectation for teachers. Educators deserve coaching and PLC teaming support. It’s why I have stated across my coaching career that the most professional teachers, like professional athletes and performing artists, deserve the most coaching. They are working, designing, creating, and performing at the most complex level. Appreciating complexity should fuel coaching cultures in our schools.