Valuing the Complexity of Teaching, Learning, and Coaching | Steve Barkley

Valuing the Complexity of Teaching, Learning, and Coaching

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.

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2 Responses to “ Valuing the Complexity of Teaching, Learning, and Coaching ”

  1. david furlow Says:

    There is a useful state of adaptation between complex and simple, that might be called Complicated. This is where complex has been partially “tamed” so that at least SOME actions, have PREDICTABLE consequences. This is where i think much of education has been located (mired?) since the advent of technology. You tied this to grading with numbers and overquantification. This quantification could have been integrated in a way that waa more aligned with principles of learning, but instead practice immediately veered toward valuing what we could measure, rather than measuring what we value! I would characterize this as operating by habit. The more you know and can execute the habit, the more you tend toward the border with SIMPLE. Any disruption of COMPLICATED (a pandemic, government lock-downs, IT Outtages, etc…) pushes the practice toward disorder, or possibly to chaos, increasing anxiety, and making coaching more about survival than optimisation or excellence. I think learning to recognize the difference between complex and complicated is a coachable skill. This is an important skill because the handling of complexity is different from the handling of complicated. My thinking is informed by Cynefin, which offers Chaos, Complexity, Complicated, and Simple as states we may recognize in any endeavour or context.

    When you mentioned assessing the impact of feedback, or of assessment, that struck me as the definition of efficacy. Is the feedback efficacious? We really can’t know this without the participation of multiple parties, probably in this case students, parents, and teachers…. Which sounds a lot like “Collective Efficacy” which is the highest impact indicator on learning outcomes, according to the research literature. When everyone in the system owns the improvement of individual components and group processes/collaboration, we will have built collective efficacy.

    How we gather feedback on our feedback, and develop metrics or indicators without relying on numbers alone, is an interesting and creative challenge. Where we are in the circular continuum from Chaos to Complexity to Complicated to Simple may help to think through what successful transitions may look like, signal and trigger. It isn’t that one state is better, necessarily, but more that knowing where we are may help inform which tools in our toolbox will be most effective, and how we interact with each other.

    Thank you, as always, for the provocations. I am grateful when you (and Tom in this case) make me think. Stay safe.

  2. Steve Barkley Says:

    David— thanks for driving my thinking deeper.

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