Building a Better Education with Scaffolding!

Scaffolding for Coaches, Teachers, and Students

For this module’s blog post, I decided to look at scaffolding and how it applies to peer coaches in education.  Les Foltos mentions scaffolding with regard to helping teachers aid students in solving particular tasks in Chapter 7 of  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration (Foltos 127), and much of what we are asked to do as teachers involves scaffolding for our students as well.  ISTE coaching standard standard 2, part F requires us to “Coach teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences” (ISTE). One of these best practices is scaffolding. I wanted to find out how we as coaches and teachers can scaffold our coaching and our instruction to help our fellow teachers AND our students. There is thus a two-pronged approach to my question – how do we provide the necessary support to both of these groups to help them attain the goals of 21st Century learning?

For Coaches and Teachers

Fortunately for my question (and this post) there are numerous philosophies and websites dedicated to providing structures to assist teachers and students in integrating technology. One of these sources has actually been mentioned to me on several occasions by Dr. David Wicks. He suggested I check out the work of Dr. Liz Kolb at the University of Michigan.  As it turns out, her “Triple E” framework turned out to be just what the doctor ordered (pun intended).

Dr. Kolb’s framework helps provide scaffolding for teachers as it establishes three components for technology integration: engagement, enhancement, and extension.  Within each of these components are three questions that pertain to adequately activating each component.  This simple, though not simplistic, approach allows teachers to analyze how well their activities implement technology.  Below is a summary of the three E’s and their relevant questions:

Rooted in Dewey-esque pragmatism and focusing on learning goals, the Triple E framework is fundamentally a measurement tool to help teachers write better tech-integrated lessons and help administrators better gauge the effectiveness of how technology is integrated in their schools. The website even includes an online tool teachers can use to match their lessons to the framework. Once the questions are entered for the activity, the responses are tabulated and set in a three-tiered response which lets the teacher know where their assignment falls with regard to the framework.  This provides concrete feedback for teachers looking to advance their craft. In addition to providing a rubric and feedback, Kolb’s site also provides a list of instructional strategies to help teachers focus on particular parts of the framework. For example, if you’re stuck on Engagement, try “I do, we do, you do” or “Purposeful partnering.” If you need help with Extension, then “connecting with authentic experts” or digital “pen pals” may be the solution.

Despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of it), the Triple E Framework has an impressive scope. It can apply to all grade levels, all disciplines, and works with administration as well as faculty. It includes goals, rubrics, and resources.  It provides teachers with the necessary support they need to succeed in incorporating technology in their lessons.  This Framework compares favorably with other systems like Michigan State’s TPACK or Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR model, though Kolb argues that no other system has the focus on using technology to help students achieve learning goals.

MSU’s TPACK. Where are the learning goals?


The SAMR Model. Student learning goals?

Learning goals are key to the Triple E Framework.  Kolb consistently argues throughout the framework that learning comes first – then technology. Improper pedagogy will render even the most dazzling tech tool completely ineffective.  “No digital tool is a magic bullet for learning.  While some tools have effective learning strategies built into them (eg…collaboration, differentiated instruction…etc), many do not.  Even when a tool includes good pedagogical practices, teachers supports and instructional strategies around the tool are still a vital component to the lesson plan. The type of tool selected is not nearly as significant as the instructional strategies a teacher creates when using the tools.” Teaching is still at the center – not the technology. With regard to coaching, Foltos echos the sentiment in his chapter on Enhancing Learning by Integrating Technology.  Establish the learning goals first, then enhance with technology. Foltos writes, “With teaching and learning as starting points, coaches can emphasize how a specific piece of technology might help students reach the goals and perform the tasks that the teacher has defined” (Foltos 138). For teachers and coaches, pedagogy drives the technology, not the other way around.

Whether or not the Triple E framework is really the only one to address learning goals may be somewhat open to debate, but the Triple E Framework remains a valuable instrument for teachers (and coaches) looking for support as they begin to implement technology and 21st Century learning. It provides structure, feedback, and scaffolding.

For Students

In a way, scaffolding for coaches and teachers will ultimately “trickle down” to students (“supply-side education”? “Voodoo Learning”?). As the teacher becomes more adept at integrating technology in a seamless way – combining sound pedagogy, learning goals, and tech tools into one fully integrated lesson, the students will ultimately be the beneficiaries of this approach. However, more direct student scaffolding can also be beneficial to students – and teachers. Dr. Cheryl Nixon posted an interesting piece on scaffolding and engagement in her 2016 article “Scaffolding your way to a more engaged class.” In it, Nixon echos the aforementioned sites, in that she also begins with pedagogy.  “Visualize the space, time, student movements, materials used, and physical structures of the classroom rather than the content being taught. What are students actually doing during class time and how are they doing it? How are students interacting with the course materials, other students, and you? After thinking through the different types of work your students do, scaffold that work. Sequence those learning activities in a meaningful way across several class meetings—order the activities with engagement in mind, training students to become progressively more engaged in their coursework.”

Nixon doesn’t emphasize technology per say in her post, but it is certainly easy to see where it could be integrated into her visualization of what students are doing. She also may be a bit light on learning goals, but again, those can be easily integrated into her approach. The benefit of Nixon’s approach here is that she is mindful of the need to scaffold this type of learning for the students. She provides two examples in her post, and both illustrate how a teacher can arrange activities to build on the previous construction of knowledge and skills. This allows for a more systematic move through Bloom’s taxonomy and approach the 21st Century learning goals we all strive for.  Nixon only directly includes technology in one of the five days worth of activities she illustrates, but again, it would be fairly easy for a skilled Ed Tech coach to help move the needle with regard to technology here – the hard part (the pedagogical re-examination) has already been done. The redefinition of the learning process and the centrality of pedagogy combined with special attention to scaffolding make this piece pertinent to my initial question.  This is a good example of student scaffolding and, as I said earlier, it benefits the teacher as well. It forces teachers who are already embracing 21st century learning to start systematically examining how they can help their students best achieve their goals. This purposeful and thoughtful approach can only sharpen teachers’s focus as they provide appropriate scaffolded activities for their students.

Good for me, good for you, good for us.

A pedagogically sound, technologically enhanced, scaffolded lesson ultimately benefits everyone involved – students AND teachers AND coaches. Fortunately for all of us in the profession, a great deal of work has already been done to establish frameworks in this. The Triple E Framework is one of the better ones, but not the only one. It is now our job as peer coaches to find the framework (or model) that best works with our collaborating teacher(s) and help them to implement it to establish best practices. It can’t all happen at once, but it can be scaffolded to fit the needs of the situation. The systems are build to accommodate this.  It’s a brave new world of education and we can build it together…with the proper support.


Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from

Kolb, Liz. “Triple E Framework.” Retrieved from:

Mkoehler (September 24, 2012). “TPACK Explained.” TPACK.ORG. Retrieved from:

Nixon, Cheryl (April 12, 2016). ” Scaffolding your way to a more engaged class.” Pearson Ed. Retrieved from:

Peer-Ed (2015). Defining 21st Century Learning.  Accessed from:


“A Tale of Two Attics” or “What Sherlock Doesn’t Know Won’t Hurt Him”

A Literary Indulgence

Permit me, if you will, to begin with a rather lengthy quote from the Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Here we see Watson describing his new roommate, Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

To fans of Doyle’s “Great Detective,” the revelation that Holmes doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun is not particularly new, but this forms the basis of my question, and my argument, for this week’s post.  I wanted to explore a question posed in our introduction to 21st century learning. In this module, we have been encouraged to investigate what a 21st Century learning activity looks like.  To that end, we are encouraged to first ask ourselves, “What skills and competencies do our students need to be successful in college and their careers?”  The subsequent question, “What are the characteristics of learning activities that will help students develop critical skills?” flows logically from the first and drives the rest of the endeavor, but my question goes back to the first foundational question.  It’s a problem I’ve partially addressed before, but one of our “guiding questions” for this module asks us, “What are the pitfalls, or dangers, of using this definition in your work?” and it is the potential dangers and pitfalls in this approach that I intend to explore in this post.

The Tidy “Brain-Attic”

To go back to Sherlock Holmes for a moment, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular characters in all of literary fiction – and it’s not just literature. There have been countless film and television portrayals of the character as well. And I think it would be fairly safe to say that he is almost universally admired (his mild cocaine addiction notwithstanding).  Holmes’s intellect is astounding, his powers of deduction are amazing, and his ability to solve the seemingly unsolvable is equally incredible and entertaining.  Within the scope of the fiction he is celebrated and very successful – the absolute pinnacle of his profession who is sought after by common people,  Scotland Yard, various ministries in the cabinet, and heads of state both foreign and domestic.  It is no wonder he is so widely cited, imitated, and referenced throughout our culture.  But is he who we really want to be?  Is he who we want our students to be?  Consider again his shortcomings based on Watson’s list from the aforementioned book:

1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2. Philosophy.—Nil.
3. Astronomy.—Nil.
4. Politics.—Feeble.
5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna,
opium, and poisons generally.
Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Geology.—Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils
from each other. After walks has
shown me splashes upon his trousers,
and told me by their colour and
consistence in what part of London
he had received them.
7. Chemistry.—Profound.
8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears
to know every detail of every horror
perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Would we want to produce a student who didn’t know the earth revolved around the sun?  Or a student who knew nothing of literature?  I realize, of course, that Holmes is a fictional character and that the traits Doyle created in him exaggerated and are designed to facilitate a specific set of narratives in which he practices his profession, but I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t the end result of our 21st Century learning philosophy. Aside from a few indulgences that spark his interest (think student-centered education) Holmes knows everything he needs to know to do his job – and not much else. His “brain-attic” (to use his words) is tidy and neat. Everything fits just so, so that he can find what he needs at a moment’s notice.  His profession has almost entirely driven his education.  It’s almost as if Holmes’s 19th Century learning and our 21st Century learning started with the same question.

While Holmes may be fictional, I am not the first person (by a long shot) to connect 19th century education and 21st century education with employment.  I have already addressed Sugata Mitra and his award-winning TED talk on “The School in the Cloud” in a previous post, but I think it’s worthwhile revisiting it as he draws the same comparison I am making – but in a more positive light. He argues that the 19th century Victorian educational systems produced clerks who could write nicely and do math, but says that system is obsolete.  Now we need the schools of the 21st century to produce students for a different type of job – one that requires the adept use of computers. “We don’t even know what the jobs of the future are going to look like,” says Mitra, “We know that people are going to work from wherever they want, whenever they want, in whatever way they want. How is present-day schooling going to prepare them for that world?” Mitra is looking at the issue of education solely from the perspective of employment – which is reiterated in the first question we should ask as we look at creating 21 Century learning activities (albeit our 21st Century goals allow for “college” paths as well – but what is this but a road to a more prestigious profession?).  I’m not trying to say that education shouldn’t prepare students for a job, and I’m certainly not disagreeing with some of the pedagogical implications of his approach. I’m merely posing the question, is that ALL education should do? This seems to be the heart of Mitra’s argument.  Mitra and his approach are incredibly influential in education today (as an example, he is cited in our reading for this module), but I can’t help but wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  The current emphasis on STEM education is also a product of this approach and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mitra’s educational background is entirely in science – not education, and Mitra is not the only one. There are a rising number of influential leaders in education who by training and profession are not educators, but come from the fields of business and science and technology. This is not to say they have nothing to offer, but it does impact how they think and they think education is for.  Education is more than a means to a job.  Anyone who has taught any length of time can tell you that teaching is about helping students acquire knowledge and attain skills that transcend what a job may ever require.  It is somewhat myopic to think that the purpose of what we do in our classrooms as teachers is merely to train future employees (or entrepreneurs) of some company.

The Whole Child and Civic Education


If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I’m a history and government teacher. My bias lies firmly in the humanities, and as a graduate of a liberal arts college I suppose I’m completely out of step with many popular ideas in current educational theory.  But there are others who argue that maybe we’re missing something with the current emphases in education.  I would argue that progressives in education going all the way back to John Dewey have argued for the education of the “whole child.”  The whole child education advocacy group ASCD argues that, “All students who have access to challenging and engaging academic programs are better prepared for further education, work, and civic life. These components must work together, not in isolation. That is the goal of whole child education.”  The addition of the “civic life” component is an important one.  It falls outside of work and education, but is equally important in our democracy – arguably, it has never been more important than now.

Harvard University conducted a panel in 2011 where the case for civic education was made quite clearly by several experts in the field .  Elizabeth Lynn, a senior research fellow at Valparaiso University defined civic education by saying, “It’s aiming at the development of a citizen. It’s the person on the school boards, community boards. It’s every person in civic life.” (Mason 2011). Civic life is not simply voting, but rather, participating in our democratic institutions at many levels.  Sadly, however, many of the opportunities for participation have disappeared over the years. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Learning and Engagement and research director at Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service said at the same conference, “There used to be a lot of institutions — labor unions, political parties, churches — that recruited you without asking you to be civically educated.  All these have been shattered.” There is “nothing that has that same function that turns you into a citizen outside of schools.” (Madison 2011). The decline of other social and cultural institutions that supported and reinforced democracy have left the schools at the forefront of civic education. Thus, we have a responsibility to instill these virtues regardless of prospective employment or future education.  Juan Carlos De Martin, a Berkman Faculty Fellow and director of the NEXA Center for Internet & Society at the Politecnico Di Torino, Torino, Italy gave an interesting, if not predictive, explanation of what happens when we fail in this regard. “If you know the facts, it allows you to ask deep questions about issues,” De Martin said. “We’ve seen in Italy someone like [recently resigned Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi come along and manipulate democracy.”  In 2011, there was no way that De Martin could envision the many ways our democracy today is under assault in this country, but responsibility for making our students “know the facts” and ask “deep questions” still lies with us.  I think it could be argued that our failure to do so has led, in part, to the current political climate in which we now find ourselves.  Ultimately, civics education is a crucial part of our lives.  Jonathan Zittrain, (professor at Harvard Law School (HLS), a professor of computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society) made the argument which brings us back to the whole child approach I started the section with, “Civics is not something you learn, it’s something you live” (Madison 2011).

The Jumbled “Brain-Attic”

Civic education is important, but it is not the end of the matter. I would humble propose that the great Sherlock Holmes (and by extension Sugra Mitra) is wrong. The jumbled “mind-attic” is the more desirable “mind-attic.” Perhaps “jumbled” isn’t the right word, but the point is still valid. Holmes and Mitra advocate for a mind devoted to training for a profession. Everything that is learned must be relevant to that end or it is discarded. To apply this to our 21st Century learning mindset, if it’s not relevant to future jobs or education, it is not worthy of being taught. That is the starting question of every effective learning activity according to the standard. But if we look beyond immediate employment or educational advancement, we can see the bigger picture – the whole child.  We can see that education must include social and civic elements as well.  And what about the arts?  Admittedly Holmes played the violin “well”, but that was a diversion for his strained mind. Very few of us ever “use” our art education directly in our jobs.  If we were given greater leeway in school to choose our content based on what we thought we were going to use in our jobs or in college, I doubt I would have taken most of my art classes – and I certainly wouldn’t have played baritone in 6th grade!  And the list goes on, why did I have to read Shakespeare? Why did I take algebra?  Why did I learn all those proofs in geometry?  What was I doing in a mine mining gypsum in for my college geology course? None of these things tied directly to my future career.  Yet I would argue they were all important.  They all gave me a bigger picture of the world that I use whenever I consider anything – when I look at a problem, when I think about who to vote for, how to hang a picture, how and what to teach my students.  If I was given more of a choice, I don’t know if I would have done any of those things.  Of course, I like to learn new things, so maybe I would have, but the fact remains that when we’re young, we often don’t know what we’re going to do – or think we do, but will end up doing something completely different.  I recently came across this video about how engineer Eiji Nakatsu solved a very difficult technical problem based on a lecture he heard about birds:

I sincerely doubt Mr. Nakatsu went to that lecture to with the intent of discovering a way to make bullet trains more quiet and fuel-efficient, but that was the result. He learned something for the sake of learning it and then applied it to his job. We don’t know what we’re going to end up using in our lives. How many lost opportunities will there be if we start specializing right away? If all of our learning is driven by career or college?

I began with one of my favorite fictional characters and I’ll end with one of my favorite real-life characters.  I had the opportunity a few years ago to see Mythbusters live and I got to hear Adam Savage speak about his life and educational experience.  I was surprised that he talked about his own education at such length and I was even more surprised at the thoughtfulness of his analysis. He talked about being a “generalist” and how he enjoyed learning many new skills, but only mastered them to a certain degree and then moved on learn something else.  At first he thought this was a defect – that he couldn’t follow anything through, but eventually he learned to embrace his varied skill set and parlayed that into into a career on television.  In 2012 Savage gave a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College (a liberal arts college!) which touched on many of the same themes he said during the show:

I started to imagine about what I, a college dropout, might have to say to a large gathering of the opposite. I thought about why I was invited to be here. I mean, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  This is the first question adults love to ask kids isn’t it?: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. To specialize so early.

Of course Sarah Lawrence is famous as a Liberal Arts college. Both in name and in politics. But I think that there’s actually a better term for the educational philosophy here. What you’ve gotten here is a foundational education. A foundation. A broad base. A platform from which to launch an idea, a building, a movement, a way of thinking, generational shift.

As a generalist and a Jack-of-all-trades, I agree completely with this paradigm. The broadness of my interests gives me an excellent perspective to do what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way…

When you’re an expert in one thing, your lens on the world is often limited to that of your field. This is, of course, illuminating in important ways, but it can also be restricting.

When solving a problem as a generalist (or to use a more arcane term: a polymath), I can compare the many fields I’ve dabbled in, their techniques, their philosophies, the ways in which they alter the lens through which I see things, and I can gain a literal perspective on what I’m doing.

This turned out to be the exact reason for my success in film special effects, and eventually on MythBusters.

Steve Martin has a lovely quote in his autobiography Born Standing Up, where he recounts being told at the beginning of his career: “you will eventually use everything you’ve ever learned.” This is entirely true.

Link to entire transcript:

Will we all use everything we’ve ever learned?  I find it to be a compelling argument. We never know what we’re going to use and we often don’t even know it when we’re using it. How many lessons have we subconsciously put into practice without even realizing it?  Of course, it’s impossible to quantify, but I’m certain the answer is more than zero. Savage is right. The specialization we expect at such a young age cannot be healthy.  We risk losing many foundational concepts if education only focuses on work or college.

I realize that my question for this post is a bit of a conceit.  I realize that the 21st Century learning question prompt probably meant more than skills and competencies linked to only college and careers…but it doesn’t say that.  And there are forces at work in academia who either through omission or intention reinforce the idea that education should be only about future careers or higher education. This is a mistake.  For the future of our country and the intellectual development of our society, education must be more. Our work doesn’t define who we our. It’s our shared humanity and maybe that’s what we need to learn more about.



ASCD (2012). “Making the Case for the Whole Child” Retrieved from:

Doyle, Arthur Conan (1887). A Study in Scarlet. USA: Quality Paperback Club 1994 edition.

Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from

Mason, Edward (December 7, 2011). “The Import of Civic Education.” The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from:

Peer-Ed (2015). Defining 21st Century Learning.  Accessed from:

Savage, Adam (2012). Commencement Address at Sarah Lawrence College.  Retrieved from:


Let me ask you a question…

The Tricky Nature of Questioning in Coaching

We’ve already established this quarter that coaching is not about being an expert. It’s not “I Know” as much as it is “I Trust” (Goldberg).  The module for this week’s post dealt with how to build that trust. One key element was to ask questions rather than provide answers.  This is the approach Les Foltos advocates in from the beginning of his book; the kind of interaction in which good coaches, “emphasize inquiry over advocacy”(Foltos). However, simply asking questions is not enough. Questions can take any number of forms and, in fact, it is possible to ask questions in such a manner as to appear even more the expert than with making statements.  Because of this, it’s important to get these questions right. We, as peer coaches are to “rely on questioning strategies rather than advocating for any particular solution to the issues facing their [our] peers” (Foltos).  With the importance of asking questions in my mind, I wanted to know exactly how to ask non-judgmental or agenda-laden questions when coaching. Or to look at it another way, how do we move from the “I Know” to the “I Trust” only by asking effective questions?

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Doing research on the internet is always a crap-shoot. One never knows what one will find when looking for answers in the ether.  There have been numerous times for this blog alone where I have been frustrated and not found exactly what I was looking for. This is not always bad, however, and it can often lead to even other avenues of inquiry which are equally beneficial, but the situation is generally one of searching and frustration.  So needless to say, I was shocked when upon searching for an answer to my question, I came across a blog post on EdWeek that almost word-for-word addressed my question!

Elena Aguilar, whom I cited in last week’s blog post on not being an expert, had written a post 2 years ago that was practically a direct answer to my question. In fact, her post was prompted by a question she received from a new instructional coach looking for help as she entered her new position. The new coach was looking for things she could do over the summer to help her prepare and Aguilar provided a list of 5 things she could do to get ready (see chart below). One of those items involved asking non-judgmental, probing questions.  The probing question is different from the clarifying question (which we also practiced recently) in that it is not seeking to understand a specific piece of information, but rather it is designed to prompt the teacher being coached to reflect on their practice. Getting teachers to reflect is goal.  According to Aguilar, “a coach’s primary role is to elicit reflection. You can do this by asking open, reflective questions.” Aguilar then provides two pages worth of sentence stems to help new coaches frame their questions. In terms of practice, this is exactly what I was looking for. The stems are arranged by general category and clearly be evaluated for their probative nature. Here are the categories with a single example of each:

General Coaching Sentence Stems
  1. Active listening stems (“In other words…”)
  2. Clarifying stems (“Let me see if I understand…”)
  3. Nonjudgmental responses (“I’m interesting in learning more about…”)
  4. Probing stems (“What’s another way you might…?”)
Facilitative Coaching Stems
  1. Cathartic (“What’s coming up for you right now? Would you like to talk about your feelings?”)
  2. Catalytic (“Tell me about a previous time when you…How did you deal with that?”)
  3. Supportive (“What did you do to make the lesson so successful?”)
Directive Coaching Stems
  1. Informative (“There’s a useful book on that topic by…”)
  2. Prescriptive (“Have you talked to ___ about that yet?”)
  3. Confrontational (“I’d like to ask you about… Is that OK?”)

The stems operate on various levels and are applicable in a variety of situations depending on the teacher, the coach, the school, the administration, but they provide a basic framework. They form a staring point for me as I look at how to ask the right questions.  Aguilar acknowledges their limitations, but points out their value as well. “You can modify these stems to make them feel more like you–but there are some useful parameters to keep in mind. First, don’t ask ‘why’ questions–sometimes it’s ok, but as a general rule it’s better not to. ‘Why…?’ can sometimes make someone feel a tiny bit defensive. It’s a request for an explanation and often doesn’t yield deep reflection. If you want to know ‘why,’ you might try saying something like, ‘It sounds like that evening didn’t go as you’d hoped. I’d love to hear more about how you made that decision…'” (Aguilar). The thing that struck me most about this is the avoidance of “why.”  I always thought “why” questions were the highest level questions since they got at the causative nature of things and got us to reflect, but apparently there’s a built-in hostility with these questions (although it’s a “tiny” amount) so they should be avoided. I think in some cases, “why” is OK (and she acknowledges that as well), but I’m glad Aguilar provided so many alternatives. She provides a few more useful suggestions as well, “Another parameter is to keep your sentence stems short. Long rambling questions confuse listeners. After a while, you’ll find the stems you use most often, in a range of contexts. One of mine is, ‘Tell me more about that.'” (Aguilar). Two excellent tips here: keep the questions short and you’ll have a few go-to questions that you’ll use a lot. These are both good pieces of advice for me going forward.

Ultimately, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I can use questions to help make other teachers better. There’s still something that feels artificial (“disingenuous?”) about it. I want to help people, not drive them to frustration by peppering them with questions. It’s going to be a journey and I’m just getting started. I’m still shedding the skin of the expert and molting into a coach, but Aguilar has given me some good tools I can use to flesh-out the philosophies I’ve already been exposed to. I look forward to the next step.





Aguilar, Elena (July 2, 2015). “New Coaches: Try This at Home” Education Week.  Retrieved from:

Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Goldberg, David. “A Distinction between Expert and Coach: ‘I Know’ versus ‘I Trust. ‘” Big Beacon: A Movement to Transform Engineering Education. Retrieved from:

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from