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
- Active listening stems (“In other words…”)
- Clarifying stems (“Let me see if I understand…”)
- Nonjudgmental responses (“I’m interesting in learning more about…”)
- Probing stems (“What’s another way you might…?”)
Facilitative Coaching Stems
- Cathartic (“What’s coming up for you right now? Would you like to talk about your feelings?”)
- Catalytic (“Tell me about a previous time when you…How did you deal with that?”)
- Supportive (“What did you do to make the lesson so successful?”)
Directive Coaching Stems
- Informative (“There’s a useful book on that topic by…”)
- Prescriptive (“Have you talked to ___ about that yet?”)
- 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: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coaching_teachers/2015/07/new_coaches_try_this_at_home.html
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: http://bigbeacon.org/2013/06/a-distinction-between-expert-and-coach-i-know-versus-i-trust/
ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches