Leading Learning – Coaching and Teaming for Innovation

One of my favourite visuals is a cartoon sketch in Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which shows five figures walking in a line. The first is an ape, the second is a farmer with a pitchfork, the third is an industrial worker with tools, the fourth is a knowledge worker with a briefcase, and the last is an artist. For me it is the perfect representation of where we have come from and where schools are heading.

Experience has shown us that top-down accountability and compliance measures are ineffective for building learning communities, and putting educators in large halls and talking at them is an ineffective practice (Richard Elmore terms it “spray and pray”). Yet Bob Kegan suggests that the developmental capacity of most adults is inadequate to cope with the complex demands of the 21st century. Educators need to be challenged and supported to move from socialised minds to self-authoring minds. Leaders have a responsibility to design cultures that move educators from informational stances to transformational stances. I posit that the most effective way to do this in schools is to establish a culture of coaching and teaming.

Coaching – Dr Douglas Reeves points out that the biggest influence on teacher professional practice is advice from a colleague (although I would be quick to add the importance of feedback from students). The way we talk affects the way that we work. I often say that my job is simply to get teachers talking to each other about teaching and learning. Mentoring and coaching programs provide useful models for changing the way we talk to each other in schools. My school now makes extensive use of Jim Knight’s instructional coaching work and Growth Coaching International’s coaching model. We have learned (the hard way) the importance of providing appropriate training and time for coaching to succeed, and we have learned that coaching is more about relationships than knowledge.

Teaming – Richard Elmore also notes that teachers get better by working in teams on teaching issues, but he is quick to point out that watching most teams operate in schools is like watching astroturf grow. In her brilliant book Teaming, Amy Edmondson describes the new style of leadership required for teams to learn and innovate. “Generating ideas to solve problems is the currency of the future; teaming is the way to develop, implement, and improve those ideas.” One of the key points she makes is about the importance of psychological safety. Team members feel more comfortable suggesting alternatives when their leader has previously modelled that it is OK to make mistakes. As a leader my role is to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking and allows teachers to question the status quo. Inspiring learning design can only come from the bottom up. I know we are on the right track when teachers start thinking like innovators and asking new questions like, “How might we…?” I also believe that the skilled use of protocols is one of the most practical steps that leaders can take in order to improve team learning.

Idea SetsDavid Perkins talks about change fatigue and the importance of finding a small number of idea sets that live well together. These idea sets will be different for each school. At my school we are imbuing ourselves with Project Zero’s Cultures of Thinking work and project-based learning, two idea-sets that fit particularly well together. I’m learning how these approaches can be supported through the Reggio-inspired use of documentation. Student voice is also a growing concept at my school. As an example, every Heads of Department meeting I lead now has two student attendees who do the same pre-reading as the HoDs and contribute to the learning conversation as equals.

I guess what I have learned is that the ‘what’ is easier than the ‘how’. The vision is easier than building the structures and culture to attain it.

My role is to build a developmental culture, not a compliance-oriented culture; to focus on improving learning and teaching, not satisfying outside bureaucratic bodies. Coaching and teaming are new ways of structuring schools, more networks than hierarchies. What does it mean to consider Project Zero Director Daniel Wilson’s claim that 80% of professional learning is informal and incidental?

Let the innovation commence.

3 thoughts on “Leading Learning – Coaching and Teaming for Innovation

  1. Cameron, another great post, it looks like you are starting to bring together a vision for your school’s future. Are you having any difficulties bringing the teachers along with you?

    So much to consider, thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you Phillip. I think I’ve always been relatively clear on what the vision is, what I have learned is how to get there. Staff survey responses suggest that our school reached a tipping point two years ago and the momentum is pretty powerful now. The folded arms brigade are being swept along by everyone else.

  3. Absolutely! A great post Cameron. I really appreciate your candour when talking about your school’s journey. It all seems to be coming together nicely. We are further back on that journey but have a similar end-point in mind. Existing school structures and cultures make each journey unique. “The folded arms brigade” – love it! Would like to talk for longer next time we meet.

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