Peer coaching in the teaching profession is a humbling job. Whether part-time or full-time, a peer coach’s job is to help his or her colleagues improve their practice. In his book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration”, Dr. Les Foltos speaks to the critical role that a peer coach can play in a fellow teacher’s practice, “This process of observation and reflection is the most effective form of formative assessment for educators. It is their key to life-long learning.” Given that a teacher’s practice is as much personal as professional, a peer coach’s job is to take this into full consideration while helping the observed colleague to reflect, ask questions, and improve upon his or her practice. On an annual basis, this is the fall focus of the Digital Educational Leadership (DEL) program at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) where Dr. Les Foltos and Dr. David Wicks coach a cohort of instructional coaches on the delicate art and science of peer coaching.
How does an educational professional take pedagogical and andragogical instructional theory related to peer coaching and practically apply this in practice with a colleague?
Coaching a Colleague
The overarching task of peer coaches in the SPU DEL program is partnering with a peer to practice applied coaching skills and strategies. One of the first things to consider are the various roles and approaches that a peer coach can take on: facilitator, collaborator, expert, and catalyst. There are times for each, however, a 1-on-1 focus lends itself well to collaboration. If the interaction were more of a large-group instructional setting then facilitator may have been the best option, whereas more of a one-time consulting-type interaction may have meant an expert approach. Growing into relationship over time can result in a catalyst role, however, this generally takes time and a significant level of relational capacity. With all of this in mind, my approach to working with a colleague was to focus on the role of collaborator so that we could grow our peer coaching relationship together. Our initial meeting focused on getting to know each other with relation to this task, agreeing upon relational norms of interaction, and setting goals for our time together. This naturally led into and supported the rest of our peer coaching work together.
After our initial introductory meeting, my peer coaching colleague and I arranged a follow-up meeting to focus on a possible lesson together. We looked at a relatively new project that covered six hours of professional development learning for teachers. This presented a good opportunity to practice all of the critical skills that Dr. Foltos describes as essential to successful peer coaching, “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design. Remove any leg and coaching could fail.” The skills of communication and collaboration were critical in our first session as well as leading into the planning session. My job was to actively listen and verify understanding through listening strategies such as paraphrasing and summary. Once my peer coaching partner verified mutual understanding then we could focus on the collaborative act of lesson planning together. Given that the lesson instruction focused around online teaching, information and communication technology skills became a critical part of the process by the very nature of the instructional context. We maintained the focus on the learning first and foremost, and then explored a variety of technology tools to support this process. Lastly, the third facet of lesson design was certainly part of the process from beginning to end. We approached lesson design based on the collaborating teacher’s experience, and kept this in mind as this would drive a lot of the reflection process.
Reflecting as a Team
The lesson reflection process centered around the Learning Design Matrix referenced and featured in Dr. Foltos’s peer coaching book. The matrix serves as the feature image of this blog post, and, as you can see, the focus of the four quadrants is on standards-based tasks, engaging tasks, problem-based tasks, and technology enables and accelerates learning. Fortunate enough to have established a positive rapport, my peer coaching partner and I were able to review the lesson of focus through the lens of all four quadrants from the Learning Design Matrix. Through the standards-based lens, we were able to look more closely at the learning targets. While the selected standards seemed well aligned, we were able to brainstorm ways to make them more explicit for learners. Engaging tasks take on a new dimension when learning online, so we looked at ways to build more interaction among participants. By keeping breakout group members consistent, we discussed how this would likely lead to more relational engagement by participants which would help increase task engagement. The lesson contained several problem-based tasks. What seemed missing, though, were ways to empower participants to better support each other so we brainstormed ongoing discussion board ideas. Lastly, we looked at technology–something that’s pervasive throughout online learning but can also become a distraction or impediment to application as a result. With this in mind, we looked at how technology could better support interaction and looked at learning tools that better support the human element of learning. The overarching coaching and reflection discussion had both breadth and depth as we explored numerous applications across the entire Learning Design Matrix for iterating upon the existing lesson design for future instructional improvements and implementation.
The act of learning about peer coaching became real through the practical applications of these lessons learned under the guidance of Dr. Foltos and Dr. Wicks. These theoretical lessons offered many possibilities for practice, while the application offered real-life examples. My personal goal is to continue to improve upon my utilization of these applied skills as well as to continue my overall study of peer coaching skills and strategies. As a lifelong learner, I realize this is a lifelong process where the process is the journey and the destination is an ever-moving target of growth where one never truly “arrives”.
The first post in this two-part series highlighted some key aspects from Dr. Les Foltos’s book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration,” starting with his foundational outline of three general areas of skills that instructional coaches should possess: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.” When focusing on the lesson design leg of the stool, Dr. Foltos provides a “Learning Activity Checklist” tool for reviewing and improving lesson plans. So far in this series, we’ve explored the “Standards Based” category and the “Engaging” category. Both are critical quadrants of the four-part resource. The two remaining categories to address are “Problem Based Task” and “Technology Enhances Academic Achievement”. With the same ISTE standards and essential question in mind as the initial post, we’ll explore each category to round out a full review of the four categories from Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist” tool.
Change Agent: Coaches inspire educators and leaders to use technology to create equitable and ongoing access to high-quality learning. Coaches: 1a. Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process.
Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies. 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.
Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches: 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.
How does one approach lesson design in an ever-evolving classroom context?
The “Problem Based Task” category draws on established PBL approaches. I start with the acronym because there are various flavors of PBL, with Problem-Based Learning being one of the more prominent. The original and most well-known is Project-Based Learning. There’s also place-based, passion-based, and phenomena-based among others. All of them are essentially different sides of the same proverbial coin in that the focus is on engaging students with real-world problems and applications of their learning. Dr. Foltos speaks to this in his peer coaching book by citing relevant research on the topic, ”Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) remind educators that real-world problems have to have meaning to their students in their community and need to draw on students’ current knowledge, skills, beliefs, and passions.” He goes onto address some of the critical aspects of Problem-Based activities, “…tasks often consist of two elements: a scenario that will stimulate students’ interest, give them an understandable setting, and define an audience along with an essential question that is designed to define the product the students will create (Meyer et al., 2011).”
To say that there are a lot of PBL resources out there for teachers to explore would be an understatement, and pretty much all of these resources build on the foundational aspects described above: they tend involve real-world or “real enough” scenario-based problems that will engaged student interest, provide a defined audience, and align with a matching essential question that helps define student-created products. A great place to start exploring PBL resources that help build on this solid foundation is Edutopia’s website. PBL is an area that Edutopia focuses on and there is a lot of high quality content available. One incredibly helpful five-part series entitled “Problem-Based Learning Research Review” walks the reader through a detailed and in-depth overview. The article cites research to highlight four major areas as an introduction to PBL, “According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000), PBL essentially involves the following: students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world, increased student control over his or her learning, teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection, and students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups.” Additional research by Erdogan, Niyazi & Bozeman, Todd (2015), and called “Models of Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century”, evaluates common schools of PBL thought to identify unifying concepts across the varying approaches. They identify four phases to the learning process that are common across different versions of PBL: “Initiation, Management, Deliverables, and Assessment”. Taking all of these aspects together into consideration, educators can begin to identify certain patterns. For example, it’s worth noting that there are some similarities in the identified PBL progression to the 5E approach referenced in the first post of this series.
PBL can be a little overwhelming so starting small with a focus on Problem Based Tasks, as suggested by the structure of Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist”. Many of the lesson aspects involved with an emphasis on problem-based tasks arguably come down to just good teaching. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards reference numerous aspects of PBL-related teaching, for example, “…understanding that information is not simply delivered to students but that meaningful learning requires students to employ new ideas in real world contexts.” Ideas for activities and where to start are also important. “It’s Debatable” is a book with several in-depth examples of modern socio-scientific issues such as whether or not to mine rare earth minerals. The PBL Works website has a variety of examples and PBL-related resources. This site is maintained by the Buck Institute which created one of the original Problem-Based Learning schools of thought and is considered by many to be the gold standard of PBL. If you’re looking to dive deeper into a resource with a specific Problem-Based Learning focus then the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) has created a toolbox of resources to support this effort with manuals focused around four primary topics: “PBL Matters, PBL Design, PBL Coaching, PBL Assessment”. IMSA offers the following description from their PBL Tool Kit, “Problem-Based Learning is focused experiential learning organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.” In the PBL book “Problem As Possibilities”, IMSA authors (Torp and Sage), also wrote “As an engagement process, problem-based learning empowers students as learners and doers to translate imagination and thought into actuality as well as to reflect on the process and proposed solution.” So the idea in PBL is that students are engaged in opportunities for deep learning solving complex problems with opportunities for real outcomes, while, at the same time, all PBL units should be passion-based learning opportunities for students so as to build a strong foundational and lifelong love of learning.
Technology Enhances Academic Achievement
The fourth and final category from the “Learning Activity Checklist” tool is “Technology Enhances Academic Achievement”. This category, in some ways, could also be viewed as an extension or application of the “Information and Communication Technology Integration” leg of Dr. Foltos’s peer coaching skills stool metaphor. Tying this into a lesson review tool becomes important because of the ever increasing role that technology plays in schools, a role which Dr. Foltos speaks to in his book, “Adding technology hasn’t changed traditional teaching and learning, but it has made poor pedagogy more expensive.” This potential pitfall is important to remember, and there is research to support successful approaches with technology, “It is not (never was) about technology. To make a difference, it has always been about good teaching, reflecting and focusing on (relevant?) student learning (Sylvia Tolisano, 2009).” The well-established National Board for Professional Teaching Standards also support this approach throughout technology-related instructional standards, “The standards therefore explore how such tools [emerging instructional tools], including technology, may be used to support teaching and learning for themselves and their students instead of focusing on how to use specific tools which may change.” That being said, the standards do reinforce the importance of utilizing instructional technology, “To support content-related and pedagogical goals, accomplished teachers integrate and use instructional tools, including technology, within the curriculum, ” with the emphasis being on the pedagogical aspect.
With the established idea that sound pedagogy still fundamentally drives instruction when technology is involved, finding resources to support the pedagogically appropriate use of instructional technology can be challenging. Researched-based approaches where the application is proven provide the best opportunity for successful classroom applications. One such book, “The Distance Learning Playbook” by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, provides plenty of research-based support for careful technology integration. They speak to concerns where “too much talk has focused on teaching and not on learning” by offering that “teachers should not hold an instructional strategy in higher esteem than their student’s learning.” In support of this, they offer suggestions for instructional strategies that can be effectively integrated with technology such as Classroom Discussion with an effect size of 0.82, Jigsaw lesson organizational strategies with an effect size of 1.2, Reciprocal Teaching with an effect size of 0.74, and more. Liz Kolb takes a very research-based focus in her book “Learning First, Technology Second”. As the book title might suggest, she offers that “Teaching with technology is about the learning first and the tool second,” and advises educators to “Focus specifically on how the technology is meeting the needs of the learner.” Based on her research, Kolb offers her “Triple E Framework” as a means to helping educators accomplish effective integration of instructional technology through the lens of “Engagement, Enhancement, and Extension.” One last example of research-based instructional ideas around technology integration is “Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works” by Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, and Malenoski which applies the meta-research from Dr. Robert Marzano’s book “Classroom Instruction that Works” to instructional technology. While many of the specific technology examples are dated, the core research-based concepts are sound, insightful, and proven. The research-based reasons for careful planning around thoughtful instruction also remain the same, “Research indicates that technology’s use in the classroom can have an additional positive influence on student learning when the learning goals are clearly articulated prior to the technology’s use (Ringstaff & Kelley, 2002; Schacter, 1999).”
There are a lot of different ways to approach coaching a colleague on lesson improvement. The addressed areas of Standards Based, Engaging, Problem-Based Task, Technology Enhances Academic Achievement provide great starting point and reflective lenses through which to evaluate lessons. However a peer coach is approaching a colleague, Dr. Foltos provides sound advice in that “Any coaching conversation about improving a colleague’s work must start with a clear statement that praises what’s good about the learning activity.” This advice draws on the first leg of Dr. Foltos’s instructional stool, “coaching skills (communication and collaboration)”. These skills are critical to the peer coach’s success and must be present throughout his or her coaching interactions and work. In other words, tread lightly so as to “Begin with praise and honest appreciation” and “Be ‘hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise'” to quote Dale Carnegie as you are truly try to win over your colleagues and influence them in the best possible way.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, Jay. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Marzano, R., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. (January, 2001). Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks. Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.
Bybee, R. (2015). The BSCS 5E Instructional Model. National Science Teachers Association.
Burgess, D. (2012). Teach Like a Pirate. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge.
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). (2013). PBL Network, Collaborative Inquiry in Action. IMSA.PBL Works. (2020).
Buck Institute For Education. Retrieved from https://www.pblworks.org/
Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s Debatable. NSTApress.
Vega, V. (December, 2012). Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes
Erdogan, N. & Bozeman, T.D. (2015). Models of Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century. Sense Publishers.
Corwin.Kolb, L. (2017). Learning First, Technology Second. International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., Malenoski, K. (2007). Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development & Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). (2016). NBPTS. Pearson.
Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.