How to Approach Iterating Ed. Tech Professional Learning

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How do we begin to evaluate professional learning?  What are the most desirable aspects?  When, how, and why do we utilize technology?  What makes certain pedagogical approaches “high-impact” from both the teaching side of things as well as the learning end?  How do we ensure that “student learning” remains first and foremost?  In the end, it’s all about the students, right? These are all questions that run through my mind as I read ISTE’s Instructional Coaching Standard 5c.  There is a lot going on in the language of this standard.  If we assume that the schoolwide vision is discernable and agreed upon at the classroom level, which is a very big “if” and assumption, then we’re still left with a lot of questions to answer beyond that foundational aspect.  There are no shortage of complex problems such as this in education, and complex problems are worth exploring.  Perhaps a close look at the standard followed by a reframing of the standard’s language into a question will prove helpful in beginning to break down this complex myriad of ideas into individually addressable parts.  


  • ISTE Standard 5c Evaluate the impact of professional learning and continually make improvements in order to meet the schoolwide vision for using technology for high-impact teaching and learning. 


  • How does one iteratively design a professional learning experience on using technology for high-impact teaching and learning? 

Beginning with the End in Mind 

Understanding by Design focuses us as educators on working backward in our design of educational approaches and experiences by beginning with the end in mind.  In the classroom, this applies to lesson and unit planning.  With regard to professional learning, student learning is the end goal.  Answering the question up above means starting with identifying as best we can what is meant by “high-impact teaching and learning.”  Appropriately, Understanding By Design also advocates for the use of the Essential Question in terms of guiding work.  So let’s work backward by design to address the essential question proposed above. 

Identifying High-Impact Teaching and Learning Approaches 

Identifying high-impact teaching and learning approaches can be challenging.  Often, for the experienced classroom teacher, the answer is that “I’ll know it when I see it.”  While this may be true, such an approach is not systematically applicable.  This is where proven research comes into play because the researchers are presumably independent observers applying unbiased, formal methodologies.  Still, one of the challenges is utilizing research that is accessible for understanding and application that doesn’t also require extensive training.  This is where meta-research done by Robert Marzano and John Hattie becomes relevant.  Both researchers/authors provide a summative analysis of multiple studies in a user-friendly format.  The result is the ability to look at “effect size” and determine roughly how quantitatively effective a given classroom instructional strategy is on average.  By combining this approach along with research-proven approaches such as the 5E model, educators can effectively identify high-impact teaching and learning approaches that they can readily utilize in a classroom setting. 

Utilizing Technology to Support High Impact Teaching and Learning 

Working backward from high-impact teaching and learning approaches with respect to our essential question, we can analyze where technology comes into play with respect to a potential schoolwide instructional vision and quality professional learning.  A book that provides a nice bridge between meta-research and technology implementation is The Distance Learning Playbook written by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie.  In speaking to the challenge of identifying effective instructional strategies as a lead into their book on the application of technology, the authors state, “But the fact of the matter is that some things work best. Thus, it’s useful to know what works best to accelerate student’s learning.”  “What works best” can then be applied to utilizing technology schoolwide.  Along these lines, Learning First, Technology Second by Liz Kolb provides good insights and a framework for analyzing technology integration.  She refers to this as her Triple E model and looking through the lens of Engagement, Enhancement, and Extension allows for an analysis of technology integration and application as well as a good starting point for thinking about potential connections to professional learning that addresses technology. 

Iterative Design of High Impact Professional Learning 

With respect to the question posed above, identifying high-impact teaching and learning via research and analyzing technology with both research and frameworks allows for professional learning that addresses all of this, with respect to the schoolwide vision, to be iteratively designed.  A combination of asking teachers, staying grounded in research, and formatively assessing the professional learning experiences are key.  Directly asking teachers about their professional learning needs is important and a Gates Foundation report entitled Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development does exactly that.  Teachers want instructional coaches and staff developers that “know what it’s like to be in their shoes”, they want well-structured collaboration opportunities, and they want choice among other things.  Research backs a lot of this up as well, although, with caveats.  While workshops and professional trainings are supported to a degree in research, ongoing and targeted professional learning are key which really supports instructional coaching models.  Instructional coaching can be informal, formal and regular 1:1 meetings, as needed, at the instructional team or Professional Learning Community level, and/or consist of before/after school trainings as well as workshops. Per Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, “If schools want wide-scale adoption of innovative practices, teachers need a mentor or coach at each step in the process of adaptation and adoption.” The key is that the professional learning supported by the instructional coach consists of consistent and targeted learning. 

Ending with the End in Mind 

With all of this in mind we’ve arrived at the end with the end and essential question in mind: How does one iteratively design a professional learning experience on using technology for high-impact teaching and learning? By building on everything described so far, effective professional learning can be designed and provided.  In order to iterate, professional learning results need to be actively researched and monitored.  By pre-assessing participants in advance, formatively assessing professional learning while it’s taking place, and summatively assessing via follow-up surveys, professional learning experiences can be monitored and improved upon.  Tracking and implementing adjustments made during facilitation are important and when combined with valuable participant feedback, powerful iterative improvements can be made which result in ever increasing effectiveness of the targeted professional learning.  There’s a lot more to approaching active research with respect to improving professional learning but intentional assessment is the place to start.  For learning more around identifying how best to procure the desired data for ongoing program evaluation, seek out research guides and resources such as “Small Scale Evaluation: Principles and Practice”, and you’ll soon be unlocking elements of your own professional learning along the way to helping and supporting others. 


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from 
  2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from 
  3. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration
  4. Marzano, R., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. (January, 2001). Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 
  5. 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. 
  6. Bybee, R. (2015). The BSCS 5E Instructional Model. National Science Teachers Association. 
  7. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin. 
  8. Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge. 
  9. Wiggins, G., & McTighe, Jay. (2005).  Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 
  10. Corwin.Kolb, L. (2017). Learning First, Technology Second. International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). 
  11. Terada, T. (2021, February). New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL. Edutopia. Retrieved from 
  12. MIT Kindergarten Learning Book 
  13. Scott, M. (2019, July). A Unity of Purpose and Action. Communicator (Vol 42, Issue 11). Retrieved from  
  14. Robson, C. (2000). Small Scale Evaluation: Principles and Practice. SAGE Publications Ltd.

PBL for the Teachers?

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When it comes to classroom management and instruction, actively engaging learners in the learning process is important.  Now, what do you envision when you think about the students in this case?  Are they adults?  If not then maybe they should be because teacher professional development and learning opportunities need to continue moving away from “do as I say” direct instruction to actively doing while learning.  This is because Active Learning engages teachers in their own learning process so that they can better apply concepts from their own training to their own teaching. 

“Active Learning engages  

  • teachers directly in the practices they are learning 
  • educators using authentic artifacts, interactive activities, and other strategies to provide contextualized professional learning. 
  • teachers by incorporating the elements of collaboration, coaching, feedback, and reflection.”  (Trotter, 2006) 

By applying research-based approaches in combination with standards-based practices like the ISTE Coaching Standards, we, as an educational community, can greatly increase the value and effectiveness of year-round professional learning experiences and opportunities. There are many ways to approach this, but why not start with something that most adult learners have at least heard of like PBL?

ISTE Coaching Standard 5  

Professional Learning Facilitator: Performance Indicator 5b: Build the capacity of educators, leaders and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback. 

PBL Engages Students in Active Learning, Why Not Teachers Too? 

A great example of active learning in the classroom is PBL (project/problem based learning). In PBL, students engage directly in the learning by working through a series of involved and individualized steps as part of a group project focused on solving a problem.  Adria Steinberg’s “Six A’s of Designing Projects”, as adapted to the The Six “A’s” of PBL Project Design in an article by Andrew Larson, provide a good basic outline of what active learning via PBL looks like.  The Six “A’s” identifies the following PBL characteristics: authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, adult relationships, assessment.  Students engage with peers in project-based learning that utilizes authentic artifacts and interactive activities at rigorous levels to explore possible solutions and then apply lessons learned—all while interacting with adults as mentors or authentic audience members and being assessed in an authentic manner.  This very active learning provides students opportunities to collaborate, be coached, receive relevant feedback, and reflect on their learning both during and immediately after the process.  So if all of this active learning happens for student participants in PBL then the obvious question is why not for adult participants?  The answer is that it can and should. 

Translating Student PBL Practices for Active Professional Learning 

As adult educators, there is a lot of value exploring and learning like a student.  This, in and of itself, can be beneficial for the educator looking to empathize with student’s perspective and identify areas for improvement by meeting students where they are at.  Beyond, this, experiencing PBL is an effective means to learning concepts at all levels.  So teachers immersing themselves in an authentic learning process can explore concepts relevant to their training which increases engagement.  In Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do, Andrew Miller speaks to the benefits of utilizing PBL for adult learning, “We know the value of PBL for professional development. Teachers work together on an authentic challenge to become true learners, exploring a driving question and participating in a launch, receiving instruction and feedback to support learning, and sharing their work and learning publicly. This helps teachers reflect on the experience of PBL, see challenges students will face, and create engagement and excitement for doing PBL in the classroom.” (Miller, 2017).  

As part of a teacher-focused PBL in a professional development/learning experience, authentic artifacts can be provided (such as student work samples) and make for authentic teacher learning, which can increase the relevance as well as the ease of application back to the teachers’ respective classrooms.  PBL is also interactive due to the group work and research and so provides teachers with active learning opportunities as they explore the provided activity, often learning  through and about protocols for discussing and interacting as well as experiencing opportunities to work in teams and take on roles/jobs within their groups.  Both PBL and Active learning involve collaboration, coaching, feedback, and reflection, so they blend well and provide good opportunities for teachers to actively learn in an adult professional learning.  Teachers learn valuable lessons when they engage as active learners in their own professional learning, “Through the experience, teachers learn that a project-based-learning classroom feels a little like chaos — managed chaos. It is definitely clear PBL is active learning. They also learn that the power of performance can motivate even the most reluctant learners.” (Lenz, 2007) 

Where to Begin When There’s So Much to Do? 

There’s a lot to PL so it’s probably still challenging to envision what PBL for adults look like, especially when time is at an extreme premium.  Where to start and how to do it all?  Well, maybe one doesn’t have to do everything all at once, how about a slice of professional learning PL PBL pizza? “Project slices—condensed project-based learning for teachers—give educators a student’s perspective on what it’s like to do a project.” (Miller, 2017).  The idea is very much worth exploring.  The key is starting somewhere so that the benefits can begin to be realized through the transformation of professional learning experiences for educators.  In this way, active learning can be realized outside of the classroom as part of the teacher’s professional learning experience and then back in the classroom where the teacher can bring active learning to the students.  When teachers are authentically engaged in their own learning then they can more effectively transfer that learning to their own teaching context,”Teachers quickly move from making generalizations about the experience and its implications to applying what they’ve learned to the teachers’ future classrooms, their integrated project-based teams, and their schools as a whole.” (Lenz, 2007). So, just maybe, the question should be less about where do we begin and more about when? 


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from 
  2. Miller, A. (2017, September 7). Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do. Edutopia. Retrieved from  
  3. Lenz, B. (2007, August 29).Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools. Edutopia.  Retrieved from 
  4. Larson, A. (2019, June 12). The Six “A’s” of PBL Project Design. Magnify Learning. Retrieved from
  5. Rivera, A. (2016, August 1). Why Do So Many Schools Want to Implement Project-Based Learning, But So Few Actually Do? EdSurge. Retrieved from

Puzzling Over Protocols

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Who, When, Where, Why, What, How? 

Who, when, and where we teach are often set by extenuating circumstances.  Whereas why we teach is both deeply personal and different for every educator.  What we teach can be set by state level standards, curriculum guides, and a number of other external factors.  Sometimes we have some level of control and sometimes not.  As instructors, we arguably have the most control over how we teach.  Deciding how to teach content can be both fun and overwhelming because so often we reinvent the wheel in education and therefore put a lot of extra work into designing the how.  Sometimes this is fine.  However, it’s nice to choose when we as instructors invest so much energy in teaching versus utilizing prepackaged options.  Sometimes curriculum provides a prepackaged option, but having a library of possible prepackaged choices to choose from can make a big difference by saving time, effort, and headache. Combine this with technology considerations, and there are some helpful connections to ISTE Coaching Standard 5 (adults in this case but also applies to kids).

ISTE Coaching Standard 5 

Professional Learning Facilitator: Performance Indicator 5a: Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs. 

What’s a Protocol? 

Perhaps the most well-known protocol is the Jigsaw activity.  Honestly, this is with good reason, though, as The Distance Learning Playbook cites Chris Hattie’s meta-analysis work listing an effect size of 1.2 for Jigsaw as an instructional strategy.  Here’s also where things become challenging as there does not appear to be standardized language across education.  Whether we call these approaches protocols, learning strategies, professional learning practices, or something else, the intent is not to play with semantics but focus on the effectiveness of the approach itself.  So, for our purposes, let’s consider a protocol a structured “how” for facilitating a given learning activity.  Protocols don’t usually address the content directly, but they do provide a vehicle for learning the content by providing a structured activity. 

Discussion, Instruction, or Learning Protocols? 

Okay, so we’ve narrowed down to protocol, although, that can still mean a discussion, instruction, or learning protocol, depending on the source.  These three different descriptions can all mean the same thing and, at the very least, there is a significant amount of overlap whether one is more focused on discussion versus instruction versus learning.  Ultimately, the intent is to structure interactions among the participants.  The protocol outlines how time will be managed, when different aspects of an activity will be done, and how individuals will interact.  The Jigsaw protocol, again, can serve as a good example since it is relatively well known (it’s worth noting that there are different variations).  In an example of one kind of Jigsaw, participants have a home group and an expert group.  After receiving overall instructions from the instructor, participants first go (physically or virtually) to their expert group. In the expert group, participants study a resource unique to their group and become the “experts” on that topic.  Experts then go back to their home groups and take turns sharing about newfound areas of expertise, both teaching the group about their area and learning from the group members about other related areas.  Thus, once finished, there has been a completed jigsaw of new information by combining all of the individual pieces of learning. 

How can these support an Andragogical Instructional Framework?  

In other words, what role can protocols play in adult professional learning taking place in an Ed. Tech environment?  Regardless of the adult learning framework being implemented for a given instructional context, protocols can play an important role in several ways. 

  • Equity of Voice: protocols make sure that everyone is heard by regulating airtime and encouraging reluctant participants to speak. 
  • Accountability: protocols hold learners accountable for their learning in a positive way by communicating to participants their expected level of engagement and contributions. 
  • Reducing Social Anxiety: protocols provide transparent expectations of participation in advance of the activity so that nervous participants know exact expectations which reduces anxiety-inducing unknowns. 
  • Equity of Expertise: protocols level the playing field within a learning environment by elevating new learners, empowering all learners with new knowledge, and limiting the ability of participants to “self-designate” as experts on the subject matter of the training activity. 
  • Engagement management: protocols can limit participants from dominating a group while also engaging more reticent participants by assigning jobs to participants so as to disperse responsibilities among the learners and lead to a more effective group dynamic. 
  • Time management: protocols provide a structured means for managing the length of a given activity as well as regulating the allotted discussion time in an equitable manner. 

These are just a few examples of the way protocols can function within an adult instructional framework, or any instructional context for that matter.  Protocols serve as an efficient and effective means for actively engaging participants in their learning.  If you’re looking for a list of possible protocols to explore then I recommend starting with this list from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In addition to the jigsaw protocol, the list contains 18 common suggestions (with more linked at the bottom of the list). Select one carefully with your instructional content and context in mind, then practice implementing several times to become comfortable before moving on to another.  In time, protocols can take care of the “how” of learning in an efficient way so that all involved can focus on investing energy in the aspects of instruction that drive the “why” behind their instruction and learning.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from 
  2. Schmoker, M. (October 20th, 2015). EducationWeek. It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development. Retrieved from 
  3. Pitzele, K. (2013, November 27). From Brooklyn to Jakarta: Teaching Teachers Well. Edutopia. Retrieved from 
  4. Teaching & Learning Lab. Discussion Protocols. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from 
  5. Rothstein, S. and Rowell, L. (2021, January 25). Discover, Discuss, Demonstrate: Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Keep Students Engaged. Edutopia. Retrieved from  

Professional Learning Can Be ‘Squirrelly’ Business

*3D printed squirrels used as part of the professional learning lesson

Guiding Questions

Recently, I was asked to ponder the following questions:

  • What is an example of professional development that has worked for you? 
  • What is an example of professional development that has not worked for you?
  • What does research say about planning professional learning?

The first two questions are relatively easy to answer as they bring to mind all sorts of examples as I’ve experience a lot of professional learning over my 20-year career in education.  Reflecting on what the research says about planning professional learning requires some more thought, reflection, reading, and research.  There’s a lot written about professional learning and sorting through any of it takes time.  All three are guiding questions are applicable to the following essential question and relevant ISTE Coaching Standard:

  • How should we plan professional development that utilizes educational technology?

ISTE Coaching Standard 5

Professional Learning Facilitator: Coaches plan, provide and evaluate the impact of professional learning for educators and leaders to use technology to advance teaching and learning.

Good Professional Learning

The vast majority of what makes professional learning high quality applies to trainings whether they are focused on educational technology or not.  In fact, focusing in on cutting edge, advanced, or complicated technology as part of a professional learning example often distracts from the more general topic of good professional learning.  Since good professional learning is good professional learning whether technology focused or not, the guiding questions really kept bringing me back to particular low-tech professional learning experience that I had.  It was one of the best that I led as an instructional coach because of some very unique circumstances, and I think the lessons that I learned apply to all professional learning whether low tech, high tech, or even no tech.

Professional Learning Literature

I read several different articles published by Edsurge and Edutopia while pondering questions I was given to consider.  There were several things in common across what I read in terms of how best to improve professional learning opportunities for teachers.  A major theme was making sure that training is relevant whether by surveying in advance, careful observation, addressing known needs, and/or personalizing training.  Another theme was providing teachers with choice, which could be general choice of learning topics or differentiation within a specific topic.  Surveying teachers in advance can help in both cases. These things can help ensure that training is engaging and even interactive which was another theme.  Finally, being respectful of teachers’ time also reflects in all the themes as well as treating teachers like professionals and having the professional learning presented by someone who understands their experiences.  Even the advice mentioned only once across the four articles seemed like sound options to keep in mind: sustained over time, utilize protocols, include extension activities, acknowledge teachers’ well-being, and be transparent. Additionally, all of this advice seems to apply equally well to regular teacher professional learning as well as technology-specific professional learning.

A Nutty Example with Some Squirrelly Activities

As mentioned earlier, low-tech professional learning approaches can teach us a lot about professional learning focused on educational technology.  One example that stands out in my mind given the original guiding questions, is a low-tech STEM training that was arguably the most successful professional learning that I led as an instructional coach.  While there was definitely room for improvement, the experienced utilized a significant number of the professional learning recommendations already listed.  The training itself was one that I was asked to recreate a number of times for different audiences, and the lessons that I learned from leading this training are ones that I applied later across a variety of technology-intensive trainings. Essentially, the training was an introduction to the engineering design process from Next Generation Science Standards utilizing a limited number of common items as the “technology” in a design challenge designed to work in tandem with a picture book called “Those Darn Squirrels”.  There are a lot of different ways to outline the details of the training.  I think the most helpful might be using the five professional learning recommendations from “5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves” by Karen Johnson.

Relevant: Each teacher received a copy of the book “Those Darn Squirrels” by Adam Rubin. I devised a lesson series that would take advantage of the “Those Darn Squirrels” book that each staff member received.  The premise was a vehicle for introducing the new NGSS engineering standards. 

Interactive: After introducing the standards and reading the book, teachers took the role of the squirrels and had to use a Ziploc bag full of everyday objects to design a squirrel launcher to help the squirrels.  The constraints were that they could only use the materials in the bag and they only had so much time.  The success criteria focused simply on the distance launched.  I’ve rarely seen staff get so into an activity before. They designed feverishly and were very competitive while thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Delivered by Someone Who Understands Their Experience: I had recently transition out of the classroom into the role of instructional coach.  I was excited because I was going to run my first Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) professional development (PD) training for the building and I wanted to have a “door prize” for the staff since it was an optional workshop day. My colleagues saw me as one of them and knew that I was familiar with the overall context of the myriad of challenges that they faced.

Sustained Over Time: The follow-up involved taking this mini-lesson with the staff and mirroring it through a series of lessons in each classroom 3rd-6thgrade at my school.  The result was one of the most successful lesson series that I’ve ever taught because teachers had already experienced the professional learning side of things and were able to apply their learning in the classroom by co-teaching alongside their instructor (me).

Treats Teachers Like Professionals: This one was extremely important to me then as I’d recently exited the classroom.  This is still as if not more important to me now.  I strongly believe that one of the biggest issues facing education in our country is that teachers are not given credit for the level of professionalism required on the job and the amount of respect they deserve for what is an incredibly hard, stressful, and challenging profession.

Final Thought

Again, all of the professional learning approaches applied in this low-tech setting are every bit as relevant, and perhaps even more so, to a high-tech focused training.  Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching. The same goes for professional learning, and it’s important that we keep that in mind for our teachers and ourselves.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. The Next Generation Science Standards for States by States. (2013). Home Page. Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from 
  3. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  4. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  5. Lewis, V. (2015, October 25). Why Most Professional Development Stinks—and How You Can Make It Better. Edsurge. Retrieved from
  6. Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2018, October 30). The Importance of Choice in PD. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  7. Mancinelli, D. (2020, September 16). 6 Things to Consider When Planning Professional Development. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Coaching the Coaches

Peer-Ed, 2018. Dr. Les Foltos.

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.

Essential Question

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.

Planning 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.

Next Steps

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”.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek.

If You Say Tomayto and I Say Tomahto then Why are We Debating Potayto? The Importance of Communication and Collaboration to Successful Peer Coaching.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Teaching is a hard job in the best of times.  Add in a pandemic that requires the ability to teach in-person, remotely, or some combination there-of, and more questions than answers will surely arise.  Teachers need help and support and hopefully this is where peer coaches can come into play, but where do coaches even begin to establish the complex level of support needed by teachers?  In Dr. Les Foltos’s book, Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, he outlines key skills needed by coaches: “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.”  All three areas are important, but the coaching skills of communication and collaboration are essential.  Both ICT integration and lesson design are dependent upon effective communication and collaboration, “A coach’s successes in incorporating lesson-design skills and insights into the effective use of technology “hinge on their success with communication and collaboration skills” (J. Linklater, personal communication, June 14, 2012).”  A closer look at coaching skills also requires relevant context since the peer coach takes on a variety of roles: “Facilitator, Collaborator, Expert, and Catalyst.”  Successful coaching requires that effective application of skills coincides with, complements, and even enhances the critical context of coaching roles.

Coaching Standards

2. Connected Learner: Coaches model the ISTE Standards for Students and the ISTE Standards for Educators, and identify ways to improve their coaching practice. Coaches: 2c. Establish shared goals with educators, reflect on successes and continually improve coaching and teaching practice.

3. 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.

5. Professional Learning Facilitator: Coaches plan, provide and evaluate the impact of professional learning for educators and leaders to use technology to advance teaching and learning. Coaches: 5b.  Build the capacity of educators, leaders and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback.

Essential Question 

How do coaching skills, with an emphasis on communication and collaboration, translate into all of the different roles that peer coaches take on?


When the peer coach assumes the role of facilitator, this means “Planning and leading meetings, activities, and staff development in one-on-one, small group, or large group situations,” (Foltos, 2018).  Regardless of the size of facilitation, the coach needs to be prepared to model risk taking, “Other Peer Coaches model risk taking and recognize that taking risks may occasionally mean failure” (Foltos, 2013).  This helps lay the foundation of safety that’ll be needed for collaboration later on. This is also a key communication strategy that the peer coach can reference later on when trying to navigate the tricky terrain of providing constructive peer feedback.  As described by famed communicator Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends & Influence People, “Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.”

Acting as a facilitator, means being able to guide staff interactions and transitioning in and out of a peer leadership role.  This means being aware of group norms.  In the absence of agreed upon norms, pairs/groups will develop their own unsaid norms that may not be as conducive to effective collaboration.  By taking the lead in this area and developing norms together, the structure can help facilitate the relationships and learning: “Collaborative norms shape our conversations in ways that build trust and respect; they define accountability and build capacity. Collaborative norms are essential for effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).


Being a collaborator means “Working together with colleagues to plan, implement, and evaluate activities,” (Foltos, 2018).  This means “Addressing the potential fear-factor of working with an instructional coach”, which can be accomplished by modeling risk taking as mentioned in the facilitator role and providing a safety net within the relationship, “Their efforts to encourage their peers to adopt more innovative teaching and learning strategies are always undergirded by the safety net they built with their collaborating teachers,” (Foltos, 2013).  When collaborating, you’re often preparing, planning, teaching and reflecting together with a focus on student learning. The reflecting is where the trust and safety net come in so that coach and teacher can “discuss what worked and what the peer would do differently next time” in a safe manner, (Foltos, 2013).

A critical part of effective collaboration is clear communication and utilizing strategies that support this.  A simple but powerful strategy that Dr. Foltos references in his book is paraphrasing, “In its simplest form, paraphrasing is the listener repeating, albeit in a modified form, what he or she heard the speaker say.”  This facilitates clear communication and ensures understanding while also demonstrating that the coach is practicing another critical listening skill that Dr. Foltos refers to as active listening: “Active listeners are focused on what the speaker is saying. They look right at the speaker, block out competing thoughts, and assess what the speaker is saying.”  This also ties into one of Dale Carnegies key strategies for building relationship, “Be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves.”  Again, all of this builds toward the coach being able to grow the relationship with the teacher while helping the teacher grow in his or her practice, “Give honest and sincere appreciation” and “praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise,” (Carnegie, 1936). This strategy is so important and underutilized that it’s worth citing additional support from an Edutopia article on the topic by Shannon McGrath and entitled 5 Vital To-Dos for Instructional Coaches, “Be vocal about the good you see: Teachers rarely get focused feedback on the practices they devote so much of their time to improving. Be constantly on the lookout for small moves your teachers are making that shift students, efforts that go above and beyond expectations, or relationships that are making the difference for students.“

There are additional benefits in this for students as well, because “teachers who learned these communication skills from a coach turn around and teach these same skills with their students (P. Cleaves, personal communication, May 23, 2012),” (Foltos, 2013).  On top of this, good coaching is actually an effective teaching strategy per the meta-analyses of research done by Dr. John Hattie and as cited in The Distance Learning Playbook by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2020).  This also leads into and connected with some strong research cited around effective questioning strategies which support a lot of the work coaches do as a catalyst, but, first, let’s explore the often misunderstood role of expert.


The role of expert is probably the hardest to navigate while maintaining the role of peer and “Acting as a subject matter expert on a variety of topics,” (Foltos, 2018).  This is because growing the relationship means you “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely” per Dale Carnegie but you also need to posses a self-evident mastery of the relevant content.  Most importantly as the expert, the peer coach needs to be careful not to take learning responsibility away from the learner and inadvertently steal their joy of discovery because this engenders ownership of ideas: “Effective coaches, like Grace Dublin, make it clear to learning partners that “the responsibility to learn something belongs to the learner” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” Foltos (2013).  Even better as far as persuading individuals to a new way of thinking goes per Mr. Carnegie, “Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

The following from Dr. Foltos ties together the ideas inquiry into the other teacher’s ideas and advocacy for the coach’s ideas, “Inquiry Over Advocacy: When is the right time for advocacy? How often can they [coaches] present their solutions? As I noted in earlier chapters, successful coaches feel that a little advocacy works, but only after a strong coaching relationship based on inquiry is formed. Too much advocacy, they observed, means the coach becomes the expert with the answer. Garmston and Wellman (1999) argue it is important for successful collaboration to balance advocacy and inquiry.”  In other words, one should refrain from playing the role of expert as much as possible in a peer coaching relationship.  It’s like yelling by the teacher in the classroom, which should be reserved for the rarest of instances (preferably emergencies) so that when actually needed it can be utilized effectively.  Otherwise, when over-utilized, the role of expert will lead to potential disagreements that inevitably grow into arguments, and “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it,” (Carnegie, 1936).  This is doubly important and true of the peer coaching role.  


After significant work has been done to grow relationships with teachers, coaches can serve in the role of catalyst: “Helping teachers reflect on and improve their practice by using question strategies and skills that assist colleagues to become effective instructional decision makers,” (Foltos, 2018).  There are many ways to build to this level.  The work done as facilitator, collaborator, and expert should help and go a long way toward establishing this level of relationship.  Additionally, efforts to grow teacher confidence through careful actions such as providing recognition for positive accomplishments can help, “Successful Peer Coaches use a variety of strategies to get teachers recognition for their work. Many coaches use conversations with their peers to recognize the strengths of the learning activities the teachers are using with students and work to help their learning partners build on those strengths,” (Foltos, 2013).

With inquiry over advocacy in mind, effective questioning strategies can be especially helpful in the catalyst role.  Dale Carnegie emphasizes the power of asking questions with regard to changing attitudes and behaviors, “Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.”  Practice can be built with regard to clarifying questions, which “… are simple and typically factual. They fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle…”, and then lead to higher level probing questions, “Why are they [probing questions] so critical? The answer gets to the heart of effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).  Research supports these strategies with regard to learning and so again there is an added benefit that teachers tend to turn around and employ these new strategies with their students.  According to Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, “Questioning has an effect size of 0.48.”  The right line of probing questions lead to deep reflective thinking which is even more powerful for learning, “Metacognitive strategies have an effect size of 0.55.”  One longtime peer coach, Dr. Greg Bianchi, wrote his entire dissertation on the power of metacognition.  When we keep in mind that any effect size greater than 0.40 greatly accelerates student learning then this is powerful stuff.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, it’s still important to remember the power of consistent small changes for continuous Improvement: “Successful Peer Coaches don’t push for one big, dramatic change, instead relying on an incremental process of continuous improvement,” (Foltos, 2013). 

So, What’s the Potahto? 

Teaching is a hard job and, by association, so is peer coaching, “Most Peer Coaches I have worked with know that they are trying to build these kinds of relationships in difficult circumstances. Many have worked in schools in which teachers work alone and in which collaboration consisted of teachers exchanging lesson plans and teaching resources,” (Foltos, 2013).  Building relationships is key to being able to make any progress with regard to effective coaching translating into student learning growth.  True collaboration is elusive because school systems are not designed to facilitate this.  So coaches must rely on relationship to bridge these systemic gaps, “Being friendly, positive, and supportive doesn’t guarantee innovation, but coaches won’t encourage innovation without drawing on these behaviors to create a safety net.”  To influence teachers, coaches need to be adept and adroit with their approaches to create that trust-based safety net so that they can “Arouse in the other person an eager want” and “Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest,” (Carnegie, 1936). Creating a safe enough environment for positive change to happen is more challenging with teaching because it’s deeply personal, “Teaching is an identity and an action, not just a vocation,” (Fisher, Frey, Hattie, 2020).  This means that, ultimately, “Peer Coaches can’t be the experts with the answers. Instead, as Grace Dublin insists, coaches are there to “help them formulate their strategies. It is ultimately their answer” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” (Foltos, 2013).  Coaches can truly effect change by believing in their teachers to arrive at their own answers because belief not only has a large effect size on learning, but it also does something even more powerful: it empowers the believer to “Give the other person a fine reputation to to live up to,” (Carnegie, 1936). This action persuades teachers to pursue the desired improvement by way of self-fulfilling prophesy because a coach knew that a teacher could be something more and guided them to that realization through careful facilitation, collaboration, and expertise that all lead up to a catalyst.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek 
  4. Foltos, L. (January, 2018).  Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.
  6. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
  7. McGrath, S. (2019). 5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  8. Bianchi, G. (2007). Effects of metacognitive instruction on the academic achievement of students in the secondary sciences. Seattle Pacific University. Retrieved from…….128B/abstract