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Differing styles of Coaching

Coaching is booming. There are life coaches, executive coaches, and performance coaches. There are coactive coaches, empathic coaches, and solution-focused coaches. There are image coaches, dating coaches, even Twitter coaches. In other words, if you want to learn how to do something, you can find a coach to help you do it.

Education is no exception. In this blogpost, I’ll examine the three most widely employed approaches to coaching—facilitative, directive, and dialogical—alongside each one’s unique strengths and weaknesses.

Three Models of Coaching

Facilitative - Dialogical - Directive

Facilitative Coaching

Facilitative coaches see collaborating teachers as equals who make most if not all decisions during coaching. As Sir John Whitmore has written in his influential book Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance, and Purpose (2002), “the relationship between the coach and coachee must be one of partnership in the endeavor, of trust, of safety and of minimal pressure” (p.  20).

Facilitative coaches encourage coachees to share their ideas openly by listening with empathy, paraphrasing, and asking powerful questions. Additionally, facilitative coaches do not share their expertise or suggestions with respect to what a teacher can do to get better based on the assumption that (a) coachees already have the  knowledge they need to improve, so a coach’s role is to help them unpack what they already know, and that (b) coaches who share their expertise with coachees may inhibit progress by keeping coachees from coming up with their own solutions. In other words, “The coach is not a problem solver, a teacher, an adviser, an instructor, or even an expert; he or she is a sounding board, a facilitator, a counselor, an awareness raiser” (Whitmore, 2002, p. 40).

Facilitative coaching can be used in all kinds of situations, so it has the potential to address issues that dialogical and directive coaching are not able to address. For example, facilitative coaching may be used to help a teacher get along with a difficult team member, to help a principal lead culture change in her school, or to help a student use his time more effectively.

In the classroom, facilitative coaching works best when the teachers being coached already have the knowledge they need to improve. It is less effective when teachers do not have the necessary knowledge to bring about the change they want to see. For example, a teacher who is struggling to create a learner-friendly classroom culture and who has not learned effective strategies for classroom management will likely need an instructional coach to help him master teaching behavioral expectations, reinforcing appropriate behavior, and correcting inappropriate behavior. Clearly, facilitative coaching would not be an appropriate approach in such a situation. Instead, the teacher would benefit from particular teaching practices such as those described in The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (Marzano, 2007), The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills (Saphier, Speca, &  Gower, 2008), or High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching (Knight, 2013).

Directive Coaching

In many ways, directive coaching is the opposite of facilitative coaching. That is, the directive coach’s goal is to help coachees master a certain skill or set of skills. The directive coach and coachee relationship is similar to a master apprenticeship relationship. The directive coach has special knowledge, and his job is to transfer that knowledge to the coachee. While the relationship is respectful, it is not equal.

In contrast to facilitative coaches who set their expertise aside when working with teachers, the directive coach’s expertise is at the heart of this coaching approach. Since their job is to make sure teachers learn the correct way to do something, directive coaches tell teachers what do to, sometimes model practices, observe teachers, and provide constructive feedback to teachers until they can implement the new practice with fidelity.

Directive coaches work from the assumption that the teachers they are coaching do not know how to use the practices they are learning, which is why they are being coached. They also assume that teaching strategies generally should be implemented with fidelity, which is to say, in the same way in each classroom. Thus, the goal of the directive coach is to ensure fidelity to a proven model, not adaptation of the model to the unique needs of children or strengths of a teacher.

The best directive coaches are excellent communicators who listen to their coachees, confirm understanding using effective questions, and sensitively read their coachee’s understanding or lack of understanding. Since the goal is high-quality implementation of a new practice, directive coaches need to especially be effective at explaining, modeling, and providing constructive feedback.

When teachers are committed to learning a teaching strategy or program, directive coaching can be effective. However, directive coaching tends to de-professionalize teaching by minimizing teacher expertise and autonomy, and, therefore, frequently engenders resistance. Telling teachers they have to do something a certain way whether they want to or not treats teachers more like laborers than professionals, and it often leads to resistance more than change.

The directive approach to coaching also often fails because it oversimplifies the complex world of the classroom. The unique, young human beings who attend our schools are too complex for one-size-fits-all approaches to learning. What teachers and students need is an approach to coaching that combines the facilitative coach’s respect for the professionalism of teachers with the directive coach’s ability to identify and describe effective strategies that can help teachers move forward. That approach is the dialogical approach—the very approach I adopt in all of my instructional coaching work.

Dialogical Coaching

The facilitative coach focuses on inquiry, using questions, listening, and conversational moves to help a teacher become aware of answers he already has inside himself. The directive coach focuses on advocacy, using expertise, clear explanations, modeling and constructive feedback to teach a teacher how to use a new teaching strategy or program with fidelity. The dialogical coach balances advocacy with inquiry.

Like a facilitative coach, a dialogical coach embraces inquiry, asking questions that empower the collaborating teacher to identify goals, strategies, and adaptations that will have an unmistakable impact on students’ achievement and well-being. Dialogical coaches ask powerful questions, listen and think with teachers, and collaborate with them to set powerful goals that will have a powerful impact on students’ lives. They employ a coaching cycle, like my Impact Cycle, which is driven by back-and-forth conversation about the current reality and the teacher’s hoped-for reality in the classroom.

In contrast to facilitative coaches, dialogical coaches do not withhold their expertise. They work from the assumption that the issues teachers face in classrooms can often be better addressed if teachers look at what the research has identified as effective teaching strategies. Therefore, like directive coaches, dialogical coaches must have a deep understanding of teaching strategies they can share with teachers to help them improve. What separates them from directive coaches, however, is that they do not do the thinking for teachers; rather, they position teachers as decision makers.

Dialogical coaches do not give advice; they share possible strategies with teachers and let teachers decide if they want to try one of them or some other strategy to meet their goals. Dialogical coaches partner with teachers to identify goals and teaching strategies and then describe strategies precisely, while also asking teachers how they want to modify the strategies to better meet students’ needs. Then they help implement the strategies and gather data on whether or not they lead to students hitting their goals. Dialogical coaches don’t keep their ideas to themselves, but they realize that sometimes strategies have to be modified to meet students’ needs and to align with teachers’ strengths. They also understand that student-focused goals that matter to teachers are essential for effective coaching.

During dialogical coaching—in contrast to directive coaching—the standard for excellent implementation is not the coach’s opinion but the goal itself. That is, if a teacher implements a strategy in a way that is radically different from how it was designed to be used, the coach doesn’t take a top-down approach and tell the teacher how to teach the strategy with fidelity. Instead, she simply says, “Let’s see if we can hit the goal.” If the goal isn’t hit, then teacher and coach can go back to the description and consider whether or not the strategy should be taught with greater fidelity.

Facilitative and directive coaching both involve conversation, but they do not involve dialogue. A dialogue is a meeting of the minds, two or more people sharing ideas with each other. It is not a dialogue if I withhold my ideas, and it is not a dialogue when I tell you what to do. It is a dialogue when I share my ideas in a way that makes it easy for others to share their ideas.

A dialogue is thinking with someone.

That is the approach we take when implementing the Impact Cycle—the subject of my forthcoming book, where I offer step-by-step descriptions of how coaches can employ that cycle.


The above blogpost is an excerpt from Jim  Knight’s forthcoming The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching, which publishes mid-August, 2017.  The author of more than a half dozen professional books, Jim is a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and the president of the Instructional Coaching Group. He has presented and consulted in most states, and eight countries. Jim also leads coaching institutes in Lawrence, Kansas, and the annual Teaching | Learning | Coaching Conference.

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