5 Conversations for Professional Growth

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

‘Professional conversations’, ‘learning conversations’, ‘professional learning conversations’, ‘coaching conversations’, ‘feedback conversations’ – these terms are in frequent usage, but are we sure what they mean and what the differences are, if any? Writers use the terms in a variety of ways, sometimes contradictory ways, and their meanings can become a bit fuzzy. How can we work with this?

It’s helpful when we use these terms in discussions with others, if we have some awareness of the potential for confusion and make sure we look for some shared meaning and consistency. Getting clear on terminology is important, particularly when talking about coaching conversations. Imagine the clarity this could bring when:

  • signing up for a professional development program

  • reading the research literature

  • knowing what sorts of initiatives in say, feedback conversations, might complement and build on previous coaching

  • comparing the added value of one mode of PD against another

Here’s the way we see some of these frequently used terms having small but important differences and how they are different to ‘coaching conversations'. You might like to see how our take on this matches up with your own concepts.

"Professional conversations" – as defined by Helen Timperley in her recent literature review covers most of the workplace conversations about teaching and learning:

"formal and informal dialogue that occurs between education professionals including teachers, mentors, coaches and school leaders and is focused on educational matters."

"Learning conversations" tend to be those where new knowledge or understandings are generated which are then translated into teaching practice. This term has more usage in the UK. For instance, the General Teaching Council defined it as

"a planned and systematic approach to professional dialogue that supports teachers to reflect on their practice. As a result the teacher gains new knowledge and uses it to improve his or her teaching".

Professor Louise Stoll has written extensively about learning conversations as a form of professional learning and her definition is similar:

"…how educators make meaning together and jointly come up with new insights and knowledge. These conversations lead to intentional change to enhance practice and pupil learning"

For engagement in these conversations, inquiry mindedness is important, and respectful challenge of the thinking underpinning the conversation is a critical feature.

"Professional learning conversations" is a term coined by Lorna Earl and Helen Timperley in their book "Professional learning conversations: Challenges in using evidence for improvement", to describe a particular form of evidence-informed conversation:

"it includes more than conversations with some attention to evidence. Instead, it is an iterative process of asking questions, examining evidence and thinking about what the evidence means in the particular context".

They advocated three qualities required for these kinds of conversations: having an inquiry habit of mind, using relevant data, and relationships of respect and challenge. The concept of dialogue is integral - mutual understanding of each contributor’s claim and the values, together with the reasoning and data, on which they are based.

This leads us onto "feedback conversations". Feedback is a process we use to affirm or modify our thinking or behaviour. Feedback can be internal or external – when it is external, delivered to others, it is usually in the form of a conversation. Giving effective feedback is one of the skills of coaching, and one of the most challenging to master.

A few links to read out more about feedback:

So finally on to "coaching conversations" – how can these be distinguished from other forms of conversations? While all of the above conversations could contain elements of coaching, there are some particular aspects which we believe separate coaching conversations. At GCI, our working definition is this:

"a one-to-one conversation focused on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening, and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate" (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012, p.17).

Here there are several defining features. First, there is the intent and purpose of learning being the outcome. There is also attention to the way this learning occurs – through some reflection (self-awareness) and through taking responsibility. The emphasis on the learning being self-directed is important – the coach is a facilitator of this, not telling or informing. There is also an emphasis on the nature of the conversation – particularly the kind of questioning and the kind of listening – which you would hear as different if you were to witness coaching. Finally, there needs to be a particular relationship, a trusting relationship, which fosters this learning and allows appropriate challenge to be part of the learning mechanism. You can read more about the difference between "coaching" and "a coaching approach" here.

So we can see that all these related terms have some overlaps, as well as subtle, but significant differences. They are not mutually exclusive, and their meanings will change over time as language always does. Our interpretation of them may differ from yours. The important thing, we believe, is to have some agreement and consistency with those you converse with, in your own school context, when using these terms.

How important is this terminology to you in your communications with other educators? How can you develop more consistency in usage of these "conversations" terms?

Here are some suggestions for working towards that agreement and consistency:

  • When you read these terms in articles and books, ask yourself “what does the writer mean? Is there a definition?”

  • Next time you hear someone use these terms, explore what they take them to mean. Ask, “when you say ‘x’ what do you mean by that?”

  • In meetings at work, explicitly define what you mean when you use these terms, so others are clear and everyone understands what that term means in your school context. From then on, try to encourage consistency.

An extended version of this paper is now available as a Centre for Strategic Education Occasional Paper (Professional conversations through a coaching lens by Kristine Needham).


  • LEarl, L.M. & Timperley, H. (Eds.) (2008) Professional learning conversations: Challenges in using evidence for improvement. Netherlands: Springer.
  • Stoll, L. (2014). Stimulating professional learning and learning conversations. Paper for International Association for Scholastic Excellence Educational Leadership Summit, Singapore, 17 April 2013.
  • Timperley, H. (2015). Professional conversations and improvement-focused feedback: A review of the research literature and the impact on practice and student outcomes. Prepared for the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, Melbourne.
  • GTC. (2004). The learning conversation: Talking together for professional development. Birmingham: General Teaching Council for England.
  • Van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2012). Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents. London: Karnac