Twenty years of research on coaching in education

TWENTY YEARS OF RESEARCH ON COACHING IN EDUCATION

Andrea Stringer and Margaret Barr

Margaret looks at the last 20 years of research on coaching in education and reflects on next steps in coaching research (thank you to Dr Trista Hollweck for the conversation).

Andrea considers the future of coaching research, offering a think-piece on the need for coaching to be contextually designed with a strategic approach.

Why research on coaching in education?

As education practitioners, we have been able to learn from a growing body of research and literature on coaching in education, applying it to our work, and building on previous learning.

What did we know about coaching in education 20 years ago?

Until the 2000s, much of the published educational research and literature focused on coaching for improved instructional teaching practices, with few published studies on coaching for leadership or student coaches, and even less about coaching for wellbeing. Most studies highlighted the potential of teacher coaching for improved student learning and achievement. In fact, as early as 1992, a study by Ross showed a clear link between coaching of teachers and the achievement of their students. Several studies, for example Showers and Joyce’s work on peer coaching during the 1980s and 1990s showed that teachers’ professional learning was improved when peer coaching was used alongside other staff development interventions, so that implementation of newly-learned practices increased. However, Hargreaves and Dawe (1990) cautioned against the “contrived collegiality” of a narrow administrator-led approach to peer coaching, compared with approaches that developed authentic teacher collaboration and reflection. This advice is still relevant today.

What do we know now?

The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in research on coaching in education, and in the range of approaches using the term “coaching”. Studies have examined facilitative coaching, instructional coaching, and interventions that are somewhere on a continuum from coaching to mentoring. These studies have been published in scholarly and practice journals, and many are available through the CollectivED Working Papers series at Leeds Beckett University, including think pieces, practice insights, research insights, and other reflections offered by education practitioners. A compilation of English-language research and literature can be found at https://bit.ly/ResourcesforCoachingInEducation, giving access to studies from across the world in early years, special education, primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors. Using the Global Framework in Education (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight & Campbell, 2019), and the four educational contexts where coaching can take place, some examples of these studies are given below.

Educational Leadership. Recent studies show that both wellbeing and professional practice have been enhanced by coaching. Three examples are given here, from Australia, the UK and Canada. First, van Nieuwerburgh et al.’s 2020 study of aspiring school principals in Australia where coaching was provided as part of a leadership development program, showed that coaching can enable professional development and can increase psychological safety. Second, a UK study of headteachers being coached (Lofthouse & Whiteside, 2020), demonstrated that coaching can provide an effective approach to support headteachers’ wellbeing and their capacity to manage the complexity of their roles. The third example is Hollweck’s 2019 study of experienced teachers in Canada who took on the role of mentor-coach in a teacher education program, where it was found that being the mentor-coach fostered their wellbeing. The findings of these three example studies are important when planning for teacher retention, and duty of care to educators.

Professional Practice. Education practitioners have benefited from scholars taking research findings and applying them to guidance on coaching to schools. For example, “Coaching for Teaching and Learning: A Practical Guide for Schools” by Lofthouse, Leat and Towler (2010) has stood the test of time. In addition, for over 20 years, extensive studies on instructional coaching have been published, mainly from the USA, with the most prolific researcher and writer being the highly respected Dr Jim Knight who coined the term “instructional coaching”. Dr Knight has generously made his research publications and articles available on The Instructional Coaching Group website www.instructionalcoaching.com/research and the ongoing research has informed a set of strategies, principles, processes and techniques for supporting teachers as they develop their instructional practice. Another resource to support coaching for professional practice is the series of practical blog posts by Elena Aguilar at https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/the-art-of-coaching-teachers. In a rare meta-analysis of research studies on instructional coaching, Kraft, Blazar and Hogan (2018) found small positive effects on student outcomes, and large positive effects on instructional practice. On a practical note, the authors also discussed the challenges of scaling up. Peer coaching has been identified as an effective means of providing peer support among educators, improving instructional capacity and supporting ongoing evaluation (van Nieuwerburgh and Barr, 2016). Another important recent study is Hollweck and Lofthouse’s (2021) multi-case study of coaching in England (coaching for metacognitive pedagogies) and Canada (new teachers being paired with experienced teachers), exploring what they termed contextual coaching in education, where coaching sits within and is influenced by context, but also has the potential to shape the context both in the present and the future. They found that the impact of coaching in education is enhanced by recognising the importance of context, and by iterative design and co-construction.

Student Experience. In addition to students being coached by an adult, the range of studies covers students coaching one another (near-peer coaching). An interesting and significant study of near-peer student coaching (van Nieuwerburgh & Tong, 2013) showed tangible benefits for the student coach, as well as for the student being coached. The coaching of students has been shown to impact academic achievement, for example Passmore and Brown’s 2009 longitudinal study of students being coached for enhanced examination performance. It has also been shown to impact wellbeing, for example a 2007 study of senior high school students by Green, Grant and Rynsaardt, where coaching was shown to build hardiness and hope.

Community Engagement. The use of coaching in community engagement, especially with parents, is emerging in the research literature, with success observed when parents are coached by teachers (Graham, 2013) and when parents are trained as coaches (Bamford et al., 2012). However, while there is clearly huge potential for using coaching to strengthen relationships in the broader educational community, at present there is relatively little published research in this area.

Next steps on the research journey?

As the range of published research studies and working papers expands, clarity begins to emerge about a way forward so that a wider range of practitioners, scholars and contexts can benefit from research studies. Here are some reflections:

  • What exactly happened? There is not (and perhaps never will be) an agreed single definition of coaching. Because coaching is generally a confidential conversation, and many of the authors have not been explicit about the coaching methodology used, we cannot assume consistency of coaching approach (even when the terminology is consistent). This can pose challenges when drawing conclusions from research. Studies should share the definition of coaching being applied, and give clear explanations of the actual coaching intervention and the context.
  • Wellbeing of the school community. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education in many ways, and there is an increasing realisation of the importance of wellbeing for educators, students and families. More studies of coaching for wellbeing will be welcome. An underpinning factor here is that coaching should fundamentally be about developing people and building capacity, not enforcing compliance (Hargreaves and Skelton, 2012).
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion for learning. At present most studies are published in the English language, set in a “westernised” context and culture, and based on western values. This rather colonial mindset narrows our opportunities for learning, and poses an ethical challenge to broaden the range of voices being heard. How can we share studies in a range of languages? How can we best appreciate a range of cultures and their relationships with coaching in education? How can we learn from the ancient wisdoms and “way of being” of indigenous cultures and their application to coaching in education? Much greater diversity of ethnicity and culture is needed in research on coaching in education so that we can all widen our understanding.
  • Is it working, and what do we mean by “working”? We can aim to design research studies that help us answer the question posed by Rachel Lofthouse (2022) “How can we judge the impact of coaching in schools?”.

In the next section of this paper, Andrea Stringer reflects on the need for coaching to be contextually designed, with appropriate training, and especially with thoughtfully-chosen measurements of effectiveness.

Strategic approach to contextually designed coaching

Contextually-designed

Coaching is frequently implemented as a professional learning strategy to develop and support teachers. In many parts of the world, how to attract and retain teachers has become a focus, with many schools, school systems, and countries experiencing teacher shortages. Many teachers argue that demands have increased, and the workload is untenable, particularly with COVID-19. Many are leaving the profession at a time when there is a decrease in casual and graduate teachers. Teachers are expected to continue to develop their knowledge and skills while meeting increased administrative and compliance demands. Developing a coaching programme to support teachers, needs to be strategically planned and personalised. According to Wiliam, "Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere" (2009). Therefore, to retain and develop teachers professionally, contextually designed coaching is essential.

Training required

When teachers become leaders, additional knowledge and skills are required and when teachers become coaches, the same is true. The acquisition of knowledge, skills or training are necessary to coach effectively. When people equate expert teachers to effective coaches, confusion arises. Coaching is not about transmitting knowledge from an expert teacher to address another’s deficiencies. Effective coaching comprises of a trusting relationship, with emotional intelligence being vital. The combination of emotional intelligence and training assists the expert teacher to become an efficacious coach.

Effectiveness is not always measurable

Although hard to measure, teachers require character traits to build relationships with their students. Similarly, the coach’s way of being significantly influences the coaching relationship. The coaching way of being (van Nieuwerburgh, 2014) consists of various character traits and the challenge is quantifying these traits like integrity, confidence, and empathy. According to Eisner, “Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measured matters” (Cuban, 2014). When implementing coaching, effectiveness is primarily determined with data. Depending on the objective, it may be difficult to quantify the effectiveness. Consequently, schools should strategically choose their data sources in accordance with their needs and circumstances.

Coaching programs must be contextual and strategically implemented to be most effective. The coaching ecosystem incorporates communications skills and emotional intelligence and often teaching expertise. A coach with teaching expertise may be perceived differently to an ‘expert’ teacher. Data used to measure effectiveness should reflect the purpose and evolve with the changing needs of the school community. Coaching is relational and contextual, so a strategic approach is necessary.

REFERENCES

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Bamford, A. Mackew, N. & Golawsksi, A. (2012). Coaching for parents: Empowering parents to create positive relationships with their children. In C. van Nieuwerburgh (Ed.), Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators, and parents. (pp. 133–152). Karnac.

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