On Educational Coaching, Mentoring & High-Impact Learning

Coaching is a difference-maker in education.  Think of the mindset evident in high-performing athletic teams, chess teams, even actors and other entertainers. Content providers are valuable, but that is not what makes learning organizations distinct, especially not those that seek to reach and provide a high-quality education to a full spectrum of learners. The same thing is true as we continue to implement things like competency-based education models. Many celebrate the way CBE can reduce the cost of college degrees, increasing access and opportunity, and addressing critical workforce needs. However, if cost reduction happens at the expense of great coaching and mentoring, I am concerned that we will make little progress in the democratization of education. The “haves and have nots” of education depend largely upon the prerequisite skills needed to take advantage of newer and emerging learning environments ranging from CBE to MOOCs, self-directed learning to self-organized learning environments.

There are certain traits and habits that allow people to find more success in learning environments. This comes back to the non-congnitive skills about which I’ve been writing more recently. There are many ways people develop these skills, but we continue to see research showing that there is promise in formally and intentionally nurturing them. As students develop certain cognitive and non-cognitive skills, they are far more capable of finding success in CBE contexts, MOOCs, project-based learning, not to mention designing their own learning through a blend of formal and informal learning experiences and resources.

Without these non-cognitive skills, much formal learning is an exercise in frustration and disappointment. Similarly, people who don’t have certain skills are less likely to recognize and take advantage of the learning revolution created by an increasingly connected world. I’m referring to a blend of cognitive and non-cognitive traits like time-management, self-discipline, the ability to critique and analyze, the social intelligence useful in navigating the policies and practices of formal schooling, emotional intelligence, study skills, setting and pursuing goals, grit the ability to accept and learn from feedback, curiosity and a love for learning and personal development, and so many other valuable skills. When we nurture these traits, we set people up for a lifetime of learning success. Take any learning environment and add coaches/mentors who are committed to helping students further develop these traits and watch what happens. I’ve seen it countless times.

The challenge is that quality mentoring and individualized coaching takes time, resources and competent coaches. This is a new skill set and mindset for those who might have previously seen themselves as “instructors.” This is not just academic advising. This is coaching people into becoming better learners, guiding them in ways that help them develop these important skills of the self-directed learner. Then, if these mentors also have expertise in the discipline or specific area of study, the application of the skills in important discipline or context-specific ways.

As such, if we want our learning organizations to flourish, we can benefit from investing in mentors and coaches.

  1. Great coaches don’t just study their disciplines. They study the learners, getting to know them well, noticing small setbacks, telltale signs, motivators and de-motivators, joys, challenges, and more. Said another way, they are students of the students who then use what they learn to help individuals grow and develop.
  2. They know the skills that are critical and important, and they focus on helping people develop those skills.
  3. They realize that you can’t shortcut important learning by force-feeding answers and solutions. They design spaces where the learners do the hard work of learning, watching on the sidelines, encouraging and guiding when/if needed.
  4. They understand that the quickest or more efficient route to learning something is not aways the best. There are important skills developed on the long routes that would be altogether lost by always taking the shortcut, and that there is something to be said for just spending an extended period immersed in a challenge, problem, question, or inquiry.
  5. They realize that it isn’t simple modeling. A coach isn’t someone who shows how to throw a spiral by having people watch him do it over and over. A coach hands the ball to the player (learner) and has that player learn by doing it.
  6. They know how to balance words of encouragement and support with sometimes strong critiques and an unwillingness to settle for mediocrity.
  7. They know the power of ongoing, frequent, specific feedback focused on the learner’s progress. They are less interested in grading and rating than they are in giving the type of feedback a learner needs to take that next step toward the goal.
  8. They are not just gatekeepers of excellence, but they persistently grapple with how to help as many people as possible to make it through that next gate.
  9. From the example of sport, great coaches are not just about running set plays, they want to equip people who can play the game, even if the coach disappears. They want to equip people to live, breathe, and think the game. Similarly, great educational coaches help learners do more than jump through academic hoops. They challenge learners to live, breathe, and think deeply about what they are learning. It becomes a part of them.
  10. Great coaches know the power of developing habits and disciplines that serve one for a lifetime, and transcend just a single academic subject. As such, they are intentional about teaching and nurturing these habits in the learners.
  11. They recognize that just going through the motions is not enough. They are committed to tackling the challenges of motivation, and they are trying to find ways to help people become more self-motivated, self-regulated, empowered agents of their own growth and development.

Yes, there are wonderful teachers who do these things, but as we continue to look at new and promising models of education, I remain even more interested in the power and importance of great mentors and learning coaches. As some traditional tasks of teachers become increasingly unbundled and offered apart from a traditional teacher/classroom, this concept of mentoring and coaching remains a differentiator and difference-maker, especially when it comes to helping people become more self-directed, competent, and confident digital age learners.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.