Framing Action Steps in Coaching: Fidelity to the technique – and all that jazz. 

One of the interesting discussions that often comes up in the coaching arena is around the role of pre-defined techniques and the extent to which they help or hinder a teacher’s professional development.   I’ve enjoyed exploring this issue with Jim Knight, Josh Goodrich and others who approach the discussion from different angles. 

One approach is to suggest that a coaching process should start with each teacher’s context; their reality; their goals; their students and curriculum – and to build up actions around the specific problems they encounter as individual teachers.  Here, pre-determined sets of ideas might not seem to fit well; we can’t just impose a fixed solution, shoe-horning it into the situation.  The notion of seeking ‘fidelity to the technique’ can seem alien or inappropriate.  People are individuals; contexts are unique.  However, over time, we might find we’re often exploring similar issues with multiple people and our knowledge of possible solutions from other situations informs our coaching process for the current one.  

Another approach is to suggest that a significant proportion of a successful teacher’s craft is comprised of well-known, definable techniques that follow common paths with identifiable steps.  It’s not that techniques are imposed, it’s that teacher issues are actually very common and, rather than needing to reinvent ideas each time as if they are totally unique, we use defined techniques as the framework for understanding and communicating the problems and the solutions up front, perhaps pre-emptively.  Fidelity to the technique is helpful much like the value of rehearsing the music from a score to the point that you are fluent enough to play jazz with it – keeping the essence whilst allowing the freedom to adapt and respond.  

In reality, for the most part, I think this is ‘different ends of the elephant’ territory .. people have dispositions to describe the same things differently. One person’s free/open starting point gets given some structure; another person’s tight/defined starting point gets loosened up to fit the context.  The end result can be the same.  

My experience is such that I feel strongly positive about the idea of fidelity to a technique as a starting point.  This is largely because our Walkthrus work generally focuses on supporting professional development across a whole school or, at least, a whole team of people.  Here, there are a couple of common factors: 

  • The learning or classroom issues that are identified are very common across a team or a whole school. There’s a sense of coherence and efficiency in communication and use of time that comes from creating shared understanding of defined techniques, linking coaching sessions back to training sessions.  ‘Implementing the technique’ is not a terrible way to view the process that follows. It helps hugely to have a shared language and framework to inform all the discussions. 
  • The people doing the coaching are invariably new to it.  Subtle nuanced coaching is everyone’s goal but it doesn’t magic into being: it needs scaffolding. Having a structure for the coaching process is one very helpful element (separate post coming) but, also, having structures for a repertoire of techniques also helps hugely. The steps are not rigid rules ,they are guide rails – an agenda to follow; a set of prompts.  I’ve done a lot of coaching and I find having a pre-set technique to reference massively helpful.  It may seem like such an obvious plug, but it’s just true – when I do coaching, I always have my walkthrus books to hand and I genuinely feel that this makes me a better coach (other products are available – LOL.  Steplab and Great Teaching Toolkit are ace, for example!) 

To use a common example – say Think Pair Share – the steps here help to get an important technique into the school culture and the habits of teachers across each team.  We start by making sure everyone understands why the technique works and when it can help via a training input.  Then, in team or individual coaching situations, we can use the steps to support a discussion about using the technique effectively.   Here, fidelity to the technique can be important at first.  

Later, once Think Pair Share and some other techniques are well understood, the agenda for each teacher is very much more subtle – it’s about how and when to combine and switch between techniques.  However this is more coherent if those techniques are well understand by all parties.  It’s like teaching tennis strokes or dance steps – they are well understood in isolation but make more impact when combined.  What can appear like organic artistry by an expert is actually the deliberate combination of multiple specific techniques. 

Underpinning all of this however, is that the spirit is right and commonly understood.   We should be absolutely explicit that ‘fidelity to a technique’ is a means to an end; it’s part of the path towards the spontaneous artistry.  That’s why in Walkthrus we have the ADAPT process at the core. We start with the framework for a technique and then make it work for us by adding details relevant to our class and the material in hand.   

Our view is that doing it this way around gets teachers more quickly to the point of effectively solving a learning problem than starting with a clean slate each time, designing actions anew.   The tools and routines are already there – we just need to pick the right ones and combine them to suit the circumstances.   

Far from being a constraint, our view is that if we master the techniques, the jazz will come – that’s the spirit.

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