Developing people, developing schools

The coaching role in reflective practice

You can reflect on your own, and you can reflect with others. Sometimes you want to do it by yourself, that’s only natural. But for real learning and progress to occur, it is advantageous to reflect with others. Reflecting with others provides a number of benefits that you can’t get from reflecting in your own mind, by yourself. Vocalising your reflections make them more real. You start to listen to yourself and hear whether you are making sense to yourself or not. You’ll find it is easier to decide whether you really do believe what you think when you hear yourself say it out loud. Try it out. Let us consider observational feedback. Oftentimes, when entering into an observational feedback situation, the teacher receiving the feedback is expecting to be judged. If the teacher feels the lesson went well, s/he is hopeful that the feedback will be positive. The teacher is mindful of the bits of the lesson that didn’t go exactly to plan, but is hopeful the observer missed these bits! Additionally, because it is a rather enforced learning situation, the teacher is waiting for the observer to find something about the teaching that wasn’t good enough that can be improved. Preparing for such a feedback session is understandably stressful. We try to live with this stress and just come through the experience as best we can, as unscathed as we can.

Now imagine the feedback session is conducted as a coaching session. In a coaching session, the coach emphasises listening rather than speaking. The technique works when the teaching being observed takes the leading role. But again, even with this shift in roles, the teacher is still fearful that s/he is being judged, albeit not openly this time.

Blind observations

So imagine trying this different observational technique. I have always called it the ‘blind observation’ technique, but I am not sure how I came to use it in teaching terms. The concept of ‘blind’ observation comes originally from scientific research in which ‘a blind experiment is a scientific experiment where some of the people involved are prevented from knowing certain information that might lead to conscious or subconscious bias on their part’ (Wikipedia).

This is how it works in teaching observations. I am the ‘blind’ observer; you are the reflective teacher. We have agreed to do observation feedback together on your teaching. We meet at a convenient time after your lesson. The difference from a usual observation feedback session, however, is that I have not seen your lesson. I am simply going to help you reflect on your lesson for yourself.

First, I will ask you to talk me through the lesson. This will be a factual summary – what your aims were, what you did, in what order, how long you spent on different aspects of the lesson and what the students were asked to do, and if they did these things. I will ask enough questions for me to be able to visualise the lesson you are describing so I can see it as it happened. When you, the teacher, are ready, we can explore a number of “why” questions. The purpose of the “why” questions is for the teacher to reflect on the reasons for doing things the way they were done, NOT to question the rights and wrongs of the activities. It’s very useful for the teacher to think things through in this way. It is the self-analysis part of the reflective process. This part of the reflection will allow questions to arise around effectiveness, or other ways of trying to answer the why questions. Say for example you ask, “Why did you do that activity in the classroom? Did you think about doing it in the computer room? What difference might this have made?” Either way the answers will be illuminating; either you have justified the benefits of doing the activity in the classroom, and this can be noted as a learning point; or you can explore how things might have progressed differently in the computer room, with a view to trying it out in the near future.

The coaching partnership

The benefit of the blind observation technique is to foster good reflective thought, not to pass judgement on a lesson. Effective reflection can be focused on positives as well as possible learning points. The important thing is to try and build a supportive reflective relationship in which the fear of being judged, or of getting things wrong, or of looking stupid are taken away. Once you know that the person helping you to reflect is not judging you, you will become more open to exploring new ideas and ways of doing things. You can move on to more traditional observation scenarios if desirable or necessary afterwards. And the relationship can be reciprocal, with you working together as professional peers, not as judge and judged.

To be a competent reflector, and thus a competent learner, it helps when you have developed the skills required by both the reflector, and those of the facilitator of reflection, i.e. the coach. It is important to practice and perfect your listening and questioning skills to be a good reflective practitioner. Open-mindedness is a characteristic required by both the observer and the observed. The purpose is to construct a context of exploratory enquiry. The point is to get the reflecting teacher to formulate their own reflections in a constructive, coherent way. They need to be able to describe, evaluate and consider new ways of thinking about things or doing things without being told what these should be. Advice and suggestions from the ‘blind’ observer are permissible of course, but best offered when they are sought by the reflecting teacher; remember, that unwanted advice frequently falls on deaf ears.

The observation feedback situation exists so that the teacher is reflectively learning, and this can only occur when it starts from the teacher’s own perspective. It is worth noting, however, that the coaching partnership often results in both the observer and the observed learning together, though not necessarily learning the same thing.

Reflective practice works best in a supportive, safe and mutually respectful climate, in which learning and professional growth are taken for granted as desirable and valued outcomes but for which the process is not uncomfortable or daunting. The coaching partnership scenario facilitates this type of learning climate. Once you get into the swing of it, dialogue flourishes, your confidence grows and you begin to lose the fear of making mistakes or looking stupid in the eyes of others. You start to improve your learning mind-set.
When done well, reflective practice lies at the heart of effective CPD. As David Kolb (1983) explains within his theory of experiential learning, for learning to result in knowledge, information has to be reflected on and digested, used in action and integrated into the person's way of seeing the world. Helping teachers develop their reflective learning skills is what observation feedback should be about; it should not be about judgement, but open- mindedness to shared learning. We can all learn from each other. It’s the best way of learning and it’s more fun.


Andrew Pollard et al, Reflective Teaching, Continuum, 2008

David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of Learning and Development Financial Times/ Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1983

Katie Head & Pauline Taylor, Readings in Teacher Development, Heinemann, 1997