May 12, 2022

Finally, an easy choice (Opinion)

Today’s guest post is written by frequent contributor to Finding Common Ground, Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught gifted college humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

A few years ago I read The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. I was fascinated by the effect of choice on the human psyche. My learning of this book changed my approach to simple tasks like grocery shopping and more complex ways like parenting and teaching. Schwartz writes:

When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of choices available increases, as it does in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this strain brings is powerful and positive. But as the number of choices continues to grow, the negatives of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices increases, the negatives increase until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but weakens.”

In other words, having a choice is vital, but too many options to choose from is destructive.

In the field of education, choice is a good frequently cited as one of the most valued by teachers. The 2014 Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development study conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundationfound:

“those [teachers] who choose all or most of their professional learning opportunities are more than twice as satisfied with professional development as those with fewer options.

Additionally, there has been quite a bit of writing, both formal and informal, about educators’ desire to stop “one size fits all / sit and get” professional development, as this method meets with resistance and is ineffective in producing change. Instead, self-directed professional development options are encouraged for teachers.

Choice in professional development allows educators to learn more about areas of interest and tap into perceived strengths. Both of these factors enhance teachers’ self-efficacy and, in turn, have a positive impact on student growth. Fortunately, in today’s educational landscape, there’s no shortage of choices (for professional development and otherwise). Let’s take a few numbers:

  • 353 – number of weekly education Twitter chats

  • 2174 – number of EdTech products available for educators (most with professional development/training options)

  • 4,050,0000 – number of Google search results for “Instructional Strategies”

  • Too many to count – number of EdCamps, Voxer Chats, Pinterest Boards, Books, Blogs, Podcasts, YouTube Tutorials, etc.

The sheer amount of choice offered to teachers could overwhelm even the most resolute educators. Schwartz suggests that being faced with too many options causes many people to choose nothing, which ultimately leads to disappointment:

When asked what they regret the most over the past six months, people tend to identify actions that fell short of expectations. But when asked what they regret most when looking at their life as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

Here we see a paradox. How do we respond to teachers’ desire for choice and minimize the daunting task of weighing all available options?

The answer to this question is another reason why educational coaching programs are essential to successful professional learning and student growth. (You can read more reasons for educational coaching programs here.)

Educational Coaching’s Top Thought Leader, Jim Knight Kansas Coaching Project said,

Effective coaching makes it easier for teachers to learn and implement new ideas. Indeed, without follow-up like coaching, most professional learning will have little effect..”

Knight’s research is supported by meta-analysis by John Hattie, author of Visible Learning For Teachers . Hattie found that when instructional coaching is conducted over time in conjunction with the team’s analysis of data on how students learn to inform instruction, student growth is affected with a size of effect of 0.51 (anything with an effect size greater than 0.4 is considered effective).

Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles. Choice is an essential part of coaching cycles and is one of the seven principles of educational coaching partnership described by Knight.

When teachers (individually or as a team) partner with a coach, the coach helps the teacher identify a goal. The teacher may have already come to the coach with an idea they want to explore. Or, sometimes the coach will engage in preliminary learning on behalf of the coachee(s) to determine options. Instructional coaches are not experts in all things content and instruction, but they have significant training in how to determine if resources are aligned with effective research-based strategies and can decipher the relevance of strategies. In any case, the coach and the teacher will discuss possible courses of action and the coachee will choose how and what he will do to achieve his goal.

The learning phase continues with the coach modeling and/or co-teaching the chosen strategy followed by the teacher putting the strategy into action. The learning part of the coaching cycle culminates when a quantifiable improvement against the stated goal is noted. Typically, growth is confirmed by comparing evidence gathered before the cycle, during the cycle, and at the end of the cycle. The sustainability of the goal can also be verified through ongoing checks and partnering on subsequent goals.

With the paradox of choice that teachers face on a daily basis, educational coaching as the main vehicle for professional development takes on its full meaning. Whether a teacher is familiar with the options available and willingly participates in self-directed professional development or, conversely, if a teacher is unsure where to begin, a learning coach will support the teacher’s needs and ensure that teachers achieve and maintain their goals.

In the words of my favorite trainer, Mike Ditka, “I think it’s a smart call.”

Questions about this position? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.