Coaching Letter #117

Despite the fact that I have a book manuscript due on June 1, and a module for the Center’s re-opening school workshop to design, and other district projects I’m working on, I have found myself having to fight the urge to work on an article for the Kappan’s April 2021 issue: “Research, meet practice.” This Coaching Letter is me trying to figure out what I have to say about that.

First of all, I have written on this topic before. When I did my dissertation research, the finding that stands out to me is how much experience matters to the way we think. Here’s an excerpt from an early draft of the book manuscript, drawn from my dissertation research experience, that isn’t going to make it into the final version:

Another particularly poignant example of the power of personal experience came from a K-8 principal who had had a particularly awful experience as a fifth grade student. Her teacher had—as a deliberate, planned part of her instruction—elicited comments from the class about what was wrong with each of their classmates. The principal described this as a humiliating, life-altering, and devastating experience—not surprisingly. As a result, she spoke passionately about how her first concern is for student safety, physical and emotional, and how that’s what she is primarily interested in when she visits classrooms.

While the instructional practices of this principal’s own fifth grade teacher were shocking, the most interesting thing to me was that the principal was late to the interview because she had just been meeting with a consultant hired by the district to work on developing a co-teaching model in all the schools. He had just gone through an extensive debrief with her about what he had found in his visits to classrooms in her school over the last day and a half. The district had a very deliberate strategy for improving outcomes for students through co-teaching, and her school was a pilot; but she never mentioned this during the hour and a half we spent together while I interviewed her about her construction of high quality instruction—I only learned about it on my way out as the principal apologized again for keeping me waiting. In other words, clearly what had happened to her 25 years previously was more compelling to her than her current district’s instructional model, even though she had just left a meeting about that model to come meet with me.

Then my colleague Richard and I wrote an article five years ago called “Doing to Learn and Learning to Do: Experience and Reflection in Professional Learning.” I can’t remember which journal rejected it, but I went back and re-read it—it’s pretty good. It doesn’t actually use the equation Experience + Reflection = Learning (I think Richard gets the credit for that coinage), but that’s what it’s about.

And I have written several coaching letters (#103, #102, #99 and #94, especially) and created a tool for the Center website, all trying to make the point over and over again that while we may be very adept in the language of research (terms of art like differentiation, engagement, personalized learning), what really matters to improving our capacity is that we design, implement and learn from experiments in doing things differently. Experience + Reflection = Learning.

And here we find ourselves in this pregnant moment, when we all—teachers, leaders, coaches, all of us—are in the midst of experience that we did not anticipate and did not volunteer for. What are we going to learn from this? Well, unless we create for ourselves, and for others, ways of reflecting on our experience, then it remains uniquely our experience—idiosyncratic and unknowable to others, and inaccessible as a source of insight or learning. This would be a shame. Now is absolutely the time to do our very best to make sure that the individual experience that we are all in the middle of, like it or not, is transformed into a resource and not just a memory.

Some other ideas for you to consider:

  1. We continue to propagate a professional learning model that appears to presume that what people are told over-rides what they experience. My research (i.e., my experience) tells me that this is not likely—I submit my story of the principal above as evidence. When are we going to change that model?
  2. How are you going to capitalize on the extraordinary experience we are in right now—further, how are you going to share with others, and encourage others to share, so that it becomes a common rather than a unique experience?
  3. If anyone complains to you that the people they work with are just not reflective, be ready with your riposte: everyone is reflective but no one is very good at it—if you want to be better, and you want others to be better, start with creating a shared understanding of what you would like to be good at and see if you can self-assess against that.
  4. Reflection requires time, but just because people have time doesn’t mean they will reflect. Reflection is hard work and therefore we tend to avoid it. We can always find more pressing concerns. Reflection is most likely to happen when it is embedded in a routine, and routines, like plants, need nurturing. How are you going to do that?

If you want to read more on work related to Experience + Reflection = Learning, I have a list of recommendations. On the heavy side are Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2015). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation, and Schon, D. A. (1984). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. A little lighter: Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (2006). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change and York-Barr, J., Sommers, W. A., Ghere, G. S., & Montie, J. (Eds.). (2005). Reflective practice to improve schools: An action guide for educators.

Now I need to figure out how to turn this into a 3,000 word article. Wish me luck. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
Center Staff
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