IATEFL Brighton 2024

Empowering language teaching through the art of asking coaching questions.

In the recent years we all have witnessed how ever-evolving field of education has shifted from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered approach, hence offering teachers to go beyond traditional methodologies and encouraging them to try new roles and new tools that provide both holistic and personalized learning experience. And this is when concept of coaching comes to mind. Coaching is a precise and impactful tool, which when skillfully integrated into a lesson, can bring remarkable and long-lasting results.
    To understand what coaching questions are we firstly address the general categorization of questions where we have open-ended and closed-ended questions.
    When asked an open-ended question, the learner being asked has the opportunity to express what’s on his or her mind, to explain what he or she considers important. These questions allow a wide range of responses and provide the opportunity for sharing thoughts, opinions, or ideas freely (Barkley). They are useful at the any stage of the lesson when speaking is key – be it a warming up activity, a freer practice stage or during open discussion in the classroom. Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, limit the length of a learner’s response to a few words. They elicit yes/no or short responses. They are helpful when a precise piece of information is required. We ask them during the guided discovery stage of a lesson or as concept checking questions. Asking Closed-Ended Questions is efficient. But what we consider to be coaching questions are in fact, open-ended question. They expand thinking and awareness, they provoke, stimulate and get learners to find their own solutions or come up with new ideas.
Most of the open-ended questions or coaching questions, as we agreed, begin with “what” or “how.” They may also begin with “why,” although a word of caution is necessary here. Questions that start with “why” can work against you because they might trigger a defensive response rather than elicit information. Even if the question is delivered with neutral or positive intonation, “why” questions may be linked in people’s brains with the assumption that they have done something wrong, that they are in trouble, especially if asked by someone they consider an authority figure (Barkley). And we know that little learning happens when the defensive mode has been activated. So it is better if we change the word “why” to “what is the reason”.
In fact, any questions can serve a coaching purpose provided that one condition is met – and that is when a teacher acts more like a coach. What exactly does that mean? That means that your style of communication is modified. You sound less instructive, non-judgmental, you practice active listening and stimulate your learners to find their own solutions. If you already do it – you use coaching style of communication.

                            Choosing your communication style
TEACHING STYLE: directive, gives instructions / assess / teacher is guided by a structured curriculum or syllabus / transfer knowledge
COACHING STYLE: Non-directive, no advice / neutral (being non-judgmental) / tailored learning / active listening + interactive style (communications shifts towards the learner).
We both use: Use guided discovery and our professional goal is to get the best from our learners / coachees

Comparing these styles does not mean that one is superior to another (better than the other). What I want to say is that different communication styles are suited to different tasks and contexts.

For the coaching questions we ask at the needs analysis stage, or goal-setting stage as a coach would say, we can directly address widely known SMART™ or GROW models. We have numerous coaching models but at the end they all boil down to fact finding, exploring, moving forward. So, think of any coaching model as passways through the conversation.
What is your language goal?
How will you know that the goal is accomplished?
Is the goal achievable?
How relevant is this goal? Is the goal in line with your other objectives?
When will you achieve the goal?
Or, you can create our own list of questions about vision, reality, motivation, obstacles, learning style, measurement of success just the way I did and all these questions can be found in the deck “Small Big Talk”.

Coaching Questions for Teachers

What about us, teachers and the coaching questions we can ask ourselves? We will look as the activity that is based on a commonly used technique in coaching, namely the Wheel of Life. It is very effective as it gives a visual representation and allows us to see right away which areas of life might need improvement. The wheel is usually made up of 8 categories or areas that are important for a particular area we are analyzing be it a professional development, finance, balanced life – we can choose any topic. 
For a teaching Wheel of Life, we may reflect on categories such as:
lesson planning
rapport with learners 
teaching style
classroom management
time management
teacher development 
motivating my learners
teaching skills 
student assessment 
The scale on the Wheel is from 1 to 10. Where 1 means you are least happy with the area, and number 10 means you are fully satisfied and you don’t feel the need to improve anything. So, what do you do? You rate your satisfaction with each category on the wheel by drawing a line across each segment, according to how satisfied you are in each life area. By doing this you will clearly see which areas of your teaching need attention. (You can either colour the wheel in each field up to the chosen number or use “spider web” style. Here the scores are noted on the spokes for each category, rather than across the segment. And this creates a spider web effect. The categories call be filled up with your own ideas, but they have to be as concrete as possible. Once you rate your level, you will see what stops the wheel from rotating effortlessly, meaning which areas needs improvement. 

Finally, consistent use of coaching questions in a language classroom can lead to the development of a new habit among learners: asking questions themselves in various aspects of life. And that in the typology of Carol Dweck leads to the mindset of growth. 

P.S. Many of us think that we are performing better than we are when trying to establish a new habit, and we often want to take shortcuts. Precise tracking helps us overcome this, as it provide us with straightforward evidence of how we are really doing. A Language Habit Tracker is a tool that help us see the amount of work we have done  just by ticking the box. It keeps us real and honest when developing a new language skill.

Barkley, Stephen G. with T. Bianko. (2010). Quality teaching in a culture of coaching. Rowman & Littlefield Education.

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