The Coaching Approach to Adult Learning

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Jennifer Lane, master teacher at Hubbard Middle School in Tyler, Texas, applies the adult learning theory to coaching and explains how it can be used to engage reluctant educators in continued professional learning.


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ow many times have you been in a professional development session where teachers are treated more like children, lectured to instead of engaged with, or simply offered the same boring activities? Approaches like these often result in teachers forgetting what they learned, dropping any new strategy shortly after attempting it, and potentially scorning the process in the future.

Researchers investigated this current state of PD in school districts across America in a well-known study called, The Mirage. They found that schools spend on average nearly $18,000 per teacher, per year, on teacher development. With this kind of investment, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that instructional coaching as professional development is effective and that coaches stay current on published professional learning research and theories. One of the most prevalent theories that begs to be incorporated into more coaching approaches is “Adult Learning Theory.”

Adult Learning Theory: Andragogy Vs. Pedagogy

Within Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory, Knowles coined the term “andragogy” to refer to adult learning and described five assumptions that fall under that umbrella. While there are similarities to the art of pedagogy, the differences are crucial for any coach of adult learners to know and apply to their practice. Knowles makes five assumptions as an individual matures:

  1. Self-Concept: their self-concept moves from dependence toward self-direction.
  2. Adult Learner Experience: a growing reservoir of experience accumulates and becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to Learn: their readiness to learn increasingly becomes oriented to the developmental tasks of his or her social roles.
  4. Orientation to Learning: their time perspective changes when applying knowledge, moving from "postponed" to "immediate," and their orientation toward learning shifts from subject-centered to problem-centered.
  5. Motivation to Learn: the motivation to learn becomes internal.

As you review the five assumptions above, consider the truth behind them. Identify and explore the similarities and differences between andragogy and pedagogy. Adults are self-directed and ready to learn but need to be viewed as knowledgeable, with important contributions to offer. Additionally, they need their learning to be centered around a problem they're currently facing so they can apply a "fix" easily and immediately.

Let's face it: current professional development, and perhaps some coaching approaches, don't allow the teacher to be self-directed in their learning—nor do they allow for the teacher to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the learning. Unfortunately, current PD isn’t always relevant or applicable to teacher needs because it’s structured pedagogically, wherein, it’s assumed students don’t have the maturation, innate motivation, and professional experience like adults do. This often results in teachers leaving the PD or coaching session feeling unfulfilled, and underappreciated. However, if we’re able to incorporate the perception of andragogy into our coaching and offer professional development opportunities that respect the adult learner, we’ll awaken the innate motivation to learn within the teachers we work with.

Here we see that professional development looks more like pedagogy but needs to look more like andragogy. If we're able to manifest this perception of andragogy in our coaching and professional development opportunities, we'll awaken the innate motivation to learn within the teachers we work with.

PD Implications for Instructional Coaches

We know school districts spend an exorbitant amount of money on teacher development, hoping to increase the effectiveness of tier one instruction and, therefore, student outcomes. However, research continues to confirm that there's no evidence of teacher growth despite those efforts.

American teachers live in a culture of "good enough" and often resist change and growth in practice, most likely due in large part to the negative reputation of professional development and the way teachers experience their professional learning process. The two loudest and most common lamentations on professional development tend to be that teachers may or may not find it relevant or too beginner, and that they aren't afforded the opportunity to experience scaffolded and ongoing support to put new strategies into practice effectively. In short, they're experiencing a pedagogical approach to professional learning.

As instructional coaches, we have the unique opportunity to address teacher concerns about professional development by applying the theory of andragogy when working directly with the teachers we serve. Often, we structure the professional development sessions in our district or campuses and are then able to follow up with teachers to provide the support necessary to truly impact instruction.

By understanding the differences between andragogy and pedagogy, and then using that knowledge to influence our interactions with teachers and the way we structure our practice, we are perhaps the one group of educational professionals that can begin to change the narrative surrounding the professional development process. Think of the potential impact if we're collectively able to move teachers toward a positive outlook on expanding their practice through professional development!

Recommendations for Instructional Coaches

The first step toward a more transformational impact on the educators you work with is to begin including an "andragogical" mindset to your coaching approach. Below are some suggestions for coaches who are wanting to shift their craft to a more andragogical focus:

  1. When structuring professional development opportunities, be sure to allow for teacher choice whenever possible to increase perceived relevance and applicability toward an immediate teacher problem.
  2. Take advantage of the collective expertise within the PD group. Remember, even first-year teachers are adults and have unique experiences that can contribute to everyone's learning.
  3. After delivering a professional development experience, make it a priority to follow-up and check-in with teachers who are implementing the learnings. Provide them with opportunities for support, scaffolding, and personalization of the strategy where needed. Often coaches are the only ones who have the time, relationship, and ability to do this.
  4. Look into Instructional Coaching and The Impact Cycle by Jim Knight. His coaching cycle comes with ready-made checklists and tangible resources to use as a "curriculum," and the cycle has been made with all of the aforementioned PD challenges in mind and with andragogy at its foundation.
  5. Use Knowles' theory of andragogy to guide your coaching approach. Provide a self-directed experience that incorporates your coachee's wealth of background knowledge. By allowing the teacher to guide their own goal creation, strategy selection, and level of support, the coach is able to truly be a facilitator and partner in the coaching process. With that level of ownership and commitment, the coachee's coaching journey has the potential to be transformational.
  6. Remember: while positive coaching experiences take time, they often generate much verbal praise for the process. This word of mouth will open new coaching opportunities and begin to change the stigma connected to using a coach to grow teacher practice.

About our Guest Blogger

Jennifer is a master teacher at Hubbard Middle School in Tyler, Texas, serving teachers through instructional coaching and partnership. She has 10 years of experience in education working with elementary- and high school-aged students at all levels in English Language Arts.

Jennifer has her Bachelor's degree from East Stroudsburg University and is currently working toward her Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, with a focus in instructional coaching, from the University of Texas at Tyler. She is expected to graduate in December 2019!

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Topics: Guest Blogger, Your Coaching Toolbox, Tips and Tricks, PD, Adult Learning

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