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Bug in ear coaching: The next big thing in teacher training?

Wouldn't it be cool if we were able to provide teachers-in-training with cyborg-like attachments? Attachments that allowed teacher trainers to offer trainees in-the-moment advice and ideas about how to improve their lessons in real time whilst they teach!

I must admit, there have been times when I thought this would be pretty snazzy. Heck, we could go the whole hog and even make it look like something out of Star Trek, like this:

But the real question is, would bug in ear support help at all? Would it drive real improvements, or would it just be an unnecessary distraction that adds to a beginning teachers' cognitive load? Further, would it be better than good old high quality instructional coaching?

As it turns out, this is a question that Julie Cohen and colleagues set out to answer in 2020 with a paper entitled, Teacher Coaching in a Simulated Environment ($). Cohen and her team were particularly keen to compare and contrast three methods of teacher professional development:

  • 1. Reflection

  • 2. Instructional Coaching

  • 3. Instructional Coaching + Bug in ear support (the coach sits in another room with a mic and provides advice to the trainee whilst they're teaching through an earpiece).

Before we dive into each of these conditions, it's worth noting the environment in which this training took place. Firstly, all participants were teachers in training, and there were about 100 of them. Secondly, the context of the training was a mixed-reality simulation (MRS), wherein each teacher was teaching to a group of five student avatars on a screen. Each avatar was controlled by an actor behind the scenes. Here's how it looked:

Image from the study*

The study took the following structure:

  • Time 1: All participants teach within the mixed-reality simulated (MRS) (then a 2-month break before Time 2). During this simulation, avatars are disruptive 6 times (as is the case in all following simulations). Disruptions include calling out, loudly humming, and other low-level disruptions.

  • Time 2: All participants teach in the mixed-reality simulation (MRS) again, Instructional coaching + bug in ear support group receive bug in ear support offering advice for the first three of the six disruptions. Other two groups (self-reflection and instructional coaching only) simply engaged in another simulation

  • 5-minute intervention: After Time 2 simulation, the self-reflection group conducted a reflection (details below), and both the coaching and coaching + bug in ear groups received coaching (details below)

  • Time 3 (immediately after the 5 minute intervention): All participants teach within the MRS again.

Here are some details about the different interventions.

Self-reflection group:

The 5-minute self-reflection activity was based on the work of Yost (2006), and included the following questions:

  • What are some things you think went well in terms of redirecting student behavior?

  • What are some things you think could have gone differently in terms of redirecting student behavior?

  • What are you going to work on in the next 5-min session to improve your redirections of student behavior?

As can be seen, participants were encouraged to spend some of the 5-minute break to rehearse what they would do differently after they finished these three reflection questions.CoachingBoth bug in ear + coaching and coaching only groups received coaching. In brief, the format was: Test coachee's understanding, praise, identify new goal (in a responsive way), practice and closure. This format follows very closely the approach used by Josh Goodrich. I've included the full description of the coaching protocol at the end of this post in case you're keen to read in more detail.**ResultsSo, what impact did these three approaches have?One of the key outcomes that Cohen and her team looked at was the specificity of the coachee's re-directions to students. A specific redirection, ‘Describe and direct' as Bill Rogers puts it, could be something like, ‘Harry, you're calling out. We use hands up in this class so that everyone gets a fair go.'Here's a record of the specificity of directions from each of the three groups:

To summarise this graphic, at baseline, all three groups did similarly well. Then, at Time 2, when the bug in ear group had the bug in ear support (and neither of the other two groups had had any intervention), the bug in ear group did significantly better than the self-reflection and the coaching only groups. Then, at Time 3 (after coaching and self-reflection), the coaching only group caught up to the bug in ear group, and the self-reflection group didn't significantly improve. (Other metrics such as overall teaching quality displayed a similar pattern within the study).So ,the big finding is that bug in ear did help, but it didn't help more than coaching alone. And given the significant technological and time investment to do it, it seems like instructional coaching alone, done well, is probably the sensible place to start and focus our efforts.

For more on quality instructional coaching, you might like to listen to my podcasts with Josh Goodrich. The first covers a model of quality instructional coaching, and in the second, Josh coaches me… for real!


*it's just a coincidence that this teacher looks similar to the person in the Star Trek-like ear piece image above!**More detail on the coaching protocol used by Cohen and colleagues. It's really high quality stuff!

  • First, the coach would gauge the candidate’s understanding and assessment of their own performance.

  • Second, the coach would identify and affirm effective elements of the candidates’ practice to continue in the next simulated session. In addition to labeling effective elements of a candidate’s practice, the coach would explicitly state the importance of these behaviors (e.g., “Being succinct preserves learning time for all the students”) so candidates could understand the positive contributions of their existing practice to the broader classroom environment (Ericsson & Pool, 2016).

  • Third, the coach would support candidates in developing a targeted skill for improvement (i.e., timely, specific, succinct, or calm). The coach would support the skill development by asking, “Last time when Student X did Y, you responded by [insert candidate response here]. How might you respond in a way that is more [insert targeted skill here].” If the candidate was unable to generate a response, the coach would provide a scaffold by modeling a redirection that exemplified the targeted skill, and then ask the teacher candidate to generate an additional exemplar. After that, in the fourth phase of the conversation, the coach would pose what we termed a “contrast question” such as “What would a non[insert target skill] response look like? Why might the example you just generated be better?” This question was designed to place cognitive ownership on the candidate and prompt them to clarify tenants of effective practice. Here, the idea was to reinforce that the candidate was developing specific practices that were in service of broader instructional purposes (establishing productive and supportive learning environments), rather the isolated, discrete practice opportunities common in microteaching research (Grossman, 2005; Zeichner, 2012).

  • In the final component of the coaching conversation, “Practice and Closure,” the coach would roleplay engaging in an off-task behavior (always a behavior that would not occur in the simulation) so that the candidate could practice redirecting them, with a focus on the target skill. This approximation of practice within the coaching conversation “quieted the noise” for candidates (Grossman, Compton, et al., 2009). That is, it allowed candidates to rehearse and receive feedback on their enactment of the target skill with a coach before having to enact this skill with multiple student avatars while trying to meet the simulation objective of facilitating a discussion about classroom norms.

***Also, see the full paper for additional and interesting findings on the impact of the three different conditions on the coachees' interpretations of students' behaviours. Spoiler alert, ‘Over time, without coaching, candidates’ perceptions of minor, off-task behavior became increasingly negative, and they were correspondingly more willing to embrace exclusionary discipline practices. That is, our data suggest that reflection is not just neutral; it can be associated with negative shifts in candidates’ assessments of student behavior and their perceptions of how to respond to such behavior.’ (pg. 19)

You are reading an instalment 140 of Teacher Ollie's Takeaways, an (aspirationally) weekly email in which I share some personal thoughts on teaching and learning, as well as great resources from others.

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Announcements and Opportunities

  • Dr. Mark Dowley and I will be running a Coaching in Action day on June 9th. On this day we'll cover in detail what it takes to deliver quality coaching, and you'll have a chance to see real classroom teaching, then to practise a coaching session with a teacher in a real schools setting. This day is a collaboration between the Crowther Centre and Steplab Australia.

  • For the past few years I've been an external expert on Monash University's Q Project. They are launching their newly refined QURE Assessment Tool next Tuesday in this free webinar event if you're keen to explore more on what the project has been doing about quality use of research in education.

This week in Ollie's Learning (Takeaways)

  • New Words:

    • Quaquaverasally: In every direction. E.g., ‘Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them' could simply be communicated as…'Cannon ‘quacuaversally'!

    • And I also learnt some musical definitions! (have heard these words lots over the years but never knew what they meant!)

      • Sonata: Solo instrument, sometimes accompanied by a piano

      • Concerto: Solo instrument (or instruments) playing against or with orchestra

      • Symphony: A whole orchestra playing together

  • Quote:

    • ‘What an instrument of torture I have acquired in you!' – Lord Byron upon the birth of his daughter Ada Lovelace (more on the ‘why' of this quote next email!)

You're reading an instalment of Ollie's weekly email. Subscribe or see all back issues.