• EdThreads
  • Posts
  • Manage expectations to improve pre-observation conversations

Manage expectations to improve pre-observation conversations

Expectations matter. In fact, the brain's reward system (dopamine) is based not how good something is, but rather, how much it deviates from the expected, what scientists call ‘reward prediction error'. Here's how Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman puts it:

We constantly make predictions about what’s coming next, from what time we can leave work, to how much money we expect to find when we check our balance at the ATM. When what happens is better than what we expect, it is literally an error in our forecast of the future: Maybe we get to leave work early, or we find a hundred dollars more in checking than we expected. That happy error is what launches dopa- mine into action. It’s not the extra time or the extra money themselves. It’s the thrill of the unexpected good news'

Daniel Lieberman, in The Molecule of More

This is why, in coaching, pre-observation conversations are crucial. It's isn't so much how positive, negative, direct or facilitative the messaging is that influences how a coachee takes their feedback. More importantly, it's how well that feedback matches what they're expecting to receive, and how they expect the feedback to be delivered.

The pre-observation conversation is where the coach has an opportunity to set those expectations.

Here are some strategies you can use to make the most of a pre-observation conversation (and hats off to Adam Boxer on the Mr. Barton Maths Podcast for bringing the first two of these to my attention!)

The feedback will feel challenging

Potential script: ‘The purpose of my visit today is to work with you to identify something to work on to improve your teaching. For the vast majority of humans, being told that there's something that we can get better at is challenging. So all chances are you will feel challenged in our follow-up conversation, that's my job, and if you do feel challenged it means we're making progress!'

Why this works: It sets the expectation that challenge will occur, and it reframes that challenge as meaning that progress is being made, rather than something that's solely negative.

It wasn't until I received challenging feedback myself that I really improved

Potential script: ‘This is something I've felt myself. I endured several years of ‘nice conversation' coaching where I'd be visited, patted on the back, and sent on my merry way. The problem was, it didn't really help me improve. It wasn't actually until (insert story here*) that I started to get better. And it did feel challenging, and it did almost hurt to have parts of my practice that were highlighted as areas for improvement. But over time the overwhelming feeling that I was becoming a better teacher and helping my students more began to totally swamp any worries I had about feeling challenged.‘*This doesn't have to be a big story, it can literally be something like, ‘Last term when we, as the leadership team started to coach each other and really focus on getting better and…' the main point is that here you'reWhy this works: Here you're empathising with the coachee and framing the challenge as a crucible through which you yourself had to pass. You're also planting in their mind the expectation that they'll start to feel more positive after progress is made, and this means that at the outset, if their dominant feeling is that of being challenged, they'll be more comfortable to sit with it.

This is what rehearsal will look like

One of the crucial active ingredients to effective coaching is rehearsal. Rehearsal helps teachers to break unproductive old habits, and to form more productive new ones! But rehearsal is often foreign to coachees.

The best way I've found to introduce a coachee to the idea of rehearsal is to show them a video of it in action. I personally have a video of myself coaching our school's director of staff development and instruction, Dr. Mark Dowley (very senior in our school). In the video we balance fun and focus and I make him practice his script and actions for an entry routine several times, providing feedback after each round of rehearsal.

I follow this with a question like, ‘Are you up for rehearsing with the focus that Mark did in our feedback conversation?'

Why this works: Showing a video of rehearsal makes it crystal clear to a coachee what that rehearsal will look like. That it'll be hard work, that I'll be explicit with my feedback and guidance, but also that we can have a bit of fun with it. Having it be a video of me coaching someone senior in the school shows that rehearsal is something that everyone does, and also suggests that I'm an expert enough coach (or the process and tools that we use are good enough), that even our most advanced teachers can benefit from it. Following with an invitation to commit to such rehearsal can really boost buy-in.

If you're a coach, I hope you enjoy trying these strategies out in your next pre-observation conversation (especially with a new coachee). If you're not a coach, challenge yourself to think how you can use the active ingredients of the strategies above (frame challenge as productive, empathise with the struggle by sharing a personal story, provide a clear model of high commitment and elicit buy-in) in your classroom in the days or weeks to come.

You are reading an instalment 141 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.

Subscribe here, view all back issues here.

Announcements and Opportunities

  • I'm supremely excited to announce a set of six masterclass sessions that I'm doing in partnership with Peps Mccrea, Daisy Christodoulou, and facilitated by Lyn Stone. I'll be talking about explicit instruction and using evidence from my Tools for Teachers book, Daisy will be speaking on the science of writing, and Peps will be talking about the science of motivation. These masterclasses will happen on six consecutive weeks from late August to early September.

  • 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.

This week in Ollie's Learning (Takeaways)

  • Doug Lemov shares a valuable resource for scaffolding class discussionshere (Twitter link)

  • In this post by Sarah Cottingham, Sarah outlines what it takes to form meaning and generate meaningful processing (Twitter link)

  • 10 Maxims for reading instruction. This is a resource not to be missed for anyone who is on the reading sciences journey! (Twitter link)

  • If you're interested in ‘a neurodiverse-positive social capacity-building program for young people delivered through online gaming experiences.', check out Next Level Collab (Twitter link)

  • Fantastic Podcast in which Brendan Lee interviews Manisha Gazula, principal of Marsden Road Public School, on what it takes to set up a highly effective school around explicit instruction (Twitter link)

  • And here's Michale Pershan on the importance of including school grades when considering university entrance, especially for disadvantage students (Twitter link)

  • And do check out that podcast in which Adam Boxer talks to Craig Barton about Instructional Coaching, it's pretty dang good! (Twitter link)


‘learning involves actively constructing meaning from to-be-learned information by mentally reorganizing it and integrating it with one’s existing knowledge' – Fiorella and Mayer (2016)

I love this quote, really drives to the heart of meaningful learning (and see Sarah Cottingham's blog post above)

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