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How Not To Be The Expert: One Coach’s Experience With Cognitive Coaching(℠)

By: Cailin Minor, Literacy Coach at The Columbus School in Medellin, Colombia

When we think of coaches, many times the first word that comes to mind is “expert.” Coaches are thought of as the ones with all the answers and ideas and it is their job to give teachers that knowledge. If we have a question, they answer it. If we have a problem, they give us ideas on how to solve it. If we are stuck, they tell us which way to go. But what if coaching meant NOT being the expert? What if coaching was about mediating thinking in others instead of telling them what to do? What if we separated coaching from consulting, and called them two different skills with different purposes? Through my experiences and training with the approach of Cognitive Coaching(℠), I have tackled these questions and witnessed the power and positive outcomes of not being the expert.

The mission of Cognitive Coaching(℠) is, “to produce self-directed persons with the cognitive capacity for excellence both independently and as members of a community. Cognitive Coaching(℠) is a research-based model that capitalizes upon and enhances teachers’ cognitive processes.” (

Being a self-directed learner means you don’t rely on other people to help give you answers or knowledge but that you seek it yourself.

Cognitive Coaching(℠) also describes it as being self-managing, self-monitoring, and self-modifying. This concept is at the heart of the approach. The idea is if you spend most of your time as a coach consulting, then you are not allowing or teaching others how to access their internal resources to reflect, solve problems, and get ideas. The teacher is relying on the coach to do that thinking for them. Part of Cognitive CoachingSM is recognizing there are four support functions coaches utilize, and that consulting is different from coaching.

Cognitive Coaching(℠) utilizes three conversations to support teachers in becoming self-directed people.  They are planning, reflecting, and problem resolving conversations. Through these conversations, you mediate teachers’ thinking by asking questions, paraphrasing their responses, and asking more questions to help them reach their desired outcome. All of the thinking and cognitive work is done by the teacher, and the coach acts as a guide.

As people trained in Cognitive Coaching(℠) will tell you, the strategies work their way into all you do. Your conversations with people in the hallway are peppered with open-ended questions, and you find yourself paraphrasing the ideas of people you are eating lunch with. One way I use Cognitive Coaching(℠) is by sitting with a colleague one on one and having a coaching conversation. Having a full coaching conversation with someone is like offering free professional therapy. A coach is there to listen deeply to all you have to say, with the teacher as the focus. Being an attentive listener, free of distractions and an agenda, is a unique gift we can give as coaches.

The first and most challenging thing you need to do when having a coaching conversation is to set aside your ego and ideas. This is difficult because it is far easier to tell people what to do, than to truly coach them. It is much harder to ask people questions in a way that gets them to access their internal resources and organize their ideas in a meaningful way. Second, everyone likes their own ideas and our ego loves it when others like them too. However, when we prematurely, or sometimes lazily, consult with people we are robbing them of learning a way of thinking they can use later on their own (think of the proverbial teach a man to fish). I never cease to be amazed at where a coaching conversation goes, many times in a direction it never would have if I had taken control.

Another way I use cognitive coaching is to coach teams. I lead teams through planning conversations about an upcoming unit, project, or task, as well as reflecting conversations on student data, units, and strategies they have tried. The key for me when coaching a team is paraphrasing their discussion in a way that connects their thinking and then pushes it to the next level. Sometimes I help teams connect and clarify their thinking by organizing and combining their thoughts. Often times they are talking about the same big idea but haven’t said it in a clear and concise way. I try to take everything they are saying and put it in a neat box for them to grasp. I help take all of their ideas and organize them into categories or a sequence of steps, so the conversation can move forward and not go round in circles. As a coach, I use paraphrasing to lift the level of their thinking as well. Sometimes teams are describing a strategy and paraphrasing helps teachers become metacognitive of what they are doing. I also push thinking by adding a value to their ideas and getting to the heart of what is underneath the surface level talk. For example, I might say, “You believe…”, “You’re the kind of team who…”, or “What’s most important to you all is…” Coaching a team is all about knowing when to stay quiet and listen to the chorus of voices, and when to jump in and give a push in order to move the thinking forward.

Being able to have a full coaching conversation with someone is ideal, but not always a reality in our busy world. Part of being a skilled coach is knowing how to work bits of coaching into everything you do. Sometimes you only have two minutes in the hallway with a teacher and you try to fit as much coaching as you can into that short amount of time. During these moments, I try to paraphrase to get at the heart of what the teacher is thinking about or working on. Afterwards, I encourage the teacher to follow up with me when they have more time.

Cognitive Coaching(℠) is something I believe in wholeheartedly. I think there is a time and place for all of the support functions, including consulting. Nevertheless, for me, pure coaching is Cognitive Coaching(℠). First, there is no better message to send to a person than, “I believe that you have tools, resources, and the knowledge inside of you to plan, reflect, and solve problems.” When coaches go to consulting as our default mode, we are communicating that we don’t truly believe the person is capable of coming up with their own ideas or that their thoughts are not as valid as our own. Second, the level of buy in, ownership, and excitement that comes from a coaching conversation is far greater than when I consult. When I give other people my ideas or opinions, or tell them what to do to solve a problem, where is the ownership? If that idea flops, the teacher may not look at the failure thoughtfully, reflecting on where to go from here, and instead say, “The coach told me to do this and it didn’t work.” When teachers go through a coaching conversation and come up with the idea on their own, the success or failure of that work solely rests on their shoulders. I also see a level of excitement and buy in that doesn’t come from consulting. People are much more excited by their own ideas, revelations, and work than ones that are pushed on them by others. Finally, people come up with wonderful things when they are pushed cognitively to reflect and think in a different way. We all get stuck in patterns of thinking and tend to approach things in the same way over and over, which can create the same results (or lack thereof).  Cognitive Coaching(℠) breaks those patterns and forces people to think and reflect in a different way, thus creating new and many times better results. As one of my co-workers described it, “It’s like all these ideas are lying hidden in my brain, and this coaching conversation made them float to the top.”

Whether you are a coach or administrator, I encourage you to revisit your school’s definition of coaching. Are you truly coaching or is your default mode consulting? Let’s be brave enough to not be the expert content area or teaching specialist, but to be an expert coach, turning others around us into self-directed learners.

Cognitive Coaching(℠) is part of the Thinking Collaborative organization. Please visit their website for more information about the approach as well as opportunities for training.


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