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The Power of Feedback in the Form of Questions

 |   |  Student-Centered, School Culture, Student Achievement


Some leaders believe they can only lead with carrot and stick approaches. In other words, by using rewards or punishments. For example, if an employee is performing well, they might be given a raise, or vice versa if they are performing below expectations they might be given a pink slip. These are, of course, extremes, but traditional ideas about motivation include extrinsic rewards or punishments. In the bestselling book, "Drive," Daniel Pink set out a new vision for workplace motivation. Actually, this research goes back to the early 1970s and the work of psychologists Harry Harlow and Edward Deci. Their studies found that rewards tend to only be effective short-term, if at all. Instead, a motivation that is intrinsic, that is driven by internal rewards, is transformational. When you can help someone see for themselves where they need to improve, they own it. This is why being curious and asking questions when you are coaching teachers can be so much more effective than giving criticism or mandates.

Teacher clarity, that is, students knowing the purpose of their learning, is one of the most effective ways to help students learn. I believe this holds true as much or more so for adults. Most administrators and coaches use walkthroughs as a tool to collect observational samples of a teacher's work. I have found that when I conduct walkthroughs I equip myself with a checklist of things that I am looking for. These checklists may be from the district or state, or from my own instructional playbook created to use as a tool for coaching teachers. I always provide a copy of the checklist I am going to use before I conduct a walkthrough. This is an essential element of teacher clarity. By providing them with a learning target, teachers know what will be expected and are likely to be cognizant of this as they are teaching. I also like to provide them with a copy of my completed checklist. Since my checklists are asset-based this allows the teacher to see all the checks and feel proud of what they are already doing and perhaps provide clarification or at least recognize where checks are missing as an area for improvement. I include a note on the checklist in which I write down something positive to praise. Anyone in education is probably familiar with “Glow and Grow” notes. Here is where I change it up. Instead of giving them a "grow,” I like to ask a question or two that will provoke them to think about one area that they would like to improve. 

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The questions may be designed to attempt to prompt a more specific response. For example, knowing that the campus had a recent professional development on the importance of anchor charts, I might ask, “how could you have included a visual reference to help hold students' thoughts, ideas, processes, or important vocabulary in place for future lessons?” and I always include a request to let me know with a quick email or hallway visit soon. When they get back to me with their response, which hopefully will say something about using anchor charts, I affirm their great idea and let them know that would be an excellent instructional goal. I also ask how I or one of the academic specialists can support them with this goal. 

This technique works really well with teachers at all levels. In the case of a teacher who is already doing a great job, the question may be very open, such as, “what is one thing you might have done to make your lesson even better than it already was?” Good teachers will always see ways in which they can improve. It also recognizes the fact that the teacher is the key decision-maker in their own classroom. It helps shift the responsibility back to the teacher without taking away their autonomy, and it allows them to view you as someone who is there to support them.

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These hallway conversations are also a great way to broach the subject of using video as a growth tool. The use of video as a coaching tool in the schools I serve is optional, so teachers aren’t likely to just sign up for that. Instead, it needs to be suggested in a more nuanced way. I usually start by sharing how I have helped other teachers find success in identifying and meeting their goals by using video as a tool for self-reflection. I let them know that the video will be their own property and the main purpose is to allow them to watch themselves. Showing it to me is totally optional. The real power comes from the coaching conversation and questions I ask after they watch themselves. These questions, which I adopted from Jim Knight’s Impact Cycle coaching methods, help a teacher to focus in on identifying one most important goal for themselves. 

When you begin to use questions a couple of things seem to happen. The first thing is it shifts the power in the relationship. Jim Knight calls this the partnership approach to improving instruction. I find that often the teachers may have a better answer to the question than I do, and because it is their own solution they are more likely to take action on it. The second thing that happens is as a leader you become a better listener. Taking time to hear and understand the people you lead helps you to be able to serve them and support them better. 

Bruce Harris

About the Author
Bruce Harris

Bruce Harris is an Academic Technology Coach with the largest school district in South Texas. Northside Independent School District in San Antonio Texas serves over 106, 000 students. He has over 12 years of classroom teaching experience in Title 1 schools. He has been an instructional coach for over 8 years. Bruce holds teaching certificates in multiple content areas for grades k-12 as well as a principal certificate. He is a regular presenter at the TCEA convention, as well as various other conferences.

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