What We Forget About Learning

What We Ignore About Learning

I’m not sure why this is but it seems as if administrators and teachers forget all they know about learning when it comes to designing and participating in their own learning experiences. Professional development opportunities are generally set up as one time events, very often with no real-time relevance. In-service schedules are set up to facilitate these kinds of experiences. And teachers complain just like their students complain about the lack of relevance and meaning these experiences give them. There is little meta-cognition about their students’ complaints and how they relate to teacher complaints. It may have something to do with the fact that when people are in the throws of dynamic learning environments, they simply do not have the energy to be meta-cognitive and reflective. I never know how to reconcile this disconnect but I think much of what I am writing about hinges on some very well known, well researched ideas about learning that we need to internalize in everything we do as coaches. We need to constantly check ourselves against these well known ideas, especially when we get in the middle of complex and dynamic learning situations.

Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)was developed by Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist. It is well known and probably not new to most educators reading this right now. It is the sweet spot between what a learner knows and can do independently and where the learner wants to be. The sweet spot is where the learner can take the next step closer to where they are ultimately going. If something too hard is offered, a learner will not make progress. If something too easy is offered, a learner will not make progress but if just the right amount of challenge is offered, the progress will move efficiently. Goldilocks and the three bears so to speak. Aagin, this is not a new concept; however, we frequently lose sight of this idea when working with teachers as learners. We throw brand new ideas at them with little thought about whether or not they are ready, willing or able to take on new learning. Little work is done in many cases to identify where individuals are at in their learning trajectory when given a new initiative to take on. These decisions are frequently made outside of the buildings where teachers are implementing instruction and by people who do not talk to or interact with those learners. Coaching situations allow for this idea to be used in almost every learning situation with a teacher and so that is a main reason that instructional coaching has become a highly used model for professional learning in schools. In the traditional model of professional learning, most experiences do not meet teachers where they currently are with a concept, identify the most natural next step, set goals, identify strategies, and evaluate the results in a timely fashion. We don’t do that when we provide everyone with the same instruction and send them on their way. Coaching does offer an opportunity to find the ZPD and offer this, more tailored approach. As we coach teachers to be innovative, we need to remember that this idea of ZPD still exists. Teachers must still work from where they are and a logical next step, not the final step. If a teacher tries to revamp something completely and start from scratch, there will likely not only be failure but big failure that will impact motivation in future learning.


Relationships are another aspect of learning that we know about but don’t always apply when working with learners. Rita Pierson got a lot of attention for her Ted talk “Every Kid Needs A Champion” where she stated, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”. I mean there are people who argue that this isn’t true but at the very least, they don’t learn as much from people they don’t like. Teachers are learners. If we think about our own experience as learners, we can probably identify that we have learned more from people we like, respect, and have a good relationship with than we have learned from people we don’t like. Also, what we learn from people we don’t like many times may be what we don’t want to do perhaps. In any case, relationships are at the center of learning. If we have a good relationship with a learner, learning is more fun. Teaching is more fun when we have a good relationship with learners. Remember, teachers are learners. If you are coaching a teacher, the process will be a whole lot better if there is a trusting relationship. As I have thought about this in my own learning, I have identified that if someone I don’t trust and don’t respect offers up a solution to a problem I having, I am likely to politely thank them for their idea but not very likely to try it out. On the other hand, if someone I trust and respect offers up the same idea, it has different credence even if I am skeptical. It’s kind of annoying because it does take so much work to develop trust. And it is very fragile too; easily broken. It seems like it isn’t efficient to have to work so hard on a relationship before learning can happen but I don’t think it’s that simple.

Learning can move forward with or without a relationship. If a child was left to their own devices, they would still learn. So in the early stages of a coaching relationship, I think what I am saying is that we need to be cognizant that this isn’t a time to make big asks of our colleagues. The early stages of a coaching relationship can be about getting to know where this teacher is in their practice. What are they looking to improve? What is going well? What are their strengths? What are they working on? What do they value? Don’t be afraid to build this relationship because, in the long run, learning will be more efficient; exponentially more efficient.

Imagine someone comes into your classroom to observe. Even in a school culture where this is a widely accepted practice, it is a highly personal to share your hard work in that way. As a master teacher and coach, it may seem like it is your job to go into classrooms and help teachers get better at something. The perspective with which you enter this personal space is an important first step in developing a relationship that can foster growth mindsets and ultimately, innovation.

So, what should you be thinking about when you walk into someone’s classroom in preparation for a coaching relationship? This is an opportunity for you to get to know the teacher. What are their strengths? What strategies do they use? What routines are in their classroom? How do they relate to kids? What is their style of teaching? What are their areas of comfort? What techniques and strategies aren’t present? Why? Entering classrooms with a mindset of curiosity rather than problem-solver will be more productive in the long run.

When deciding what to work on, it is imperative (and extremely difficult) to find out what the teacher wants to improve about their teaching practice. What you want them to improve makes no difference. You will likely have no success if you appear to be pushing ideas on someone. It is not any better if you are sweet about it. Just like when you are working with students, it is ideal if you meet someone where they are in both interest and level in order to move them from that point. You would want that.

Coaching is not about getting someone to do what you want. Despite the fact that none of us would want to describe what we do in that way, if we are honest with ourselves, that is only a natural tendency. We go in to classrooms with ideas, perceptions, and agendas. It only makes sense that we would move in that direction. Being aware of this natural tendency can help coaches develop meaningful and respectful, collaborative relationships with the teachers they work with.

In Dan Pink’s work on motivation, he argues that lasting motivation comes from an internal drive and only low-level tasks are motivated by external rewards. All school change and classroom innovations are complex. They require a lot of critical thinking, complicated dynamics, and interactions. While school districts and building principals may have their agendas, the only way to create lasting change around these, potentially beneficial, endeavors is for the teachers who are implementing the necessary steps to be internally invested in them. Otherwise, there will be only compliance moves and learners will revert right back to their comfort zones when no one is looking. Any complex change needs an internal drive to survive.

Some people may be looking at this and thinking that this means that people have to work on only the pursuits that are of interest to them. I mean, it is important for people to be working on things that interest them but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another avenue where teachers may be applying a common idea of their district in a way that is personally relevant. What I am saying is that if someone is not personally invested in an initiative, strategy, or idea, you can be sure that it will be an exercise in compliance meaning you will see it only when it is required. A perfect example might be something like posting a learning target in your classroom. This is something required by many districts at this point. I know in my school, the learning target is generally posted in classrooms; however, in some classrooms, the target is never referred to and in most classrooms it is not being taught in a way that helps kids own their learning (which is the whole purpose). I know this because I frequently ask kids what they are learning about and they respond by telling me what they are doing. When I ask about the target, most aren’t sure. Some know where the target is located in the room but can’t describe the learning. In order for a posted learning target to have an effect on learning in the classroom, a teacher would need to not only teach kids how to use the target but the class activity would have to directly relate. In a class where this was being done not for compliance but to impact learning, a visitor would be able to ask a learner in that classroom what they were learning and the learner would reference the target. This is not an issue with the strategy but an issue with relevance. If teachers don’t see a purpose then they may comply but once the initiative (or the person promoting the initiative) is gone, so is the strategy. Helping teachers find purposeful endeavors that meet the learning goals of the district is a main job of a coach.

In many districts, a decision is made about the school or district learning goals, teachers receive professional learning, and then they are sent into their classrooms to implement the same thing. As Simon Sinek has made very clear in his well known TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, in order to get people to “buy”, so to speak, we have to start with WHY. It isn’t enough to tell people why either. An important task of the coach is to connect a district’s “why” to a teacher’s more immediate pain points in order to help define the relevance for a teacher at a specific moment. I notice that many new initiatives are delivered at the start of the year when teachers’ minds are focused on getting classrooms set up and developing relationships with kids. There has to be an incentive for the teacher to change what they are doing. It isn’t even fair to ask a teacher to change if what they are doing is working so if there is a district reason for a change, that motivation needs to be translated into each teacher’s own need for the change before it will be acted on in any meaningful way. Motivation is a frequently dismissed idea that will directly and immediately impact the ability of a learner to learn at any deep and applicable level. We cannot dismiss it because of district goals. It is the same for kids. Just because we think it is important for kids to know certain things or gain certain skills, doesn’t mean they will learn it. We can teach all we want but if it isn’t relevant, they probably won’t learn it in any meaningful or lasting way.

People don’t learn when they are stressed!

Here is another bit of brain science we frequently disregard. Stress is not the same as challenge. Learning can be challenging and motivating at the same time. Just like the ZPD, there is a Goldilocks balance we need to achieve for real and lasting learning to take place. Learning that is happening out of fear (bad evaluations or test scores in the case of teachers, perhaps), either won’t occur at all or will not be lasting. When teachers feel safe and free from the threat of retaliation or punishment, the best learning will occur. I frequently have teachers in my graduate courses come to me in a state of panic because they are afraid they are not doing what they should be doing. They are terrified that they aren’t doing it right. I feel for these teachers and they are the teachers who make the least progress. These teachers have probably had experiences where their hard work was not recognized. Every time I make a judgment about someone’s work, whether it be a teacher-learner or a student learner, I wonder if I might be judging wrong. What if someone put a lot of thought into something but then the product looked kind of shotty? I once had this very experience in a graduate class. The instructor gave me a B- in the course. Several months later, this same instructor asked me to speak at a conference about some work I had been doing with students. It was a big, international conference. I was floored. I said to her, “you know this was the work that came from that class that you gave me a B- in?” She, too, was pretty surprised. These conflicting experiences can cause stress about being judged and perceptions.

These four frequently forgotten ideas about learning need to be at the center of our work as coaches. We must constantly be asking ourselves if we are sticking to these well-known ideas or maybe we are getting resistance or compliance because one of these learning tenets is being broken.

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