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Teaching: The New Yorker Takes Another Look At Coaching

Picture 45 New Yorker writer Atul Gawande -- he's the guy who wrote the book about checklists -- has a new article out about the use of coaches in nontraditional areas like surgery.   This isn't a new idea in education, of course, though coaching / master teacher programs are expensive and not always effective.  Great teachers don't always make great coaches, and in many cases programs haven't been able to pick their own coaches because of work rules or other reasons. For what it's worth, I couldn't have written my Green Dot book without my developmental editor, David Lobenstine, and have benefitted greatly from working with an organizational coach named Susan Wallace. (A blogging coach would be great, too, but I haven't found anyone willing to take me on.)  Press release below.  Link may require subscription.

In the October 3, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, in “Personal Best” (p. 44), Atul Gawande explores the world of coaching and asks whether coaches could benefit professionals in fields outside of music and sports. Good coaches, Gawande writes, “know how to break down performance into its critical individual components,” and so they are important for concert-calibre musicians and Olympic-level athletes, but what about for regular professionals, “who just want to do what they do as well as they can?” In the medical field, expertise “is thought to be not a static condition but one that doctors must build and sustain for themselves,” because knowledge of disease and science of treatment are always evolving. Talk about medical progress, however, and “people think about technology. We await every new cancer drug as if it will be our salvation. . . . But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology. We have devoted disastrously little attention to fostering those abilities.” Gawande talks to Jim Knight, the director of the Kansas Coaching Project, at the University of Kansas, who teaches coaching for schoolteachers. “Policymakers have pushed mostly carrot-and-stick remedies: firing underperforming teachers, giving merit pay to high performers, penalizing schools with poor student test scores,” Gawande writes. But Knight thinks that we should push coaching. He teaches coaches to observe a few specifics: whether the teacher has an effective plan for instruction; how many students are engaged in the material; whether they interact respectfully; whether they engage in high-level conversations; and whether they understand how they are progressing, or failing, to progress. Good coaches, Knight says, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Gawande goes with Knight to a middle school in Virginia that employs a coaching program based in part on Knight’s methods and talks to a number of the teachers at the school. “My stress level is a lot less now,” one of the teachers tells Gawande. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is.” As for Gawande, since he enlisted one of his former medical-school professors as a coach, his complication rate has gone down. “It’s too soon to know for sure whether that’s not random, but it seems real,” Gawande writes. In the past year, “I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with [a coach] each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this.” He writes, “I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do.” Modern society “increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things,” and “how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require?” We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury, “but coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.” However, the existence of a coach “requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact?”http://nyr.kr/q55uUx 

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