Instructional Coaching: an ‘Aha’ Moment about the Power of Questions

by Mary Mitchell, Author, Math Solutions
November 15th, 2019

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I recently joined a 5K training group. There are people in the group who volunteer to serve as coaches to individuals who seek to move themselves from a sedentary lifestyle toward a more active one. In my role as a math coach, this was a great experience for me. It really got me thinking about how to be an effective instructional coach.

This week I decided to challenge myself and increase my running intervals. Because I was newcomer to the small group, the coach ran by my side to provide encouragement.

During the first two intervals, the coach gave me tips on form and breathing. By the third interval, everyone could hear me gasping for breath. It was a little embarrassing! As the coach told me things I should and shouldn’t be doing, I started to feel my efforts were not good enough. My doubts about my ability increased and I got frustrated. I thought, “Why am I getting so emotional right now?”  I successfully finished the run, but the emotional toll had a negative impact on my confidence and my following training runs that week.


Rewind a couple of weeks: A different coach on another day during the run asked me, “Do you have any previous experience doing a 5k?” I rattled off the various 5K’s that I participated in the past. When we were running a hill, she asked, “What have you noticed about your form as you run hills?” I really appreciated that the coach was asking questions and listening to what I had to say. As I responded to her questions, the coach provided tips and ideas about running form and technique based on my responses. I had a very powerful run that day.

Even though both of the coaches were well-intentioned and were working toward a common goal, one coach gave advice while the other coach asked a question and used my responses to help me learn.

My accidental “aha moment”!

It was truly a humbling experience to be on the other side of the coaching relationship and the situation provided me with an “aha moment” about the feelings and attitudes of being the coach. I realized that my reactions and my desire to improve were greatly affected by the actions of the coach in each situation. Although I already knew that asking good questions was an important tool for an instructional coach, I was amazed at its direct impact on my success.

In his article “It’s About the Questions” published in Educational Leadership (subscription only), Ronald Bearwald states, “Effective coaching thrives not on quick fixes and ready answers, but on questioning and listening.” Here is his list of guidelines for effective questions (for a detailed description of each you will have to read the article):

  • Ask questions about essential issues and behavior.
  • Ask precise and incisive questions.
  • Ask questions that generate specific and relevant information.
  • Avoid asking questions that can be answered with yes and no or similar one-word responses.
  • Ask questions that connect the past, present, and future.
  • Ask questions that explore values.
  • Occasionally, ask for permission.
  • Avoid asking why.

If you are a coach in a school setting, how do you think about the questions you ask?


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