Monday, September 7, 2015

Quick Post: Positive Coaching

This is a quick post on a basic idea, called informally positive coaching.

One of the larger issues that comes up in discussions with new IBL instructors is student buy-in.  Students enter a class with default expectations about what a math class should be like.  Since teaching is a cultural activity, significant changes from the default requires the instructors to do some work to reset the norms.

Some of the usual expectations students come in the door with on day one are:
  • The instructor does all the work, and students are supposed to imitate the instructor to the letter.
  • Faster is better.  (Hence, slower is dumber.)
  • The teacher or the textbook is the external source that validates when an answer is correct.
  • Getting stuck is a sign of struggle and not getting it.
When students are in an IBL class setting, they are required to engage in mathematics differently, and they are assessed differently.  Some students may feel as if they don't know how well they are doing.  They are not getting graded the usual way, they are spending more time per problem, and they are appealing to logic and reason, instead of the instructor (or the back of the book) for knowing if they are correct.  It's understandable if students feel unsettled, especially in a first experience with IBL.  

One of the important roles for an IBL instructor is to continuously be a source of positive, constructive feedback (i.e. positive coaching) in ways that students know what they understand and what they need to work on to get better.

Positive coaching can come in many forms.  Here are some examples:
  • Letting students know that they are on track and succeeding and meeting your expectations.
  • Restating something that a student did (strategy, use a concept, etc.) that was useful or important for a solution.  Affirmation!
  • Solution recaps.  These are quick takes on a just presented solution or idea.  ("Let's look at what so-and-so just shared again... Here's what we discovered was needed in this problem...")
  • Emphasizing and praising productive failure.  ("Look what so-and-so discovered... This is great, because now we know what directions we can try next!")
  • Giving students feedback on how they doing a problem, when visiting groups.  ("Show me what you tried... That could work.  Keep up the good effort.")
  • Mini-talks or mini-lectures that set the stage.  ("This next set of problems is challenging, but we are going to work together to work through it...")
  • Once a solution has been presented by a student, to be willing to go over it with students again and again in office hours.
  • Giving students progress reports on their current grade.
All of the above should come with praise for students' efforts and creativity. In this way the instructor is giving affirmation and guidance on what students are doing that will help them succeed.

Last word.  Coaching and cheerleading are not the same thing.  See the Coaching vs. Cheerleading post.