One of my favourite things about teaching is that I keep finding new tools to try. In my classes at TWU this summer, we have been studying how to apply techniques from coaching to teaching. In my last post, I looked at the four main coaching competencies necessary for excellent coaching. One of the sub-competencies I want to reflect on in this post is called “evoking awareness.” The International Coach Federation defines it this way: an excellent coach “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy.”

Two Reasons Teachers Need to Practice Evoking Awareness:

Tim Gallwey was a professional tennis coach who has a unique perspective on how to increase awareness in the coachee. According to Gallwey, there are two main reasons people stall out or stop growing.

  1. The first reason is the learner’s lack of awareness of how they can best realize their potential capacity to learn anything they set out to learn. In other words, by “actualizing potential,” an effective teacher helps equip students with the study skills necessary to learn. This process is gradual, ongoing, and time-intensive.
  2. The second reason is the learner’s own sense of “internal resistance.” In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield personifies “resistance” as a force residing inside all of us. “Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” (Pressfield, 2012, p. 7) An effective teacher knows how to decrease interference by helping people identify and name the things causing their resistance.

Why Evoking Awareness is SO Difficult!

In contrast with actualizing potential, reducing resistance is often more effective because removing interference causes a learner to quickly gain confidence and make progress toward their goals. But this is easier said than done!

As Gallwey puts it in the context of coaching tennis players: “The opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one the other side of the net.” If we are honest, most of us don’t want to wrestle with our internal opponent. Instead, we prefer to find external, concrete obstacles that are easier to define. Additionally, as Gallwey says, “the barriers to learning are often well guarded and may become even more entrenched when challenged.” For this reason, coaches must learn how to evoke awareness of this internal wrestle using indirect means:

“Coaches must generally be gentle in their approach to surfacing interference to learning and performance in an individual or team. Hints, suggestions, and indirect probing, though they may seem to take longer than a more direct approach, are usually more successful over the long run.”

Tim Gallwey, “THE INNER GAME OF WORK: BUILDING CAPABILITY IN THE WORKPLACE”

C.S. Lewis captured this strategy when he described the power of story to go around our defences. In his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” when he said that stories allow us to “steal past watchful dragons.”

Stealing Past Dragons through Powerful Questioning:

Watchful Dragons - Evoking Awareness

Evoking awareness of the dragons—the resistance—in a student’s mind is a masterful coaching competency. The techniques supporting this competency are: “powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy.” Amongst these tools, the one that interests me most is powerful questioning. According to the ICF’s competency rating level chart a masterful coach demonstrates powerful questioning the following ways (this is just a sample).

A masterful coach:

  • asks evocative questions that are fully responsive to the client in the moment and that require significant thought by client or take client to a new place of thinking.
  • uses the client’s language and learning style to craft questions.
  • is fully based in curiosity and the coach does not ask questions to which the coach knows the answer.
  • asks questions that help the client create the future rather than focus on past or even present dilemmas.

Examples of Powerful Questions:

For teachers to apply this coaching technique, it is essential when talking with students to use more questions than answers. This resource from the Rhode Island Department of Education provides sample questions to get a teacher moving this direction.

A great teacher uses questions that:

  • Reflect active listening: “Can you tell me more about…? What did you mean by…?”
  • Presume positive intent: “What are you planning to…? How are you going to…?”
  • Evoke discovery, insight, commitment, or action on behalf of the receiver of the question: “What would you do if…? What were you thinking when…? How can you apply…?”
  • Challenge current assumptions: How else might you…? What is stopping you from…? What would happen if…?
  • Create greater clarity, possibility of new learning: “What do you think it means…? Help me understand what you mean by…? What will you learn from this…?”
  • Move the receiver of the question toward what he or she wants: “What do you want to learn? What have you tried so far? What kind of help will you need?”

Obviously, a masterful teacher won’t use these questions in a rote manner. But for teachers, reviewing these questions before your next important conversation with a student is a great place to start. Also, remember that focusing on the resistance and seeking to reduce interference in a student’s learning is often a quicker route to growth than seeking to actualize potential.

Let Me Ask You a Powerful Question:

After reading this blog post, how can you use powerful questioning in your relationships today?

Evoking Awareness – A Coaching Competency for Teachers

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