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Why all the questions? Reflective Questioning Is a Powerful Coaching Tool

Reflective questions provide us with an opportunity to press the “pause button” and stop and look into the corners of our thinking.

Submitted by Gene Medina, WSLA Instructor and Coach

As an academy coach, it is common for us to wonder about our effectiveness as coach. Am I helping the team more deeply understand and define their problem of practice? Has my guidance been facilitated their work to develop and implement their theories of action? In exploring the nooks and crannies of this work, reflective questioning has been an effective and supportive practice. Asking reflective questions can be extremely helpful for the superintendent, individual team members, and the team as a whole, as they create their focus for improving student learning. How did I arrive at this perspective?

As coaches, we need to know if our coaching is helpful, even making a difference. During our team meeting debriefs and in my own one-on-one conversations with the superintendent, I noted a pattern in the feedback. In questioning, “Has my coaching been helpful?,” the typical response became, “Yes, particularly the questions you ask. They have been getting us to think more about issue and ask ourselves new questions.”

“We thought we had the Problem of Practice clearly identified,” a team member shared. “But then, you asked questions that caused us to stop and reflect on the issue. We thought deeper and began to see new things—things that influenced the problem.” With further discussion, the problem changed, became more focused and aligned with evidence about what was really going on.

An example of the evolutionary effect of reflective questioning

Let me share an example of how this may evolve within a district team. The team is involved in its initial problem of practice conversation focused on poor math scores. For years, math scores have remained flat and below the 50th percentile on the state annual assessments. They have changed the curriculum, provided some math in-service training, and were developing grade level math assessments. Yet, little has changed. The ensuing discussion revolved around the students’ lack of interest in math, poor alignment of the math instructional materials series with the state standards, limited teacher training in math and math instruction, the limited number teachers with math certification, and the general fear of math in our society. Their initial discussion focused on the role of the teachers, students and parents in the problem. If they could work on these issues, then student math performance would improve. At this point, the coach asked, “So, what does good math instruction look like?” There was silence. After a brief pause, the question was clarified. “When you observe quality math instruction in your school, what do you see?” A few examples of the challenges of classroom observations were shared, as well as some observations of students in rows, doing worksheets, and the like.

The conversation then shifted from what students and teachers were doing to what the team members were doing as “instructional leaders.” One member confessed, “Wow, I can’t tell you what it looks like. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about being able to describe it. The reflective question enabled the team to shift the focus from the generic topics of “what was the problem” to deeper thinking about the challenges. They began to ask the following questions:

  • How can we lead the improvement of math performance if we can’t describe it, and haven’t seen what quality math instruction or student demonstrations of the math learning outcomes look like? 
  • What are teachers doing when they are providing quality math instruction?
  • What tasks are students doing to demonstrate the learning targets?
  • How do students describe their math learning targets?
  • What strategies does a teacher use when students aren’t demonstrating the learning targets?

Reflective questions enable our thinking and conversation to become deeper, and attain increasing focus on what is happening and what needs to be addressed. They enable a person or group to pause in their thinking and reflect upon what has been happening and how it is related to the work. They enable us to reach beyond the obvious, identify what has been overlooked, and create the possibilities for deeper and richer understanding of the issue at hand.

Initial questions to kick-start the thinking

Reflective questions help a team/team member to think deeper about an issue. They are intended to deepen and enrich—not influence—their thinking. This is an important distinction. The coach is the inquirer and works hard to listen, to hear, and to ask questions that enable the team/team member to think deeply, and understand the dimensions and depth of an issue. It is helpful to have some entry phrases such as:

  • I am curious about your thinking about… Are you willing to explore that?
  • Let’s move from your initial thoughts to what you are thinking now…What has happened? (Listen to their response and choose one that has high potential for them making progress in their deeper thinking. Ask if they are open to exploring that issue.)
  • If trust is high, a coach might also ask, “What about this issue keeps you awake at night?”

Probing questions move the conversation deeper

After the lead-in questions, it is critical for the coach to listen, listen, listen and hear, hear, hear what is being said. As an active listener, the coach is creating the next reflective question, or clarifying question (to ensure that the coach and the person being asked are on the same page). As you listen, the following probing questions can be helpful:

  • Can you elaborate on that?
  • Do you hear any patterns in what you are saying?
  • If you knew you would succeed, what you do you next?
  • Is there something else behind what you are saying?

It is quite amazing where a series of useful reflective questions can lead. Asking a reflective question and engaging in the follow-up conversations creates the framework for the next reflective question and, in turn, subsequent conversations and reflective questions. These questions are the source of creating and identifying future possibilities as you work through problem issues.

As we know, the first focal issues and initial solutions are just that—initial, a beginning of the work. They are the “warm-up” activity for the real work ahead. Reflective questions provide us with an opportunity to press the “pause button” and stop and look into the corners of our thinking. Our quick response to issues and premature solutions are a symptom of our “fix-it” mentality and the “time-constrained” culture of work. Asking a reflective question in the context of openness and capacity for ambiguity can be a powerful mixture for creating real “solutions” to deeply rooted issues. Simply stated, reflective questions provide a powerful tool to facilitate deeper understanding of the core issues: the problem of practice and focus on a theory of action.

2 Comments

  1. There are some useful references if you would like to explore reflective questions associated with “Improved School Districts” and the “Change Conversation”. If you would like a copy of these articles, please email me. Additionally, Thomas Crane’s (Center for Cognitive Coaching) The Heart of Coaching is a useful reference. Enjoy.

    Comment by Gene Medina — November 7, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  2. Thanks for the reminder about sharpening our reflective questioning skills in all leadership roles as well as pointing out the importance of a fresh set of eyes that help put issues in a new perspective. It is much easier to find the courage to face the difficult conversation or confront a vexing issue with the support of a peer.

    Comment by Tom Marrs — November 10, 2010 @ 11:07 am

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