Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teacher or Coach?

Reading Atul Gawande's recent in piece in The New Yorker got me thinking about whether I'm primarily a teacher of writing or a coach. And it got me thinking about which of these labels I prefer. I've been aware of the distinction for some time—ever since I noticed the difference between how my children learn at school and how they learn at sports. The difference is getting muddled, however, as teachers are increasingly expected to function as coaches.

There's a video of Gawande's talk at the New Yorker Festival at Fora TV. Here he talks about the passage from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence through the stages of concious incompetence and conscious competence. Now, in my view, both teachers and coaches facilitate this passage, but they begin and end their involvement at different points.

Part of the teacher's job is to make you conscious of your incompetence.* This is much more necessary than it might sound, and in two senses. It is necessary in the sense that you can't really get around it given the way the classroom situation is set up: attendance is mandatory; the class itself is simply part of a curriculum. The student often shows up without any awareness of their incompetence and often only a vague interest in the subject matter. It is also necessary in the other sense that there are many things we must learn that we will not learn if we are not made aware of our ignorance. These are competences that our culture requires of us, but which we do not immediately possess and don't naturally feel we need. Teachers give us those competences.

But because of the structure of education into courses, the teacher's final task is often the exam, which is to say, a highly conscious moment. The students end their involvement with their teacher acutely aware of what they learned (hopefully not just what they don't know) mainly because they have just been graded. That is, teachers start with the unconscious incompetence of students and try to bring them to the stage of conscious competence.

Coaches, meanwhile, start with (let's call them) aspirants who are normally very conscious of their incompetence. Gawande himself, for example, sought out a coach after eight years of practice as a surgeon because he noticed he was no longer improving. These are people who not only want to get better, they know what they want to get better at. But the coach works with them continuously, so that the skills they learn pass into the unconscious on a running basis. The coach does not subject the aspirant to an exam. That is, coaches start with conscious incompetence and stays with it until it is unconscious.

Another important difference between coaching and teaching, to my mind, is that coaches deal directly with the relevant competence in its performance. Teachers assign homework and check whether or not its been done. The teachers themselves "perform" in front the students with the aim of transfering something to them. But the coach simply watches and suggests alternative and exercises.

I would much prefer to be a writing coach than a writing teacher. Sometimes, however, my job really is to teach writing. That is, I show up in the classroom with the task of showing students what competences they lack. And I leave the students after I've given and graded an exam. Fortunately, there are many writers I work with in a manner that better resembles coaching. I give them things to do. I observe the results and suggests ways of doing it better. And I only get a sense of their competence by watching (or hearing about) their performance. (PhD students for example tell me what their committee thought about their writing. Scholars show me the reviews they got back from the journal.)

I have a feeling that under the many complicated reasons that lay behind my decision not to return to academia (a suitable position recently opened up, which I didn't apply for) this difference between being a teacher and a coach is important. Teachers are bound to teach even students who don't want to learn; one of the most noble things a teacher can do is to "awaken" the interest of a student in a subject that the culture values. Coaches have the luxury of being sought out by people who aspire to a competence, i.e., who are already interested in the relevant art. I respect what teachers do, of course, but I'm not sure it's my thing. Teachers are authorities in one way, coaches in another. Socrates, like all the other sophists, I might argue, was not so much a teacher as a coach. His student, Plato, founded the Academy.

*I mean this in a somewhat different sense than Gawande, I should note. He constructs the contrast between the "teaching model" and the "coaching model" differently. More later, perhaps.


Charles Nelson said...

Perhaps coaches don't give exams, but players have them all the same. It's pass/fall: they win or lose the game.

Players also have mini-exams. Take, for example, basketball: a player makes or misses a shot.

It's not clear to me what sort of exam a writing teacher would give or how it would be relevant to writing. That is a problem.

My students write essays, a type of performance, and my feedback is based on that performance just as a coach gives feedback on performance. Similarly, the exercises I assign are no different than basketball exercises, such as dribbling, passing, 2-on-3, and so on.

The main difference for me between a sport and writing is that sports provide immediate feedback (again, a player can evaluate how well s/he did something, such as shooting) while feedback for writing is delayed in time.

In the case of a surgery coach, the student is already at a high level of competence and the feedback needs to be finely tuned to that level to take him/her beyond that level. That's not the same as being "conscious of their incompetence." People who are incompetent are not aware of their incompetence.

Thomas said...

I think I'm going to insist on the distinction between a real-world trial and a mere exam. Exams test conscious competence, but you normally win the game because of your unconscious competence.

Similarly, a school assignment is not actually a communicative act. It is an attempt to show your teacher that you are competent. The good writer, whether of fact or fiction, performs "before an audience" that actually listens (to the message, not just the form).

Students aren't trying to persuade their teachers about, say, why Hamlet hesitates to kill his uncle. They are trying to demonstrate their competence in reading the play, forming a critical opinion, and, of course, writing a coherent paragraph. Scholars use that competence unconsciously in an earnest attempt to change each other's minds.

Even where musicians and atheletes have to pass certain tests (to get certified in one or another discipline), the coach is not the examiner. The coach is not preparing them for the exam, but for the performance, i.e., for the real-world confrontation of competence and circumstance.

Jonathan said...

I think I'm a coach in a teacher's body. I'd much rather be a coach but my job is to teach. Aargh.

Charles Nelson said...

In some ways I agree with you. That is, I can see how an exam can test conscious competence.

But (1) it's still not clear to me what exams a writing teacher would give to students, and (2) an essay (as opposed to an exam) is more a test of performance than it is of conscious competence.

In addition, if students have the option (or requirement) of submitting their work to outside-of-classroom audiences (for example, a letter to the editor or a Wikipedia article), then that writing has moved into the status of a "real-world trial," a "communicative act." Another example that comes to mind is the writing of a resume in a business writing course.

In these cases, although the teacher is still assessing a performance of writing, quite a bit of coaching should be part of the "teaching."

So, again, I can see how what you're saying applies to different degrees to some classrooms, but it's not clear to me why it needs be the case, at least in the context of a writing teacher. Perhaps you could say a little more about the type of writing that you're teaching to make it clearer.

Thomas said...

I teach a course in organization and management where the learning goal is explicitly to make the students articulate—in writing—about the course content. That is, I'm trying to teach them how to write about organizations.

This week they are handing in a highly structured assignment:

They must write roughly 10 prose paragraphs.

1 para of introduction

1-3 paras that describe what happened in Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949.

1-3 paras that explain why it happened.

1-3 paras that tell us what "we" (organization theorists interested in philosophy) can learn from it.

1 para of conclusion

This is a mini-version of the final exam and they get only a pass/fail grade. They will pass or fail on largely formal grounds: can they write a paragraph? Is the relevant section descriptive, analytical, philosophical? Does the introduction introduce, does the conclusion conclude?

I am definitely not expecting unconscious competence of writing. But I will no doubt receive some examples of it & some might, tragically, fail: these are the students who know how to write but simply haven't done the assignment.