Since I became an instructional coach, I’ve heard varying opinions about the importance of content knowledge in being a successful coach.

Currently, I am a coach for K-5 math. In my position, I need to know about best practices in teaching, but I also focus on the content. Is the teacher accurate in what he/she is teaching? Do they themselves understand the concepts well enough to scaffold learning for students?

I co-coached (new word??) last week with one of our district’s general instructional coaches. Her focus is on the indicators of our district’s teacher evaluation plan – things like differentiation, feedback, and questioning. She asked for my help with a teacher who was looking for some additional ideas for questioning in math. I gave her a list of my favorite questions, which I have gleaned from many different sources including NCTM. (Click here for that list).

The other coach and I both observed the beginning part of the lesson, after which students split up into small groups of 3 or 4 to work on their given task. They were completing an assignment that had to do with finding information in graphs and tables, and answering questions regarding inferences they could make from the data provided. One of the tables the students were given had to do with a ratio of people with a certain occupation compared to all working people at certain points in time (between 1900 and 2000). Students were then asked to figure out if the ratio of engineers to the total population had increased or decreased between 1900 and 2000, and why they thought that was the case.

The teacher and the other coach had asked me to model some questioning techniques with the small groups. I asked to let the students start working without interference at first so we could see the thought process going on, and have some completed work as a starting point. After about five minutes, I started with one particular group that I saw struggling through the problem. I could see a few things from my quick observation…so that’s where I started. Here are the questions I asked…

1) What information are you being asked to find? – The students could tell me that they needed to find out whether the ratio of engineers to the total population increased or decreased over time.

2) Where are you finding that information? – They pointed to a graph on the opposite page from where the actual information was. This led to a quick discussion about being careful to read the titles of graphs and charts to ensure that you are looking at the correct information.

3) What was the ratio of engineers to the total population in 1900? In 2000? – Students were able to answer this question with relative ease. The struggle came when I asked the students to tell me whether the ratio had increased or decreased over time. The 1900 number was something like 1 in 1,161 and the 2000 number was something close to 1 in 764. The students said that the ratio had decreased because the second number was smaller. I then challenged their thinking a bit by asking them…

3) If you had 1 blue M&M in a package that contained 1,161 M&Ms, would it be very likely that you would pick out a blue M&M if you reached into the package? – The students said it would be very unlikely since it was only 1 blue PER 1,161 M&Ms. I then pushed them to think about the second ratio of 1 to 764.

4) Would you be more likely to get a blue M&M if you reached into the bag if there were 1 blue PER 764 M&Ms? – The students responded that it would be more common to find a blue if 1 out of every 764 were blue.

5) So…what does that tell you about the ratio? Is it getting bigger or smaller? – Given an example they could relate to, they came to the conclusion that the ratio was getting bigger.

Now came the next task…they needed to explain why they thought the ratio was getting larger over time.

6) Why do you think there are more engineers now than in 1900? – Crickets chirping and deer-in-headlights stares.

There was only one problem, but it was a big one. This group of students weren’t equipped with the prior knowledge of what an engineer was. After a quick explanation, they were able to make the connection and answer the question.

The second coach and I quickly debriefed with the teacher about this group before moving on to the next one, and we talked about the importance of prior knowledge in answering questions such as the one about the engineers. Without knowing what an engineer was, the students were unable to make an inference about why that career had increased in popularity over time. A thorough reading of the lesson by the teacher beforehand might have allowed her to anticipate roadblocks like the one with the engineers, as well as the one with the increasing and decreasing ratios.

We moved on through the other groups with me modeling some questions, then asking the teacher to try for herself given some of the ones she had heard me use with other groups.

During our debrief after the lesson, we talked about how the questioning techniques I was using were very similar to those used in reading – asking “skimming” questions first, then probing deeper into the thinking to get at misconceptions and alternative ideas. The teacher agreed to try one thing during her next few lessons – since we’re at the end of the school year, time is short and the remaining lessons are few! I offered to come in at the beginning of next school year to continue the work on questioning, which I hope the teacher will take me up on!

The general coach and I had a conversation afterwards about how important it really is to make the connections between the coaching and the content, even though a lot of the techniques and methods we use across the curriculum are similar or even the same. She said that when it came to the ratios, she wouldn’t have known quite how to explain the concept of increasing and decreasing as clearly as I did. Given the fact that I had taught that particular lesson at least 10-12 times, I knew exactly where the roadblocks were. We talked about the importance of doing the work of anticipation to head those kind of problems off at the pass. We both agreed that it was very helpful to have some time to “co-coach” and learn from each other.

What do you think? Is content knowledge important, or even necessary, for good coaching? Please vote in the poll below and let me know your thoughts in the comments!