Supporting students’ thinking through coaching

Teaching students to become more self-directed in their approaches to learning  is our goal. When we scaffold ways of thinking, we hold deep in our minds the intention that at some point, the student is able to think through a process, pick approaches that work for him or her, and proceed on a cyclical, iterative inquiry process toward an intended competency, conceptual understanding, or a disposition such as precision in thought.

Language and literature teachers have been engaging in what is commonly termed paper conferences with their students for a long time. The paper conference is a strategy, which focuses the student’s attention on a piece of writing, to deconstruct the process of thinking in the production of the text. I used to paper-conference (Lang and lit teachers use it as a verb, too) with a focus on the actions the students might take to revise a written work. For instance, to a middle schooler, I would ask questions like:

  • What will you do to write a clear sentence, which states your main idea?
  • What will you do to arrange your supporting ideas in a way your audience can understand?

What I noticed about focusing on the actions in our paper conference is that the student would leave the conference able to do revisions, but that their thinking would take longer to reach what we call a patternicity, the ability to reach generalisations around a concept or skill (Costa and Garmston, 2016, p. 37). Establishing a pattern in thinking approaches automaticity, and I wanted my students to reach this autonomy as they thought through the writing process on their own. Back then, I lacked something in the paper conference, which would support my budding writers becoming self-monitoring, self-modifying writers.

When I initially discovered Cognitive CoachingSM through a short workshop at the EARCOS conference, I began to wonder if it might be possible to use coaching to scaffold thinking instead, and help students become more reflective writers, able to think through their decisions as they wrote, and be more self-directed as they engaged in the writing process.

One way I think about this in the classroom is helping students to develop capacity in organising, the Criterion B of one of the subjects I taught, Language and literature. Organisation is a strategy or set of skills, which have discrete decisions the learner has to make, to manifest the strategy of organisation in a product, say a piece of writing.

Copy of Design Cycle for LangLit Criterion B by Aloha Lavina

A note about Cognitive CoachingSM is that it was first meant as a way to help teachers work on their teaching practice. Art Costa and Robert Garmston, its authors, wrote the first text on Cognitive CoachingSM as a nonjudgmental way to enhance teacher thinking. It was presented as an alternative to the support function of teacher evaluation with the idea that it would support teachers’ thinking and enhance growth of a teacher.

What I thought in that initial splash into coaching was the idea that as a teacher, I could coach the thinking of a student in a nonjudgmental way, build rapport and trust through listening to their thinking, and leave the conversation with the student feeling more confident about their own thinking and writing process.

Tools of the coach

The most important tools for the cognitive coach are communication tools.

Pausing is wait time, allowing for the student to think.

Paraphrasing is another skill coaches use. Paraphrasing is active listing and tells the student, I care about your thinking, I am trying to understand you.

Posing questions is a skill that probes thinking and makes thinking ‘visible’ to the student in the conversation.

In the conversation map for planning a piece of writing, for instance, the teacher as coach is able to support the student’s thinking by illuminating the student’s thinking about their writing process, skills and understanding.

Coaching for Organisation

A conversation with Nick

Nick (not his real name) was a student who shared deep thinking sometimes in class, when we would analyse a piece of literature. In his writing, Nick was less detailed. He would submit a piece of writing which was essentially one long paragraph, neglecting what we might describe in our current MYP Criterion B descriptors as:

  • adequate use of organizational structures that serve the context and purpose
  • organizing opinions and ideas in a logical manner, with ideas building on each other

He needed to build skills of organising his writing so that his thinking would be made visible in the written product he created. He was a verbal learner, showing a preference for talking about his ideas, so I decided to try to help him surface his thinking through a paper conference.

When I coached Nick in a paper conference about a letter to a famous person, the conversation went this way:

Me: What are your goals for the letter?

Nick: I want to tell [the soccer player] that I admired his technique. So maybe he might write back to me. I think famous players don’t know we have lots of knowledge about soccer and how they play.

Me: So, you admire [the soccer player], and your goal in the letter is to show him how much you know about his soccer skills.

Nick: Yes.

Me: So, Nick (pointing to the draft of Nick’s letter), when you read this paragraph on the strategy, what might be some things you’re thinking about to achieve that goal of showing how much you know about soccer skills?

Nick: (after a pause) I just say he’s good. It says here that I like his feint. He’s really good at making the other team think he’s going one way when he’s going another way. He confused the other team.

(Pause while he thought.) I don’t really say that.

Me: So your draft seems to lack some details.

Nick: Yeah.

Me: So, when you think about a letter that might create a response in [soccer player[, what might that letter look like?

In the next part of the conversation, Nick slowly worked through, in his spoken thinking, the descriptions of a letter he thought might be an effective one. He talked about details, specificity, and I paraphrased his thoughts in chunks. The paraphrasing helped Nick to realise I was listening, I was trying to understand him, and he was encouraged to speak at length about his crafting of the letter.

When Nick reached a breakthrough in his thinking, I noticed that he seemed more alert, more articulate about what he might decide with his next draft, and I asked him what he expected to learn in this next step of the process.

Nick then proceeded to tell me his goals for the next revision of the writing piece. I winded down the conversation with a reflection on how the conversation had helped his thinking.

This process was followed up with a reflecting conversation after the draft. I read the draft, and Nick and I had another conversation reflecting on what he had achieved in the subsequent draft.

Reflecting conversation

The reflecting conversation is mapped in a way that allows the student to think about the thinking he or she puts into the actual writing.

The coaching process became a useful way to reflect the student’s thinking back to him. The benefits to Nick were that he felt listened to, valued as a writer, and he later found that writing was a source of power. (A couple months later, he received a reply from his famous soccer player with an autographed photo and an encouraging note. For Nick, that reply was a source of inspiration to get better at his writing for the rest of the year.)

For me as a teacher, the resonance of the student’s thinking as a result of coaching during the writing process convinced me that I needed to deepen my understanding of Cognitive Coaching, and I’ve spent almost a decade honing my skills as a coach.

This is but a toe-dipping into a pool of resourcefulness for supporting others’ thinking. For an in-depth inquiry into coaching, I recommend these resources below.


Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (1994). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools. Heatherton, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Costa, A. L., Garmston, R. J., Hayes, C., & Ellison, J. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Better yet, attend a Foundation Seminar for  Cognitive CoachingSM offered through Thinking Collaborative.

Photo credit:

Featured Photo by Yiran Ding on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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