Cognitive Coaching

What Is Cognitive Coaching?

The goal of being a masterful mentor is to consciously move your mentee from dependent problem-solvers to independent, more skilled problem-solvers.

Cognitive coaching is based on the idea that metacognition—or being aware of one’s own thinking processes—fosters independence in learning.

By providing personal insights into the learner’s own thinking processes, cognitive coaching builds flexible, confident problem-solving skills. Plus, it encourages self-efficacy and pride (Costa & Garmon, 2002).

The Center for Collaborative Support Opens in new window (CCS) defines cognitive coaching as a configuration that “provides all educators with clear frameworks, common language and skills to support colleagues and students in a variety of growth-producing settings. It is a way of thinking and communicating which:

  • Enhances understanding and higher level thinking
  • Helps others become their own problem-solvers
  • Creates collaborative rather than dependent relationships
  • Develops genuine trust and rapport
  • Supports others in feeling competent in challenging work environments”.

Key Principles and Basic Assumptions

According to Barrett (1995) “the guiding principle of cognitive coaching is that instructional behaviors will not be altered until the inner thought processes of teachers are altered and rearranged” (p. 51).

The mentoring process is about developing personal relationships with colleagues for the purposes of professional instruction and guidance. As these relationships develop, astute mentors must be able to match their support to the novice’s cognitive and teacher development stage.

New teachers who solve problems at a concrete level will require more structured and frequent feedback than novices who solve problems at a more abstract, higher order level. Over time it is expected that novices will begin to solve problems similar to experts in the profession, namely their mentors.

Lipton and Wellman (2003) give us three basic assumptions about the mentoring process:

  1. Effective mentors consciously move their mentees from dependent problem-solvers to independent, more skilled problem-solvers.
  2. Reflective questioning is the catalyst for guiding expertise in problem solving.
  3. Cognitive coaching serves as the approach that assists in the transition from novice to expert teacher.
Assumption #1
Effective mentors are those who consciously move their mentees from dependent problem-solvers to autonomous, more skilled problem-solvers. The mentoring process is not stagnate, but a dynamic process in which both mentors and mentees move through various stages. Barnett (1995) summarizes these stages as:
  • Initiation into the profession and school culture
  • Knowledge and skill development
  • Disillusionment at certain phases
  • Separation from the mentor
  • Status as a peer colleague
A healthy mentoring relationship is one that produces a more skilled and self-reliant mentee who matures into a confident peer and competent colleague. This transition is achieved when mentors carefully assess where they are in the mentoring process and select and apply specific mentoring strategies to guide the progression.
Assumption #2
Reflection is the catalyst for developing expertise in problem-solving about teaching and learning. “Reflective questioning creates opportunities for individuals to reflect aloud, to be heard by one or more colleagues, and to be prompted to expand and extend one’s thinking through follow-up questions” (Lee & Barnett, 1994, p. 22).

Mentors hold the key novices need to unlock their professional expertise. By demonstrating the qualities of a cognitive coach, mentors become the agents for developing expertise in reflective thinking, conceptual development, and problem-solving processes.

Lipton and Wellman (2003) assert that “expertise results from both internal and external mediation” (p. 18). They conclude that the self-talk of expert teachers differs significantly from that of novices. Expert teachers have extensive repertoires for all the major teaching tasks. These preestablished patterns and procedures free their attention for more focused student-centered interactions and responses.

Novices, however, tend to view and respond to discrete teaching behaviors and events in isolation. When novices observe expert teachers they are amazed at the automatic responses and seamless interactions with students. Without the self-talk and explanation of the mentor following these observations, the teaching performance remains a mystery to the novice. Therefore, it becomes essential that mentors be able to clarify and explain their teaching behaviors both informally and formally.
Assumption #3
Cognitive coaching serves as the approach that assists in this transition from novice to expert teacher. If teachers are going to increase their impact on student learning, the research suggests that on-going professional development is essential. On the job experiences by itself will not produce expertise. The professional literature emphasizes that novices need to receive adequate instruction and be actively engaged with professionals who can model expert reflective thinking about their teaching (Lipton & Wellman, 2003; Costa & Garmon, 2002; Barrett, 1995).

In particular, early level teachers need to expand their content knowledge and pedagogical skills within their subject area specialization. “It is a teacher’s professional responsibility to examine, refine, and broaden his or her practice on a continuing basis” (McColsky & Egelson, 1993, p. 382). But in order to do this, a culture of continuous cognitive reflection on curriculum and instruction must be valued and embedded in the professional learning community.

Cognitive coaching tools

To help facilitate the cognitive coaching process, mentors need to be well versed in strategic cognitive coaching skills. Practicing and applying these skills will assist you in developing your ability to be an effective cognitive coach which will result in the following outcomes:

Cognitive coaching uses the techniques of active listening, pausing, paraphrasing, and questioning to help colleagues to think about their thinking. These skills are not new to you but the question becomes how consciously and consistently do you use them.