Noticing a Learning Problem

I think that the most important attribute of a great coach is the ability to support a teacher to identify the biggest lever to improvement – to be able to notice the single most important thing that will make the most significant difference to pupils’ learning. A classroom is a complicated environment, with lots going on for both the teacher and pupils. I really love the way that Tom Sherrington starts many of his training sessions emphasising this point with an image of a busy classroom – note the number of different intentions, interactions, reactions, decisions and distractions in the illustration below:

In such a complex setting, how do we accurately hone in on a granular aspect of practice – something that might potentially translate into a more successful learning experience for our pupils? How do we notice the needle in the haystack?

‘When we choose to change, we often do it because we see a big difference between where we are and where we want to be.’ (Miller & Rollnick, 2013; in Knight, 2022).

In The Impact Cycle, Jim Knight stresses the importance of a coaching cycle beginning with a clear – and shared – understanding of the current reality for pupils in a teacher’s classroom. This is a challenge for many reasons, particularly because many traditional methods of data collection rely largely on subjective and unreliable sources:

I realise that this is rather unscientific – but generally speaking, traditional methods of data collection are less reliable than we might think. Lesson observations are problematic (this study by Micheal Strong et al found that experts were no more successful in predicting teacher effectiveness than a coin toss): they are often skewed by perceptual error and are intrinsically transient in nature. Pupil performance data is highly volatile and rarely gives a clear picture of what is actually going on in the classroom. Centralised work scrutinies can be helpful, providing the full context of learning is made available, which is rarely possible.

While all of these sources have their merits, the aim should be to base our decisions on something more objective and more reliable: whilst certainly not a panacea, video can be a really effective way into  a coaching process, particularly when triangulated with other data sources. At Heolddu, teachers self-record an extract of their lesson in consultation with their coach. They have free choice around which class they choose, though increasingly it tends to be the class where they feel there is most to gain.  Incidentally, we take a low-tech approach to filming – an iPad or a Chromebook set up in the corner of the room – I’m convinced that if you go high-tech it becomes a ‘thing’, a distraction beyond the point of the purpose.

In the identify phase of our cycle, we ask the teacher to share their coaching video with their coach. The aim is that both teacher and coach review the video prior to the first coaching meeting. We’ve done a huge amount of work with the coaches around how they use the videos. The golden rule is an acknowledgement that the video extract (20 minutes or so) might only ever be a way into the teacher’s practice, and shouldn’t be, by default, the absolute focus of the coaching process. That being said, video footage is reliable and can be objective – I’ve found that it’s a pretty powerful starting point.

Conversations between coach and teacher around the current reality in the classroom are guided by a clear purpose – to see the gap between the teacher’s intention (what the teacher wanted the pupils to be doing, saying or thinking) and the reality (what was the observable reality?). Tom Sherrington refers to this in Teaching WalkThrus as solving the learning problem – identifying precise points where the pupils struggle or can improve. You can’t fix everything at once, so it’s helpful to employ a hierarchy of practice to guide your thinking:

Knight and his team at Kansas refer to their ‘Big Four’ – this makes perfect sense as a hierarchical model:

  1. You have to get behaviour right before you can work on other areas of practice;
  2. You need great content knowledge before you can deliver effective instruction;
  3. You need effective instruction before assessment becomes useful.

This type of model helps coaches to support teachers to find the biggest barrier to learning in their classrooms. When training coaches, it’s helpful that they recognise the symptoms of these problems when observing video or working directly with the teacher. Oliver Caviglioli’s brilliant illustration of a simple model of learning is a good foundation for this, if you’ll excuse my crude additions: 

If we manage behaviour effectively, we support pupils’ ability to attend more successfully to the content of their learning. We also reduce extraneous distractions and regulate the load on pupils’ working memory.

Great instruction, which is deep and generative, supports pupils to transfer knowledge from working memory to long term memory. Instruction that is chunked and explicit reduces the burden on working memory and makes long term learning more likely.

Formative assessment, checking for understanding and retrieval practice supports pupils to store and remember what they are learning, whilst shallowing off the forgetting curve. 

Each of these scenarios mirror an observable set of symptoms in the classroom. By this logic, we might be able to notice, by looking at what pupils are doing, saying or thinking, where to start coaching. For example:

Of course, this is not an attempt to coach by numbers, but our coaches have found it a really helpful way to start to notice the right things. It goes without saying that coaching a colleague is a huge responsibility, and this is something that new coaches really worry about. Once coaches become more familiar with the common symptoms, it becomes easier to help the teacher design solutions. 

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found this post helpful, or if you’ve got any suggestions that might help us improve what we do.



Knight, J. The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should Do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching, 2017; SAGE Publications

Sherrington, T & Caviglioli, O. Teaching WalkThrus: Five Step Guides For Instructional Coaching, 2020; John Catt Educational

Strong, M et al. Do We Know a Successful Teacher When We See One? Experiments in the Identification of Effective Teachers; First Published March 15, 2011



  1. Sunn6 says:

    Excellent read

    Liked by 1 person

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