Thom Markham

Why the Whole Child Needs a Coach

Coaching is popular these days, as evidenced by a recent article in The New Yorker (October 3, 2011) describing how a neurosurgeon decides to extend coaching into the operating room and improve his skills in unhooking a damaged thyroid from the grasp of surrounding tissue. Athletes also get coached, in just about everything. So do executives and those needing better life skills. And teachers increasingly receive coaching on structuring lessons and pacing their instruction.

Coaches are employed to help people become more skillful, versatile, and capable. This sounds similar to what teachers also do, but with one crucial difference: teachers convey information, while coaches equip people to guide themselves. Coaches may act as teachers on occasion, but they know that skills come out of a catalytic process, not direct instruction. They also know that knowledge alone doesn't make you competent; thoughts, intentions, emotions, and perspective matter more.

The difference between a coach and a teacher is no small matter, especially if you envision the future of education. We're still moving in fits and starts as the question of standards, deeper thinking, and a more skill-based curriculum plays out. But the target is pretty clear: we're headed toward a kind of education in which skills, personal strengths, and the qualities associated self-guided inquiry are prominent features. New norms for creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are in ascendance. Nearly everyone recognizes the essential value of teaching young people perseverance, resiliency, and empathy in a diverse, fast-paced global world.

This is why we hear much more about the whole child. If the industrial paradigm still held, we wouldn't be shifting our emphasis in the classroom (though it might be a humane step). But the new world leaves us no choice. We either develop people to handle themselves or we're in trouble.

Which brings me to the question, Will the whole child need a coach, too? It's one thing to describe an outcome ("a skillful, empathetic, creative, persistent, curious lifelong learner") but quite a different and more difficult task to figure out how a young person learns these qualities. But the best answer we have at present is that they need a coach.

What do coaches do exactly? The coaching profession is well developed, mostly around the core skills of relating, facilitating, assessing, and conversing. For example, here's a list of five key coaching strategies from Leader as Coach, by David Peterson and Mary Hicks:

  1. Forge a partnership. Build trust and understanding so that people want to work with you.
  2. Inspire commitment. Build motivation so that people focus on goals that matter.
  3. Grow skills. Build competencies so that people know how to do what's required.
  4. Promote persistence. Build stamina and discipline so that learning lasts.
  5. Shape the environment. Build in supports to reward learning and remove barriers to learning.

Again, this list doesn't sound so different from good teaching. But any one of these strategies begins with the person—not the test, not the curriculum. In fact, the foundation of successful coaching is respect for individual choice and the rock-solid belief that every person is entitled to that choice. Coaching begins with dignity and worth, not a list of prescribed objectives and automatic sanctions.

There are other models of coaching, by the way. The primary alternative has been called the amoeba theory. To change behavior, you can either poke the organism so that it moves away from you, or you put out some sugar and entice the organism in your direction. This is the behaviorist model, the core tool of the industrial classroom.

The problem with the amoeba model is that it emphasizes rewards over self-motivation, eliminates self-correction, habituates actions only when there is a stimulus, and crushes long-term ambition in favor of immediate cessation of pain or immediate acquisition of the reward. Not a good whole child strategy.

I believe that eventually we will have to redefine the teacher as coach—and train the teacher/coach in the strategies I listed above, plus a host of discrete skills necessary for coaching to be effective. Building trust and understanding, for example, requires excellent listening, nonjudgmental intervention, the ability to resolve breakdowns, and a keen sense for analyzing what isn't working.

These aren't easy skills (ask your spouse), but training and self-reflection help. As education moves forward with the whole child in mind, it seems clear that teachers will eventually need less instructional coaching and more coaching on their skills, attitudes, and—quite possibly—their own inner children.

Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K–12 Educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The Return of the Heart. Download tools for project-based learning on his website,, or contact him by e-mail at

Comments (2)

jan Duffy

October 25, 2011

“These aren’t easy skills (ask your spouse).”  What exactly did you mean by that comment, if I may ask? 

Please google Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education and read its history, then research its original brain-based, Whole Child, constructivist educational framework, “Teaching for Understanding”-and TfU’s offshoots- “Visible Thinking”, Making Learning Visible”, and “Artful Thinking"among others-these supposedly 21st Century ideas aren’t new-Project Zero’s been researching, field-testing, revising, updating, teaching and modeling all of them-and then some- for the benefit of thousands of educators for over 30 years!  Not all of us are slaves to Direct Instruction-and not all of us learned at Project Zero either-or ASCAD or Edutopia, etc… many of us taught ourselves to “teach like out hair’s on fire” in our own classrooms, with our own students-and yes, reflection helps if you want to do that-but nothing you mentioned has to be-or IS- the exclusive province of sports coaches or businesspeople.

Thom Markham

October 27, 2011

Jan, perhaps I wasn’t clear. By ‘ask your spouse’, I meant that clear communication and good listening are skills that challenge us all, often in a close relationship. Also, I happen to be a huge fan of Project Zero and use Visible Thinking, etc. in my work. My point is: Let’s invite our profession to use more of these methods by seeing ourselves as coaches who help students think and perform better, not just as purveyors of information. It sounds like that is your goal as well.

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