Instructional coaching: What it is, how it works and why it matters

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
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Considered by many to be the most effective form of teacher CPD, instructional coaching is gaining popularity in schools. In part one of a two-part article, Robbie Burns looks at what it is, why it works, three types of approach, and three principles for implementation

It has been claimed in recent years that instructional coaching is one of the most highly effective forms of CPD to improve teaching that we currently have in education.

In this, the first of two articles on instructional coaching, I will attempt to briefly unpack why it might be worthwhile, what it is, and three principles that underpin any strategy or method that might be adopted.

In a second article (which is now available here), I will discuss how you might implement instructional coaching, including laying the groundwork, developing coaches, and systems and processes.

Loving the one you’re with: Leading teaching is no easy task

“The quality of teaching,” as Professor Rob Coe and his co-authors (2018) write, “is by far the biggest factor within schools that can make a difference to the achievement of children and young people.”

Even in the same school, or the same phase, if there is a difference in the quality of teaching it can make a huge difference to the standard of education being provided.

As Professor Dylan Wiliam (2007, 2013) has noted: “If you get one of the best teachers you will learn in six months what it takes an average teacher a whole year to teach you. If you get one of the worst teachers, the same learning will take you over two years.”

Whatever facilities, resources or curriculum schools might have in place, if the quality of teaching is not of a high standard students will not receive the best education that they can.

But making sure there is a high standard of teaching in every classroom across a school is no easy task. A balance needs to be struck in schools between consistency in certain aspects of teaching in order to maintain a level of quality and streamlined approach while still allowing teachers to “be themselves” in the classroom, all within an environment where feedback is well-received and acted upon.

This is no easy task for leaders. How might it be best approached?

Prof Wiliam (2013), again, writes: “The only way to improve teacher quality across the system is to invest in the professional development of the teachers already working in schools – the love the one you’re with strategy.”

The answer, according to Prof Wiliam, is to invest in the professional development of teachers, making sure they are well-equipped with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to deliver high-quality lessons.

He is not alone in thinking this. What seems to be suggested from some of the research is that the quality of professional development that schools provide, if it is the right content and delivered in the right way, can ensure that teachers of all levels continue to develop regardless of the number of years they have been teaching.

Kraft & Papay (2014) in their research on teacher development wrote about the way in which professional environments in schools can promote teacher development. In the schools studied, all teachers developed the quality of their teaching exponentially in the first three to four years, regardless of the sort of professional environment they were based in.

However, after this time, those who were in a strong professional environment, in the top 25 per cent of schools, were teaching in ways that contributed far more to student attainment when compared with their peers in weaker professional environments.

Kraft & Papay estimate that there was an up to 39 per cent difference in test scores between teachers of 10 or more years’ experience based in strong professional environments from those who were in weaker ones.

HEADTEACHER UPDATE PODCAST: For more from Robbie Burns on effective CPD, see our episode of the Headteacher Update Podcast, High-impact CPD. Three experts, including Robbie, reflect on their general tenets of good CPD, before discussing what an effective CPD cycle looks like and giving examples from their schools. Other themes include teachers leading their own CPD, research-driven CPD, how to ensure CPD is focused on pupil outcomes, getting buy-in from staff, evaluating impact, including support staff, and more. Listen via your streaming service or at

What does this all this tell us?

A few things. First, high-quality CPD is absolutely crucial for ensuring that teachers are improving what they do each day. If we do not provide this as leaders, then we are not making sure that our teachers are fulfilling their potential and, in turn, providing the best education that they possibly can to the young people that we serve.

Next, the leadership of this CPD is also crucial. Kraft & Papay’s work was based on an analysis of teachers in “strong” and “weak” professional environments, citing that leaders and the way in which they lead teachers is an important contributing factor to what makes a “strong” professional environment.

So CPD is important and the leadership of it is paramount, yet something tells me you already knew that. The more important question, then, is what kind of CPD makes the most difference.

Research has suggested that large amounts of CPD has little to no impact on the improvement of the quality of teaching in schools – only one per cent was considered to be having an impact on transforming classroom practice (CUREE, 2011) while only seven per cent of schools actively monitor the impact of CPD on student attainment (NFER, 2009).

These findings are more than 10-years-old, and one would hope things have changed. Anecdotally, however, I fear that evaluation of CPD is still not given the attention it deserves in the busy school environment.

Despite this, in recent years, there is one form of CPD, combined with a few others, that is showing promising gains in teacher effectiveness. The important word here is “combined” – it does not work simply by itself and in isolation from other CPD that might be offered. It is known as instructional coaching.

What is instructional coaching?

Coaching is not a new thing in education. Because of this, when you say the word “coaching” in a room of teachers it conjures up a whole host of ideas, models, and systems that people may have used in previous schools, in the past or through courses they have been enrolled on.

For this reason, it is crucial that instructional coaching is carefully understood by those who plan to use it in their schools.

Despite some lack of consensus about the approach to take towards instructional coaching, fundamentally it is a very simple thing. Sam Sims defines it as “involving an expert teacher working with a novice in an individualised, classroom-based, observation feedback-practice cycle”.

Jim Knight (2017) defines it similarly, stating that: “Instructional coaches partner with teachers to help them improve teaching and learning so students can become more successful.”

The best approach to take in the instructional coaching process is the subject of much debate within education. However, we can broadly define three types of instructional coaching using Jim Knight’s spectrum (2017).

Facilitative: The Sounding Board

Coaches who take a facilitative approach encourage teachers to share openly. They refrain from sharing their own expertise or suggestions with respect to what a teacher can do to get better and instead maintain an approach that is keen to ask questions in probing ways. The relationship here is very much based on equality. The coach is more of a sounding board than someone who might give advice.

Dialogical: The Partner

Dialogical coaches share strategies and options for improvements provisionally and help teachers describe precisely what it is they want to achieve and how to get there. They go beyond mere conversation to dialogue, where thinking is done together and neither the teacher nor the coach is expected to withhold their ideas. The relationship is equal.

Directive: The Master and the Apprentice

The directive coach has special knowledge and his or her job is to transfer that knowledge to the teacher. The directive coach works from the assumption that the teachers they are coaching do not know how to use best practices and they can support them to improve what they do in the classroom. The relationship is respectful, but not equal.

In more recent years, a directive approach has been advocated for novice teachers working with those with more expertise. Some have suggested intensive instructional coaching programmes where participants meet weekly or bi-weekly, with small action steps that are formed at the end of each meeting.

Others have adopted a more fluid approach based on coaching models such as GROW (goal, current reality, options or obstacles, will or way forward) or BASIC (background, aim, strategy, implementation, commitment). Regardless of the approach taken, there are three important principles when engaging in instructional coaching.

Three principles for instructional coaching

First, the focus of instructional coaching should always be on improving teaching and learning. The focus should be solely on the next steps that teachers can take to improve what they do in the classroom. The aim is that little-by-little, term after term, cycle after cycle of development, teachers are getting just that little bit better and forming more effective teaching habits. This results in every teacher getting better at their own pace and in their own stage of development, hopefully overcoming the teacher plateau that Kraft & Papay (2014) discuss.

Next, instructional coaching should not be used as standalone CPD; it should sit within a matrix of other opportunities for staff to improve what they do. Sherrington (2021) helpfully provides a thinking tool for developing teaching by looking at it through the lens of whole school, team, and individual teacher development.

By seeing CPD in this way, we can make sure that whole-school development priorities can be cascaded down into team development and instructional coaching across the school, ensuring that everyone’s development needs are met. If instructional coaching does not sit within a system like this, it has the potential to lose focus.

The final principle is that leaders of teaching who want to use instructional coaching have to find a system that is balanced for both coach and coachee. Jim Knight (2017) very much advocates for a dialogic approach, one that in essence is about supporting teachers to meaningfully discuss what they do in the classroom each day and consider tangible next steps as to how they can improve.


As an instructional coach, you are ready to provide strategies and ideas that might improve practice, but it is important that the thinking is done collaboratively between coach and coachee in an equal relationship.

It might be that due to the experience level of the coachee, coaches will be very directive and provide lots of modelling so that teachers can understand how they need to improve.

Likewise, if coaches are working with very experienced teachers, a facilitative approach is what is needed, so that teachers can make better sense of the knowledge they already have towards greater refinement of current practices. Skilled coaches will always use the approach that is best suited to their coachee to ensure that their teaching improves.

My next article – which was published on February 15 – will describe how we have adopted instructional coaching in our school as a form of CPD, sharing the success and pitfalls along the way.

Further information & resources

  • Coe, Higgins & Elliot Major: What makes great teaching? Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, June 2018: (this article summarises the report: Coe et al: What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Sutton Trust, October 2014:
  • CUREE: Evaluation of CPD providers in England 2010/11, 2011:
  • Knight: The Impact Cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching, Corwin Press, 2017.
  • Kraft & Papay: Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (36,4), January 2014:
  • NFER: Teacher Voice Omnibus June 2009 Survey, 2009:
  • Sims: Four reasons instructional coaching is the best-evidenced form of CPD, Sam Sims Quantitative Education Research blog, February 2019:
  • Sherrington: Planning professional learning: One system three streams, Teacherhead blog, February 2021:
  • Wiliam: Love the one you’re with: improving professional development in schools, Guardian, July 2013:
  • William: Assessment, learning and technology: Prospects at the periphery of control, keynote speech to the ALT conference, September 2007:

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