by Tiffany Poirier

Coaching is learning! This article explores how educators can deepen the inquiry process, make the most of valuable face-to-face class time, and empower students to become Inquiry Ninjas by fostering the practice of “Peer Coaching”.

QUESTION: How can I support 30 students–each doing 30 different inquiry projects–if I only have a 40-minute block with them? (Keep in mind I am also supposed to use this time to teach students new skills and content and make progress on prescribed learning outcomes!)

Ah, the eternal teacher dilemma! Time with students is so valuable and limited. Here is a powerful, time-maximizing educational solution I’ve used with great success with students of a range of ages: Peer Coaching Sessions! 

“Peer Coaching” sessions empower the inquiry process.

The secret is you don’t have to personally meet with each student every week, and you can still provide each student with a quality personalized coaching experience on a regular basis. That’s because when you start off the school year by investing time teaching students as a group how to be effective coaches for one another, then (a.) they enjoy taking more responsibility for the learning happening in class, (b.) they develop stronger positive relationships and bonds of trust with one another, and (c.) you are freed up to monitor their process from a bird’s-eye-view, trouble-shoot as needed, and assess what kind of advanced training you need to structure next for the whole group.

IMAGINE: What if once every week or two, you set aside 20 minutes for Peer Coaching? Imagine how helpful it would be if your students knew the process for Peer Coaching in advance, and they could grab their clipboards and partners and get down to business on their own. This would mean you would have time to circulate the room to listen in and offer support as students coach each other in pairs.

For example, you see Jennifer holding a clipboard with a set of guiding questions.  She asks Ben, “How do you feel about your progress on your inquiry project this week?”  Ben reflects, brainstorms, and creatively problem solves his own quandary with the gentle nudge of Jennifer’s open-ended questions.

Each student get 10 minutes to explore his or her project with a peer coach, and after the 20 minutes students may turn in their notes from their coaching sessions to you for review in the form of a “Coaching Session Summary”.  Voila! You have a nice neat documentation of your students’ progress, and you know which students to target with further support. Perhaps occasionally some students the check the box requesting to make a follow-up coaching appointment with you, and now you have a snapshot of the student’s situation issue and can better prepare for how to approach addressing it. 

Generally, you will see how the students amaze both you and themselves with their insight and creative problem solving powers just during these short student-led coaching sessions alone.  This fact you find often reinforced during the additional two minutes you take at the end of each Peer Coaching session for each student to be invited to orally report out to the whole group with two quick sentences: “Something I explored in my coaching session today was…” and “Something new I discovered was…”

So how do we prepare students to make this kind of peer coaching a part of our classroom practice? Here are some steps you can take and adapt to any age and ability range.  [I’ve personally used a modified version of this process I develop with students as young as grade 3.]

(1.) Give an Introduction:   One day I announce to students that I would like to give them the gift of “executive-style productivity coaching sessions”!  I explain this while walking around serving each student a cozy cup of herbal tea and cookies, which just seems to relax and put students more at ease and get them mentally prepared for reflection, focus and sharing.  (The surprise of a creature comfort is often appreciated and a nice way to indicate that something different is happening.) I then explain that professional coaching something successful leaders in the business world, sports, creative fields and other areas often use because the support can helps to deepen a person’s insight and develop capacity as a high performer able to learn and achieve more.  I suggest to students that we consider a once-per-week practice of 20-minute sessions, and ask if there is anyone who would like to join the list of as rotating volunteers to bring in and assist with the set up of the tea/goodies each time.

(2.) Define Consultant vs. Coach:  Next we examine the difference between a “consultant” and a “coach”. I like to start by dramatizing the difference by impersonating a client, a consultant, and a coach as follows:

Client: “I’m trying write this speech for my friend’s wedding, but I just keep putting it off. Danielle is getting married in a week, and now I’m panicking.”

Consultant: “Have you tried doing a Google search for ‘wedding speech templates’?  Do you need recommendations for good books on speech writing? Would you like me to look at a draft of your speech and give you some pointers?”

Coach: “Why is sharing this speech important to you? What is the hardest part about starting to write this speech? What could be been causing you to put off writing this speech?  How might you break down this speech-writing task into smaller, manageable action steps for yourself over the next 3 days?”

Then, I ask students, “What did you notice about the difference between the types of questions the consultant asked versus the types of questions the coach asked?”  Students often notice and say something like this: “The consultant’s questions were more like instructions, and the coach was trying to get at the causes.”

Then, as a group we discuss how a consultant is an expert to whom you may go to find out specific information for what to do to solve a problem or get a desire results.  While a coach, on the other hand, is a guide to whom you may go to encounter questions that can lead you to find and create your own solutions.

Slide2(3.) Analyze Advantages and Limitations of Both the Consultant and Coach Roles: Next, we brainstorm the advantages and limitations of both the Consultant and Coach approaches. There will typically be agreement by students that both the consultant’s and coach’s type of questions have value and that there is a time and need for both, depending on the situation.

Then I ask, “If you want to support fellow classmates to increase their productivity in their inquiry projects, which kind of questions you should start with first, Coach questions or Consultant questions?” Students often answers like this:

  • “It depends.”
  • “You should ask the client what they want from you.”
  • “You should start as the coach and then become a consultant if they don’t have any ideas.”

I remember one time a student offered this passionate advice: “But maybe if a coach asks better questions, and listens and actually gives them time to answer, then the person will find their own answers!”

Usually it seems students quickly agree that it is best to support a classmate in his/her project work by starting off wearing the coach’s hat, and then if needed, ask the “client” if it would be helpful to for him or her to transition into a consultant  role.  [Some students express they feel more comfortable being a consultant, either because they have a lot of ideas or because they just don’t know what kind of questions a coach would ask. So this is why we need to teach more about the coach approach–so our students don’t go through life thinking the best way to help is only to give advice!] 

(4.) Co-Create Coach’s Guidelines: The next step is to invite students to draft a list of “Coach’s Guidelines” they could agree to have govern their coaching sessions, which may–if they decide–also involve some amount of consultation. I tell students, “Throughout the year, you will be paired with different peer coaches in our class, so try to think of the creating general coach guidelines that would work for everyone.  See the above sample of Coach’s Guidelines; how could you adapt it to meet the need of your students?

Productivity Question Set
Productivity Question Set

(5.) Analyze and Use “Question Sets”:  An experienced coach has internalized the coaching process to the point that he or she can question in a natural, organic way that is tailored to the needs of his or her client.  However, to become an experienced coach, it helps to have and draw from a toolkit of coaching “Question Sets” in order to see how coach’s questions may sound and flow. These “Question Sets” are a collection of coaching questions that are organized in a meaningful progression and usually explore one central theme.  You may share with your students this example of a “Productivity Question Set” and have them practice coaching one another using it. Ask what they like about this “Question Set”. Ask how they would revise it for their own purposes. Use this “Question Set” as a provocation for students to consider, “What sorts of questions, and in which order, are the most helpful in coaching others towards success?  What makes a ‘Question Set’ effective?”

(6.) Create “Question Sets”: To help students go to the next level, challenge them to create their own “Question Sets” to address a particular issue.  For example, you might present students with scenarios such as the following:

Scenario A: You are coaching Bobby, who hasn’t made any progress this week on his project designing a miniature working model of flight machine. He says his first model broke, and he’s just not feeling that into his project anymore.  What are some questions you could ask as his coach?

Scenario B: Jane is investigating her question of “What is laughter?”  She is having a hard time narrowing whether to examine this question through a biological, psychological, or sociological lens–or to try to do all three in her one project. She is feeling overwhelmed, and still doesn’t know what type of a project she wants to create and share, let alone how she should start to research this topic. What are some questions you could ask as her coach?  

(7.) Empower Self-Coaching: Let students know that one of the key goals of Peer Coaching is to empower them learn the skills to become effective Self-Coaches, and coaching others is a great way to do that.  It’s inspiring how often I find that students who are less fluent in their own self-reflection process, discover that they can more easily think of coaching questions to ask others because they have a more objective stance when not so close to a project.  That’s a great first step! Certainly, as I teacher, I too have discovered how I’ve deepened my own metacognitive and intrapersonal skills–as well as communication and interpersonal skills–in striving to be a better coach for my students. This is one of the many reasons that I believe we should turn the coaching and questioning process over to students. Student-led coaching is not only a time-saving way to provide motivating and educational check-ins with students during their inquiry work, it is a powerful learning opportunity and helpful way to provide students with the instruction, practice, and support they need to eventually become their own best coaches and reach success.

(8.) Develop and Practice Using a Set of “Core Questions”: As students go deeper into their inquiry work, it can feel like “falling down the rabbit hole”: exciting, but disorienting and at times overwhelming.  A common area I’ve seen my students struggle with is learning to see the forest from the trees.  It’s great when students have a teacher and their peers to turn to for support and coaching–and it’s even better if they have the confidence and  skills to turn to themselves for self-coaching.

So how can we make effective questioning and a “coach approach” a “go-to strategy” for students if they are falling off track? Make it a regular classroom practice and make it simple. Here are six “Core Questions” students could carry with them to consider regularly:

  1. GOAL: What is my goal with my inquiry project?
  2. RATIONALE: Why is this goal important to me?
  3. ONGOING ASSESSMENT: How much is my current action helping me on the path towards my goal?
  4. REDIRECTION: What can I do differently right now to steer back on course?
  5. SUPPORT: Who/what can help me if I am struggling to get back on course and exhibiting avoidance behaviours?
  6. MOTIVATION: What do I stand to gain and how will I feel when I am successful in achieving my goal?

What “Core Questions” do you consider each day to help guide you towards your goals?  Would it help to post these questions somewhere prominent in the classroom? How could you use or adapt the above six questions to meet your own needs and the needs of your students?

Best wishes in your questioning and coaching journeys with your students! You have a wealth of wisdom and experience, and I would love to learn from you.  Please share your ideas, experiences, questions, comments, and advice below.  



  1. I was unable to find the page on different opportunities for public speaking with the link you provided at the leadership symposium today. So if you see this it would be nice if you were to provide me with the correct link or providing the links to websites in an reply.

    Thank you for your time 🙂


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