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How can instructional coaching move our curriculum from paper to practice?

Written by: Claire Hill  Joshua Goodrich
8 min read

Have we lost sight of the classroom in our focus on curriculum?

In recent years, there’s been a welcome focus on the importance of curriculum and a wealth of knowledge shared around curriculum theory. Yet an exclusive focus on curriculum design can mean that we are left with carefully planned documents but much less clarity on how to translate paper to practice in the classroom.

We need to be as focused on how the curriculum will be delivered as we are about what it includes. As Mary Kennedy (2016) points out, unless we focus on how teachers will enact the curriculum in their classrooms, we are left with ideas that do nothing to influence student learning. Closing this ‘what–how’ gap is how we move from well-crafted documents detailing our intended curriculum to its effective enactment in the classroom.

How can coaching help to close the what–how gap?

To close the what–how gap, it’s essential to create the conditions for teachers to engage in curriculum conversations that have classroom enactment at their heart. This ensures that curriculum development is something that is ‘done with’ teachers and not ‘done to’ them. Instructional coaching offers perhaps the most effective mechanism to do this.

Contrary to the misconceived idea that coaching deals solely with the ‘performative’ aspects of teaching such as behaviour management, effective coaching is grounded in curricular content. It offers a powerful way of giving feedback to teachers that is specific to subject, teacher and student. This is because effective coaching involves a number of key principles:

  • Breaking down effective enactment: Coaching is focused on breaking down teaching into a series of granular, achievable, ‘high-leverage practices’ (O’Flaherty and Beal, 2018). Each practice is designed to solve a particular problem around effective curriculum implementation.
  • Being diagnostic: The coach acts diagnostically, rooting the change in the reality of a teacher’s context. Coaches look for areas where a teacher meets challenges in implementing curriculum, and focus their coaching on this. 
  • Using mechanisms: Coaches use modelling (Grossman et al., 2009) and rehearsal (Hobbiss et al., 2020) to help teachers to alter their mental models (Correnti et al., 2020) of what effective practice looks like, and to achieve a fidelity of implementation (Kretlow and Bartholemew, 2010).
  • Iterating: Coaches stick around for the long haul, rather than simply setting the target and leaving. The frequency of the process leads teachers to make more rapid improvement (Kraft et al., 2018; Joyce and Showers, 2002).


Coaching helps teachers to bridge the gap between a high-leverage practice such as questioning or modelling, and their specific subject and context. It is this synthesis of pedagogical technique and curricular content that helps to move our intended curriculum from paper to practice.

What does this look like in practice?

Teachers need to be skilled in crafting well-designed questions that expose and develop students’ understanding of the curriculum. To do so, teachers need to have the subject and curricular knowledge, along with classroom confidence, to use questioning to respond to and build on students’ ideas. Training focused on generic questioning techniques is unlikely to have a positive impact on teaching practice (Sims et al., 2020). By contrast, coaching can be effective in both supporting teachers to conduct well-managed classroom discussions, and developing teachers’ subject and curricular knowledge in order to ask better questions.

Techniques rooted in curricular knowledge

While an overarching technique such as questioning may include core principles that can be germane to any subject, how these are applied rely on the curriculum being taught. For example, if an English teacher wants to improve how their questions challenge and stretch students’ thinking, this can only be achieved through questions that are rooted in curricular content. To achieve this aim, a teacher and coach will spend time delving into the subject knowledge required to design questions for a specific lesson and for a specific text. In a lesson focusing on Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow’ soliloquy, the teacher and coach may script questions such as ‘What is the significance of the final line being shorter than all previous lines?’ or ‘How does the final word “nothing” underpin the motifs seen throughout the soliloquy?’, along with follow-up questions to help students to make links between this moment in the play and what comes before and after. 

Designing these questions and rehearsing how to develop students’ answers requires deep  knowledge of the text and of the key curricular concepts – such as metre, motif, hubris and tragedy – that the text exemplifies. Coaching exposes the process of designing questions that best fit the subject content and curricular intentions. This has the dual benefit of improving the teacher’s subject knowledge while also developing their understanding of how to design challenging and purposeful questions in the future.

Comparably, for a maths teacher wanting to improve how they use questions to make abstract ideas more concrete for students, the coaching conversation might focus on how best to frame questions when teaching a specific curricular concept. Instead of asking students to calculate the area of a shape, a coach might suggest asking students to draw four shapes, all of which would have an area of 40cm2. This shift in question style relies on the teacher having good pedagogical knowledge of task design but also understanding the procedures and rules for calculating area, in order to find ways in which to make this more visible to students. The coaching conversation exemplifies how task and question design can lead to a better depth of student understanding, which can then be applied to future planning.

In both the English and maths scenarios, coaching conversations focus on a similar technique that the teacher wants to develop, but the way in which this is designed and modelled is rooted in subject specificity and the aims of the curriculum. This creates the opportunity to share subject expertise in designing more challenging, insightful or better-constructed questions that are anchored by the curricular content being delivered. Coaching also allows exploration of the ‘most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject’ (Shulman, 1986, pg 9). Rather than specifying the questions that teachers should ask at each stage of the curriculum, these coaching conversations help to develop teachers’ understanding of both the technical aspects of asking effective questions and their subject and curricular knowledge. In doing so, coaching helps to improve curriculum fidelity, not through paperwork but through meaningful subject-specific pedagogical discourse.

Making better decisions

Similarly, while a curriculum map might indicate which models should feature at different stages of learning, how these are delivered in the classroom requires decisions that are much more granular and context-specific than we can illustrate in a document. To make these decisions, the teacher needs to have a secure understanding of the subject and of the students in front of them. A coach can help to support that understanding and expose those decisions, guiding the teacher in using the most appropriate models for the curricular content being delivered.

In a maths lesson, the coach may support the teacher to devise a continuous cycle of faded transition modelling of ‘I, we, you’, working through a number of problems in one lesson to be fully responsive to students’ needs. An English teacher and their coach might devise a sequence of lessons that includes a back and forth of ‘I and we’ modelling over a longer sequence of lessons, building students’ expertise towards more extended, independent pieces over time. These coaching conversations go far deeper than simply defining when models are to be used or assigning a broad target to incorporate faded modelling into lessons. Instead, the coaching conversation and action steps for the teacher are firmly rooted in the needs of the subject, the teacher and their students, helping the teacher to make better decisions about how and when to use specific techniques based on their context.

Exposing and addressing challenges

By the same token, coaching can help to identify specific barriers to effective delivery where, even with a resource-rich curriculum and detailed exemplification, the what–how gap remains. Curriculum leaders may provide models to exemplify key curricular concepts but find that when they are introduced in the classroom, the teacher struggles to use the model to support their students, perhaps simply displaying the model and asking students to use it to write their own. Providing the teacher with a model is insufficient, as this does not exemplify how the model will be put into practice in the classroom, and is therefore unlikely to have the intended impact on student learning. The teacher may not be confident in narrating the thought process behind the model’s construction or may be unsure of which questions to ask to expose and address students’ misconceptions. However, in order to support the teacher to improve their use of modelling, there needs to be a clear process in identifying the specific challenge that the teacher is facing and working together to address it. An effective coach will spend time with the teacher focusing on a specific model for an upcoming lesson and working through multiple cycles of rehearsal to help to expose and address the various challenges of subject knowledge and pedagogy that arise.

Building strong mental models

Not only does rehearsal and iteration help the teacher to deliver the curriculum more confidently and skilfully in front of their class, but it also helps them to build their mental models of utilising specific techniques more generally (Kazemi et al., 2016). This process is grounded in developing both the teacher’s subject and pedagogical knowledge – as the rehearsal focuses on a concrete example, allowing the teacher to improve their practice for the upcoming lesson – while also developing their mental model for using this pedagogical technique in the future. By helping the teacher to build strong mental models, the coach supports the teacher to become increasingly fluent and automatic in their decisions (Berliner, 2001). This fluency allows the teacher to be more responsive in the classroom, flexing and adapting the curriculum as they become increasingly confident in their craft and less reliant on extensive exemplification on paper. In doing so, teacher development and curriculum development become symbiotic: each improves the other.

Final thoughts

Coaching helps teachers to engage with subject discourse and develop their understanding of both the curriculum and how it might look in the classroom. For our curriculum to be implemented with fidelity, we need to support teachers to develop both the subject knowledge and the pedagogical expertise required to deliver it. Of course, coaching provides just one piece of the puzzle for great teaching and requires a culture of feedback, strong systems, great training and responsive leadership to be truly effective.

Disclaimer: This article describes a coaching model based on an approach utilised by Steplab in their professional development platform for schools and trusts, and is not a description of all coaching models for teacher development of which many others are available.

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