Inquiry-based learning and the seven Cs with Kate Sharpe

A Q&A with education consultant Kate Sharpe

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Our Kids asked inquiry-based learning expert Kate Sharpe to discuss her unique approach to the style of classroom learning. Through a series of questions, Sharpe offers her philosophy on how students—and teacherscan benefit from a critical coaching skills and conversational-based learning model.

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In what ways does your approach to inquiry-based learning differ from, say, the more traditional methods?

I have taken the idea of inquiry-based learning and expanded the approach to bring what is lacking in the literature and training available to educators. My approach offers the depth in mindset and skill development that is required to really bring leaders/teachers to conversations differently and deeply.

To that end, I spend most of my time working with and training educators and educational leaders in the critical coaching skills required to facilitate conversations that are truly in service of increasing awareness, choices and action/learning. These three pieces serve as the foundation for my approach to an inquiry-based, coaching or a coach-like conversation to support learning and growth in students.

Why is it important for success in the 21st century for children to have strong self-awareness, intra- and inter-personal skills and resilience? Can you talk about the importance of these four things?

One in five children in every class has a mental health challenge (Government of Ontario, 2014). As an educator with a health and physical education background, and as someone who is deeply committed to helping kids thrive, I can’t step over this reality in our classrooms.

I strongly believe that we need to weave the threads of the Seven Crucial C’s of Resilience (Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011), as shown in the table below, throughout the students’ experiences at school.  

Seven Crucial C’s of Resilience (Ginsburg & Jablow, 2011)

  • Competence
  • Confidence
  • Connection
  • Character
  • Contribution
  • Coping
  • Control

Facilitating a dynamic in the classroom that helps students develop resilience in and through their work and relationships, means that they will be better able to cope, adapt and recover from stress and challenging situations in all parts of their lives. Feels like a priority if we want to maximize learning and engagement, no matter what age or stage we’re at, adults included.

Q: How can educators help facilitate this kind of learning in the classroom?

We need to start by helping the educator. The teachers’ and leaders’ responsibility for helping develop resilience and social literacy in students is growing exponentially.  The boundary between ‘inside school’ and ‘outside school’ is getting more and more difficult to differentiate, and teachers and school leaders are being asked to take more and more on in the classroom.

Particularly in private schools, where parental expectations are significant, and with good reason given the capital they have invested in their child’s learning and growth, teachers can be expected to manage a large part of the child’s character development and resilience training. That’s where I come in. Specialists and further training for teachers is required coupled with inviting parents into the conversation and process.

To help facilitate this kind of learning we educators have had to shift, or what I have come to call ‘pivot’ our stance from a ‘fixing and solving’ approach (student has a problem, teacher intervenes, identifies the solution and helps student make it happen) to a capacity building approach (student has a problem, teacher helps student name and pin point challenge, teacher helps student identify and review choices and step into action). These are not skills you are taught at the Faculty of Education and this is a big part of a teaching day in the 21st century.

In my experience, private schools can be in a better position to help teachers pivot because they have the autonomy and capital to invest in the curriculum and training. Not to suggest that the public education systems are not addressing resilience and social literacy, they absolutely are. What is difficult is finding the funding and space in the very layered and politicized educational agenda. It’s complicated and continues to be priority. Smaller class sizes also play a significant factor in work around student relationships, resilience and self-concept and private schools class sizes are typically smaller. 

Q: What are the foundations of a teacher's ability to approach instruction from a coach’s perspective?

Successful coaching, like successful or effective teaching, is about our ability to meet our clients or students where they are and structure learning conversations and experiences that access responsibility, action and commitment. And our tools are the same: dialogue, inquiry, reflection, and assessment.

As effective coaches and effective teachers, we also hold our clients, or students accountable by sharing in their progress and securing their learning. We create opportunities to acknowledge effort, improvement and achievements.

And once we have established a new set of coordinates, new targets are set, manageable steps identified and support accessed for the next leg of the shared learning journey.

As coaches and coach-like leaders/teachers, we must be competent in the skills that allow us to:

Whether we’re thinking about building a student’s numeracy, literacy  or creative skills the model, stance and critical coaching skills are the same.

Q: You're leading co-leading a provincial project in the areas of leadership, coaching and mentoring in the school system: can you talk about why those three qualities are important?

Building capacity, growing the talent and improving results in education, be it in the private, public, catholic or French system includes all the stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, administrators and staff. Mentoring and coaching programs are now recognized as key strategies for helping this happen.

My colleague and co-creator Jeanie Nishimura and I have developed a series of Coaching, MentorCoaching and LeadershipCoaching training programs to help this happen: with educators, leaders, staff, students and parents.  We have brought coaching together with mentoring and leadership development programs to help extend the depth and impact of formal and informal learning partnerships, teams and communities across Ontario and into New York State.

Why do coaching and mentoring matter? Because, as Malcolm Gladwell likes to say ‘we’re leaving too much talent on the table’ and the intellectual capital that is being grown is not being fully leveraged.  Mentoring and coaching unpack and address all of this. The researchers that have followed our programs confirm that with the support and structures that a solid mentoring and coaching relationship can provide, leadership development is accelerated and engagement is increased. For more, watch for our forthcoming book on the coach approach to building capacity in leaders and students in 2015.

Kate Sharpe, M.Ed., Certified Professional Coach, A.C.P.C.

Kate Sharpe is an educator and certified professional coach. Her expertise as an award-winning educator, researcher, and adolescent health education programming consultant, all contribute to her approach to coaching and educational consulting. Kate’s uses coaching, as a set of pedagogical and leadership tools, in her work with students, teachers, administrators and government.

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