Thinking Aloud When Coaching in the Classroom

Written by Diane Sweeney and Leanna Harris
Excerpted from Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves (Corwin, 2017) ​

Thinking aloud is a coaching move that increases the metacognition and reflection that occurs throughout a lesson. It most commonly occurs when a coach is co-teaching in a classroom. It sounds something like, ‘We just gave the kids a really tough question to grapple with at their tables. I’m going to be listening in around the room to make sure their struggle is staying productive, and that they’re not getting too frustrated.’ Metacognitive thinking about instructional decisions is shared in the moment to maximize learning opportunities for students, and to create openings for reflection and shared learning for the teacher and coach. While it fits quite naturally when co-teaching, it is also a useful strategy when planning and reflecting with teachers.

According to Imel, “Metacognition refers to the ability of learners to be aware of and monitor their learning processes. Cognitive skills are those needed to perform a task, whereas metacognitive skills are necessary to understand how it was performed,” (2002, p. 3). When thinking aloud, both the teacher and coach share their thinking about their instructional decisions and how they are impacting student learning. In real time, they are saying, ‘Here is what I’m noticing, here’s what I think we should do now, and this is why.’ Using this strategy provides the coach with more opportunity to address coachable moments as they happen, rather than waiting to talk about it later. Thinking aloud also allows the teacher and coach to gain insights into each other’s metacognitive processes so that teaching can more easily be adjusted to meet the needs of students during any given lesson.

Why Thinking Aloud is Important
Like driving, teaching involves making countless on the spot decision throughout a lesson. In a review of research studies on teacher decision making, Larry Cuban found that effective teachers have 200-300 mostly unpredictable interactions with students each hour, demanding that they, “improvise – decide on the spot – as they deal with both the routine and unexpected” (2011). At any given moment, some students may be ‘getting it’, and others may not. We ask, ‘Do we pull the whole class back together to discuss? Do we confer individually with those who are confused? Is their struggle likely to be beneficial to their learning? Should we wait and start the lesson tomorrow by having each student share with a partner?’ So many decisions are being made all of the time, and yet how we make these decisions is an entirely invisible endeavor. When we share our thinking aloud, we make this process visible.

The coaching move thinking aloud is important because it enables us to accomplish two things. First, it allows us to share our knowledge about instructional strategies in the moment. Second, it gives us the opportunity to model being metacognitive, or ‘think about our thinking’. It is here where we are able to take the coaching conversation to a rich and reflective place because we are not only sharing the ‘what’ of teaching, but we are offering insight into the ‘why’ behind each particular decision as well.

What Thinking Aloud Looks Like
Sharing your thinking involves taking something that is normally an invisible process, and making it visible – or actually audible – to those around you. Whether it takes place in off to the side conversations between a teacher and coach, or right in front of the whole class, thinking aloud can have a big impact on learning for all involved.

Listen to Your Metacognitive Self
When it comes to thinking aloud as a coach, you might find yourself wondering what it could look or sound like, or what kind of thinking you would possibly have to share. In order to figure this out, we have to start by listening to the metacognitive voice that’s inside our head.

Simply put, metacognition is thinking about your thinking. Lai explains that it includes, “Knowledge about oneself as a learner and the factors that might impact performance, knowledge about strategies, and knowledge about when and why to use strategies” (2011, p. 2). While this may seem like a cumbersome and unnatural process, being metacognitive is actually something that most of us are doing naturally all the time. However, capitalizing on this rich thinking and then using it in our coaching may take some practice. Mostly it involves slowing down and listening to that voice in your head; the one that we typically don’t even notice is there chatting away. To help us do this, here are a few questions we can ask ourselves while we are in planning with teachers or co-teaching in their classrooms.

  • What’s going on right now that I need to take notice of?
  • What am I going to do next?
  • Why have I decided to do this?
  • What do I hope or expect to be the outcome of my decision/action?

While it may seem forced and artificial at first, slowing down and asking yourself these questions will start to bring your metacognitive thinking to the surface. Then when the opportunity arises to share your thinking aloud, your metacognitive voice will be coming in loud and clear.

Let the Thinking Flow Both Ways
Student-centered coaching is a collaborative process. While effective coaches have a strong foundation in instructional practice, they are not experts who are coming in to ‘fix’ the teachers or tell them how to do it the right way. Rather, coaching is meant to be a partnership between professionals who both bring a variety of experience, insights, and expertise to the table. With the coaching move thinking aloud, this means that sharing thinking should be a two way street. This might seem awkward for a teacher at first (as it might have been for the coach, too!). But with a lot of modeling from the coach and some simple prompting with, ‘Tell me what you’re thinking right now’, teachers are typically eager to share their own thinking and to be seen as a valuable partner in the process.

Sometimes when a coach is sharing his or her thinking aloud, it happens in a more formal way as if to say, ‘I’m going to stop right now to tell you what I’m thinking because this feels like a teachable moment.’ But as both the teacher and coach become more comfortable with sharing their thinking with one another, it often takes on the form of a highly reflective conversation happening right there in class. Getting teachers to share their own thinking is a great way to encourage them to be more metacognitive and reflective about their practice – thinking carefully about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of all of the decisions that they are making throughout any given lesson.

Share Your Own Thinking Instead of Giving Advice
Once you have tuned into the metacognitive voice inside your head, it can still take some work to shift from telling how to do something to thinking aloud. As a classroom teacher helping students understand a math problem like 2/5 + 1/4 = ?, the inclination is to either show students how to do it or to ask questions that will lead them down that same path. Yet modeling your own thinking sounds entirely different. Sharing your knowledge about specific strategies and when, why, and how you choose to use them is definitely not the same as simply telling or asking students what to do. This principle holds true even more so in a student-centered coaching model since we are coming from the standpoint of collaborator rather than expert. Therefore, while it may be tempting to advise a teacher what to do in a given situation, we can both build rapport and push teacher learning deeper by sharing our own thinking.

A Final Thought
Thinking aloud allows us to take advantage of learning opportunities as they happen, model being a reflective thinker and learner, and work in a collaborative manner with teachers. It is fun to spend time in this metacognitive space and reflect alongside teachers. And if we do it in an open-minded fashion, it relieves any pressure of feeling evaluative or judgmental of teachers. We are right there, by the teacher’s side, supporting student learning. While it may take some getting used to, it is an important and valuable tool to have in our coaching toolkit.

Cuban, L. (2011). Jazz, basketball, and teacher decision-making. Retrieved from http://www.larrycuban.wordpress.com.

Imel, S. (2002). Metacognitive skills for adult learning. Eric Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. Washington DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Lai, E. (2011). Metacognition: A literature review. Pearson Research Reports. Retrieved from http://www.pearsonassessments.com.

© Diane Sweeney Consulting, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud When Coaching in the Classroom

  1. Thanks for your post. I think either can be effective. It mostly depends on the relationship between the teacher and coach. Another factor might be the grade level. More mentions off to the side seem to occur in secondary settings. Teacher-to-coach dialogue that the whole can hear is more common in elementary.

  2. I’ve never thought of this. I’ve done a version of this when coteaching. I wonder if should be more spontaneous at first. An aside to the teacher or out loud so the whole class might hear?

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