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Student Development? What is the "BEST" approach?

“You only had one job!”

“Yeah I did...but which one was it...Instructor? Teacher? Coach? Mentor?”

Instructor, teacher, coach or mentor?

In many cases the four titles of instructor, teacher, coach and mentor are used in an interchangeable way. Little regard, if any, is given to any specific differences between these roles. On the very surface of it, there are indeed broad similarities across these roles, generically all being concerned with the development and leadership of others towards a defined task.

A deeper analysis however presents us with a very different picture. One where the specific roles become distinct in respect of their orientation, subject focus and process of delivery. The question is which is best? Is one specific approach more beneficial in generating results over and above another?

More importantly within your classes, in your academy or school, which role do you adopt?

Teaching vs Coaching Matrix

The Instructor

The Instructor is a performance orientated role. Being an expert in the subject or skill, the instructor educates other through demonstration of and subsequent assessment of a specific capability. The instructor shows how to do something, a technique, an exercise or how to use a piece of equipment. They provide an opportunity for the student to rehearse and demonstrate their competence in that specific capability (or specific subject), giving feedback based on the proficiency of the student. The role of the instructor is “hands-on”, providing direct interaction and communication with the student.

The Teacher

The Teacher is also performance orientated role. The teacher is again an expert in the subject, skill or capability being taught. They fulfill many (if not all) the responsibilities undertaken by the instructor. The key difference between a teacher and an instructor is in the application of the subject/skill being taught. The role of a teacher is more focused toward the general application of the skill. They enable the student to realise the concepts behind the specific capability, facilitating the successful application in related situations.

Typically the teacher is based within the education of a broader curriculum, enabling the acquisition and development of a wider range of capabilities and knowledge. The role however remains to be a performance orientated one, with “hands-on” direct interactions with the student. The role of the teacher again, remains to be a one-way interaction which seeks to develop and subsequently assess the students performance against specific criteria.

The Coach

The Coach is a person orientated role. The coach seeks to facilitate mastery of a skill or subject area, working with students to improve and develop their self efficacy (self confidence relative to the performance of a specific task/goal). The coach then works with the student to investigate their competency and their beliefs/anxieties associated with this. They provide request feedback from the student and further provide their own feedback to better support and guide the student. In this respect, coaching is a cyclical, ongoing interaction with the student, which uses a more “ hands-off” indirect form of interaction.

The emphasis on the coach is to generate a better intrinsic understanding within the student, of their own performance and progress. Whilst the coach may use some of the direct approaches of the instructor and teacher, having the student demonstrate and rehearse specific skills, their focus remains on the long term development of the student. The coach’s focus provides the student opportunity to understand the barriers they have in regards to their own individual development. Then through a process of empathic questioning, feedback and support, the coach works with the student to get them to identify and action the appropriate solutions.

The Mentor

The role of the mentor is again takes on a more person orientated approach. The focus here is a more general, broad perspective, more directed towards the motiations, beliefs and values of the student. The mentor works with the student to fill in the gaps, support and celebrate personal growth and development. Rather than recommending strategies the mentor advises and facilitates the students own introspective analysis. The mentor listens, and seeks to empathetically understand the position of the student. Their focus is on generating and developing the student’s personal understanding of their own potential and the strategies they need in order to realise this. A mentor is a supportive adviser and counsellor, signposting the way rather than directing the student in their development.

Context may be a big factor in teaching style

These four roles can then be seen as being very distinct and different, with each having its own strengths and limitations in regards to a students development. For example, faced with a large class we be challenged to identify individual values and beliefs (which is important for coaching and mentoring) and may well be best suited to adopt a more direct style of communication, teaching and/or instructing a specific skill or subject. Conversely as students progress and advance in their technical understanding of the specific art or subject, taking opportunity to more specifically focus on their individual motivations and beliefs, will undoubtedly be useful in respect of underpinning achievement of their long term goals and adherence. Is it then that there is no one style or approach that is best, rather the approach we take towards the development of students is determined by the specific context in which we encounter that student?

It’s also worth considering whether the approach we take towards student development is somewhat determined by age. For younger students it may be challenging, or indeed inappropriate, to identify their individual values and beliefs. Where as this introspective analysis and investigation can be invaluable to adult students as they begin to understand their emotional drivers, anxieties and generate coping strategies. This isn’t to suggest that empathy, support and feedback isn’t important in the development of younger students, however again the context and manner in which these are employed may change, with a greater emphasis on the identifiable performance based criteria.

Individual factors and age may affect what role we assume.

Often there is no one way to facilitate the optimal development of a student. The fact that we are all individuals, individually interpreting and affected by our experiences will mean that there can never be a one size fits all approach. Additionally, there’s the simple human factor to consider that one day we might best respond to simply being told what to do, where as the next we’re more inclined to deeper processing and wider concepts. We all learn individually. To assist however it is important to have a plan, strategy and understanding of development.

A fantastic model for “competency development” was suggested by Noel Burch at Gordon Training International in the 1970’s. Burch’s “Conscious Competence Model” suggested we generally move through four key stages when developing a new skill. Through understanding what the specific criteria and features of each stage are we are better positioned to provide the appropriate support and coaching to facilitate the students continued development.

Conscious Competence Model

Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage the student does not know how to do something, or why they must do it. Often there is a complete detachment from any sense of value connected with changing their current capability or level of performance. In order to move forward recognition of the “deficiency” must be engendered. This can be seen as providing a stimulus to develop by reinforcing the positive benefits of the change and value of the new skills.

At this stage, coaching and mentoring have a great role to play in creating the circumstances where a student can identify their own level of performance. In addition, through this indirect type of interaction, the student can begin to identify what intrinsic value and reward they place in developing that new capability.

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence

In this stage the student is aware of the skill gap. They now know what they should do but are still somewhat unaware of how they should do it. At this stage the student may be very self-conscious and can be reluctant to proceed due to a fear of failure.

The role of the instructor and teacher becomes increasingly important at this stage. Demonstration and reinforcement of the correct manner in which to perform the skill is clearly important. Equally important is the need for positive feedback, with the student being reassured that feeling confused and making mistakes is part of the process of learning. Additionally, the student should be reassured that they are able to provide feedback on their experience as part of the coaching process and feel positively supported in doing so.

Stage Three: Conscious Competence

At this stage the student knows what they need to do and how they should go about doing it. They are however still working towards proficiency and there is a continued need for positive reinforcement, demonstration and rehearsal. The kill or competency may still feel very “unnatural” and the emphasis here is on becoming more fluid in regards to the execution.

This stage again requires the continued focus of an instructor/teacher role. It is important that we continue to focus assessment towards the successful completion of the specific skill/subject, positively supporting and encouraging the student. Two way feedback on their experience at this stage continues to be extremely value during this stage. Coaching the student in this way, overtime, the skill becomes better reinforced and more deeply embedded.

Stage Four: Unconscious Competence

At this stage the skill has become fundamentally embedded. Essentially the student can perform the skill “habitually” with a feeling of fluidity and efficiency. It is at this stage that “creativity” and “modification” may begin to occur as the student begins to more deeply understand the underlying concepts.

At this final stage the role of the mentor becomes essential. The student has acquired the physical capability and indeed could effectively instruct/teach others to do the same. However the nature of the activity, in the guise of continued repetition and rehearsal may begin to appear as a demotivating factor. In the absence of the correct guidance and support the student could possibly assume that they have “achieved” the goal and perceive no further development is possible. This is the classical perception of the “black belt” being the end, as opposed to the beginning of the learning cycle for many martial arts students.

Our role as guides within the martial arts is then fundamentally important. Through adopting certain roles we are positioned to facilitate the long-term adherence of our students. We all possess the drive to ensure that we teach our students the best technical version of our arts. We all possess the motivation to ensure that our arts continue to exist way beyond our own personal involvement in them. In this then we need to ensure that we recognise that we are more than just instructors of physical skills and capabilities and really embrace the position we have to facilitate the emotional and cognitive development of our students through coaching and mentoring.


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