Posted by: principalsintraining | December 4, 2013

The Art of Coaching: Or, Disrupting the Echo Chamber


“Disruption” is dusting itself off from decades of semantic scorn and experiencing newfound admiration.  I heard George Couros say recently: “To innovate we need to disrupt our routine.”  It’s funny to see this word experience such a dramatic turnaround in the world of education after so many decades of being BAD – so bad that it’s one of the default computer codes I can choose when logging student disciplinary incidents.  So how do we go about accomplishing this disruption, and, as Mr. Couros points out, pave the pathway to innovation?  Once we accomplish it, what will it look, sound, and feel like?

Enter the Coach.

My first post in this series on coaching posits that coaches help us do (at least) three things:
  • Do what we thought was unthinkable
  • Help us better see and understand who WE are, and (I might argue, most critically)
  • Dismantle the narrowing effects of the echo chambers we often unconsciously occupy – and propagate – in our work and relationships.

As a way to break out of the “echo chamber” of my own thoughts, I decided to model the behaviors that good coaching elicits in its recipient – an openness to other’s ideas and perspectives in the process of composing this post.  How to do so?  Why not tap into my global network of thinkers and colleagues through Twitter?  A quick investment of 140 characters has radically shifted the landscape of this post, for the better.  (Do you still need convincing that Twitter is a worthwhile investment of your time?  Or is it too much of a disruption of your routine?)

Quickly: what is an echo chamber?  I define it as the dynamic created in an individual, a team, and/or a culture in which beliefs, habits, attitudes, and practices are continually reinforced and virtually never questioned or reconsidered.  Why are they not questioned?  The force of inertia, tradition, vested interest in maintaining the status quo, fear of reprisal from peer groups, adherence to expected roles in the established organizational/societal hierarchy…Echo chambers may offer a sense of safety to some, while others understand clearly that they are on the outside.

The first step toward breaking the enclosed system of a team, a campus, a district – or an individual – is the simple act of inviting someone from outside to join you in the room, even as a listener.  The Coach’s most radical contribution to an established “space” (individual, team, all-school) is often the simple act of deeply listening to us spew our guts about who we are and what we believe.  Often we are so engrossed in doing things that we don’t spend the time talking through our values, actions, and patterns.  

Robin Dubiel‘s post on coaching is a flat out incredible demonstration of the mindset a great coach has: first and foremost, they understand the need to disrupt their own ego to be able to truly help their client (or spouse, or child…) reach their goals.  As she says: “How does working with me on projects influence their ability to think independently?  How might I be ignoring their ideas and knowledge in preference to my own?”  This is the moment where I pause and ask leaders and teachers (and myself!) to consider their answers to these questions when it comes to how they construct learning experiences for students and adults.

In fact, it is this sense of control that we have to be willing to relinquish if we want to nourish a culture of collaboration, reflection, continuous growth, and, yes – innovation!

Please take some time to read Sam’s resource – excerpts from Rick Ross’s The Ladder of Inference.  “Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that: our beliefs are the truth/the truth is obvious.”  I would make this document the “entry event” for the formation of any team.

Sergio Villegas shared with me a John Maynard Keynes quote in Nicholas Wapshott’s book “Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics:”

“When treading on unfamiliar paths, one is extremely dependent on criticism and conversation if one is to avoid an undue proportion of mistakes.  It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long, alone.” (Emphasis mine)

Sergio then recalled something that an American priest he had met in Italy told him:

“I don’t care what you believe or how strongly, if you do not spend regular time with people who think differently than yourself, you are a fanatic.”

Disruption is nothing more than looking in the mirror and recognizing where we are fanatical.  Our rigid tendencies.  Our unquestioned comfort with (or resistance to) a practice, an idea, a person, a system.  Great coaches are brave in holding up the mirror and humble enough to know they need to do the same looking.

I’m grateful for the time each of these four took to think about my question.  It happens all the time in education, and, by extension, on Twitter – people sharing for the sake of weaving a common fabric of knowledge.  Sergio pointed out that the four people I tweeted my question to are spread out all over the globe – three continents to be precise (I’m lucky to live one county over from Sergio – that said, we still met through Twitter!).  It is a beautiful feeling to see barriers dissolve and participate in a global cohort of unique, wonderful thinkers – who all happen to be committed and passionate educators!



  1. Eric, thank you so much for including my thoughts in your blog post. I am honoured and humbled by this.

    I am taking a university class that is all about Teachers as Professionals. This week, we are discussing the power of collaborative, social learning; basically, some of the best learning we engage in does not happen in a vacuum or ‘echo chamber’. I have mentioned you and my ever-expanding PLN on Twitter, as well as the impact having ongoing professional conversations with my global colleagues has had on me personally and, therefore, professionally.

    In all our conversations, the focus is on helping students learn by growing as professionals. We use our collective wisdom to reflect on and sometimes rethink the decisions we are making on behalf of our students. Twitter has pushed me out of my own ‘echo chamber’ in many ways, thanks to inspiring colleagues such as you, Sergio, Sam, William, and many, many others.

    I hope that my classmates join in on the collaboration we have only just begun.

    Our PLN rocks! #CAnada&CAliforniastartwithCA

    • I like to think this post is a nice bit of “social learning” -knowledge starts with a question and magnifies when shared and passed through various lenses and filters. I am really excited for our co-blog on visible collaboration amongst teachers – it’s a realm lots of teachers and leaders need the time and space to explore. We need to redefine the idea of professional worth from one of “lone expert” to “integral part of a dynamic whole.” Sometimes I laugh even at the idea of one “principal” to a school. We talk about “team-teaching” – what about “team-leading?” Cheers Robin!

  2. Reblogged this on Process of Living.

  3. Hi Eric,
    Love the ecosystem you are cultivating here as a process of networked learning; coaching is both a humbling and paradoxically powerful art to practice.
    Thanks for illuminations (ripple effect!).

    • Ripples of thought colliding and magnifying in strength/intensity! It is very special to experience this personally (this post is physical evidence) and to see it take root in others (watching teams form, watching them consciously change course…). I do feel sadness at the pervasive pockets of isolationism in education, though I do understand it from the cultural context of inherited tradition. What an interesting time to be in this realm. Thank you, Sam.

  4. […] at the same school with him for three years.  I like all of his posts, but here I will highlight The Art of Coaching: Or, Disrupting the Echo Chamber.  As an administrator it is important to remember how to be a coach first – how to nurture […]

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