A Continuum of Professional Learning Conversations: Coaching, Mentoring and Everything in Between

Why a Continuum?

Numerous authors have utilised various forms of continua to help people new to coaching and mentoring understand the key differences and, more recently, the nuances of these professional learning conversations.

Myles Downey (2003) first proposed a “spectrum” of directive to non-directive skills in coaching. This spectrum included skills such as listening to understand, reflecting and paraphrasing at the non-directive end and things like offering guidance, giving advice and instructing at the directive end (Downey, 2003). Adapting this concept, Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2012) presented a coaching-mentoring continuum (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012, p16) as a way of illustrating the difference between what he referred to as directive and non-directive interventions in an education context. van Nieuwerburgh goes on to describe the purpose and intent of these interventions and introduces a further intervention - instructional coaching – positioning this as helpfully combining “the non-directive elements of a collaborative way of working with some clearly directive elements” (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012, p17). More recently, Trista Hollweck (2018) presented mentoring and coaching on a mobius strip as an alternative way of representing the multi-faceted “mentor-coach” roles of the participants in her study (Hollweck, 2018).

Further signalling the complexity of the work of coaches, or anyone charged with leading professional learning conversations in schools, Jim Knight (2018) introduces “three approaches to coaching” presented in tabular form (Knight, 2018, p10). Here, three approaches that might be required to help a teacher improve are described as facilitative, dialogical, and directive. Instructional coaching is positioned as a dialogical approach to coaching. Building on this, van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell (2019, p413) collaborated to produce a further tabular representation of forms of coaching and mentoring in education.

All of this work has been helpful in illustrating the similarities and differences between these forms of “helping conversations” (Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh, 2018, p15) as well as highlighting the need for all of them, for different people at different stages in their development. As I have presented the tabular representations to others, I have found myself describing the columns as not being compartmentalised ‘types’ and demonstrating how it can be helpful to imagine ‘hopping’ between the columns as we respond to the needs of the person in front of us. In my experience, the concept of shifting back and forth along a continuum seems to resonate strongly with educators as it conveys slightly more fluidity and responsiveness than a table. This paper respectfully acknowledges the contributions of the aforementioned authors and presents the latest iteration of my thinking on this subject.

A Continuum Within a Continuum

Taking the notion of some conversations being non-directive and others being directive, it might be helpful to consider the purpose and intent of these in education settings, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Conversations in Educational Settings

At the non-directive end we have social, unstructured conversations with no clear roles on either side and often involving multiple people. Social norms, context and levels of emotional intelligence in the listener may influence the degree to which these conversations are enjoyable, empathic or cathartic for the ‘talker’. Key points here are that, initially at least, there is no intentional stance, management of the conversation or role-related expectations on either side.

Moving to the directive end of the continuum, we have conversations that are often initiated by a leader or manager triggered by a concern relating to some sort of expectation. At the extreme right-hand end, the intention is to intervene to stop a particular behaviour or situation. Although these conversations may eventually lead to professional learning, they do not start with this intent.

As coaches, mentors, or anyone concerned with supporting the professional learning of their colleagues, our conversational space sits across the middle section of this continuum. These are professional learning conversations from the outset - conversations with the intention of stimulating and supporting professional growth, critical reflection, capacity building, skill development, performance enhancement, or career development. These conversations presume professionalism. That is to say that those engaged in the conversations are striving to get better at doing what they do. They are ‘customers for change’ (Jackson and McKergow, 2007, p32) and both parties are willing participants in the spirit of reciprocity (Knight, 2011).


A Continuum of Professional Learning Conversations

So, let us now take a closer look at the continuum of professional learning conversations shown in Figure 2. This illustration describes a range of stances that could be adopted in service of the learning of an educator. The use of a continuum as opposed to presenting these as a table is intended to imply that the ‘helper’ can shift stance in the moment and from conversation to conversation in order to best meet the needs of the individual educator. Moreover, removing the coaching and mentoring titles entirely might capture the range of responses needed to best support the learning of a diverse range of colleagues in any given school. The comparative adjectives “less” and “more” used here are perhaps less pejorative and dichotomous than the original “non-directive” and “directive”.

Figure 2: A Continuum of Professional Learning Conversations

A facilitative stance is one where the coach’s predominant “mode of discourse” (van Nieuwerburgh, Knight and Campbell, 2019) is one of inquiry. By holding this stance, we tap into the coachee’s strengths and resources and draw on these to generate options that help them move forward. In the facilitative stance the coach consciously adopts a ‘beginner’s mind’ - one where they set aside their own expertise and thinking in order to be fully open to the possibilities coming from the coachee and their world. The primary focus of the coach is to elicit deep thinking on the part of the coachee.

Moving across to the directive stance, the mode of discourse is one of advocacy. This stance can be necessary when the coachee is stuck, is in new or novel circumstances or simply does not have the experience or resources to find a way forward. This stance aligns with typical definitions of mentoring (although many highly effective mentors may assert that they adopt a more dialogic stance). Here, the mentor is advocating specific ways of doing things, providing direction, giving advice and in some cases, providing training. At this point the coachee is no longer positioned as the key decision maker, effectively putting them in the metaphorical passenger seat (for a time at least).

Part way along the continuum, is a dialogic stance. Here there is a tension between maintaining the discourse of inquiry that empowers the coachee to find their own way, and offering suggestions. As the coach strives to keep the coachee in the ‘driver’s seat’ they must carefully manage their own voice and expertise so as not to create an unhelpful status difference. This stance is most commonly associated with Instructional Coaching (Knight, 2018) where the coach is expected to bring instructional knowledge and expertise to the relationship. In the dialogic stance, the coach does not give advice or tell the coachee what they should do. Rather, they share options and invite the coachee to adapt and contextualise these. At this point, the coach may shift back to a facilitative stance in order to help the coachee to think through their next steps.


Moving Beyond Role Titles

The continuum proposed in Figure 2 represents a move towards a more nuanced understanding of professional learning conversations based on the need to adopt a range of stances rather than be constrained by a role title or definition. Those leading these conversations, whatever they are called, all benefit from the development of key skills, the use of a framework to manage the conversations and the development of a ‘way of being’ that brings out the best in their colleagues. Regardless of whether they are called a coach, mentor, instructional coach, mentor-coach, learning specialist, technology coach, or have any other role that aims to help others develop, we should expect to see many common features in their work. For example: exploring context; goal setting; building on strengths; collecting data; listening; questioning; clarifying; and empathising. In short, the ‘badge’ does not define the work.


Roles, Labels and the Pursuit of Clarity

Reflecting on my own journey as a teacher, leader, mentor, teacher educator, trainer and coach, I can see six stages that have led me to a more sophisticated understanding of professional learning conversations in schools:

  • 1.Learning about different forms of coaching and mentoring and coming to terms with the range of labels, organisers, definitions, job titles and role descriptions that exist in education contexts;
  1. Applying my learning about these in context – the lived experience within the professional learning architecture of the schools, organisations and systems in which I have worked as well as learning from others’ experiences;
  2. Noticing what happened: the tensions, inhibitors and enablers; seeking feedback; and making adaptations;
  3. Becoming less rules-driven or role-constrained and more comfortable with nuance and the need for responsiveness in the moment – allowing things to evolve;
  4. Taking more intentional conversational stances based on perceived need and shifting between these – operating on a continuum; and
  5. Attempting to articulate this clearly to others.

This paper is the product of that journey, so far.


Campbell, J. and van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2018). The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools: Creating Conditions for Effective Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Downey, M. (2003). Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach. Florence, USA: Cengage Learning.

Hollweck, T. (2018), A pracademic’s exploration of mentoring, coaching and induction in the Western Québec School Board, pp31-40, CollectivED [4], Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.

Jackson, P. and McKergow, M. (2007). The Solution Focus: Making coaching and change SIMPLE. (2nd ed.) London: Nicholas Brealey International.

Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Knight, J. (2018). The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2012). Coaching in Education: Getting Better Results for Students, Educators, and Parents. London: Karnac.  

van Nieuwerburgh, C., Knight, J. and Campbell, J. (2019). Coaching in Education. In P. Brownell, S. English & J. Manzi-Sabatine (Eds.), Professional Coaching: Principles and Practice. New York: Springer.


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