What teachers can learn from 'bug-in-ear' coaching

Teachers receiving live feedback through an earpiece whilst teaching has become a popular training technique in some US schools. But how well does it work?
14th January 2022, 4:42pm
Kate Parker


What teachers can learn from 'bug-in-ear' coaching


Wouldn't it be nice if every time you were struggling to overcome a problem with a class, there was a helpful little voice in your ear telling you exactly what to do?

This might seem like a fantasy, but, in fact, it is the reality for trainee teachers in some schools in the US where the "bug-in-ear" coaching method has become standard practice for teacher training.

The exact approach varies from school to school, but, essentially, bug-in-ear coaching involves a teacher wearing an earpiece whilst teaching. Their lesson is filmed and live-streamed to a coach or mentor, who sits in another room and provides live feedback via the earpiece. 

If you're thinking that this sounds incredibly distracting, it's worth pointing out that there is research to back up the approach. 

In 2014, researcher Marcia Rock and colleagues collated studies looking at the impact that this kind of coaching can have on teachers. 

One study found that bug-in-ear coaching allayed trainees' fears and provided well-timed suggestions that often redirected the course of a problematic lesson (Herold et al, 1971). Another found that adding two hours of bug-in-ear coaching to traditional teacher training workshops resulted in positive changes in teachers' behaviour management practices (Bowles and Nelson, 1976), while separate research found that it promoted "withitness" and autonomy during student teaching (Kahan, 2002).

Teacher training: The benefits of 'bug-in-ear' coaching

Rock and her colleagues also undertook research of their own, looking at the performance of 14 teachers who took part in bug-in-ear coaching. Their performance was measured at three points in time - "spring 1", a semester without the coaching; "spring 2", one year later, with the coaching; "spring 3", two years later, after exiting the programme and again without the coaching. 

Overall, they found that bug-in-ear coaching initially improved both the participants' teaching practices and student engagement. As time went on, participants had more positive than negative attitudes towards the technique. 

As well as the research, there is also anecdotal evidence that this technique works. Kristyn Klei Borrero is the founder of CT3, a professional development and teacher coaching organisation in the US. CT3, Berrero estimates, has worked with around 300 schools across 38 states to implement bug-in-ear coaching. 

Each individual school collects its own data on how effective the coaching is, but Borrero says that she's had anecdotal reports that it has improved student engagement and teacher retention.

"A lot of teachers, particularly in disadvantaged communities, leave in the first two or three years because they can't engage in classroom management. But we get a lot of reports that when the bug-in-ear coaching is used, retention rates are significantly higher," she says.

However, not everyone is convinced about the effectiveness of the approach. 

Peps Mccrea is currently dean of learning design at Ambition Institute but in 2012 he worked for the University of Brighton, where he tested the technique with a couple of his trainee teachers.

"We found that it was just really, really hard for the new teachers to be able to do both: to be able to process all of the information they had from being in the classroom and to listen to me giving them live instructions in the moment," he recalls. "It resulted in complete cognitive overload."

On this point, Borrero, who is a key advocate for this method, agrees with Mccrea. She says that if it is not done properly, the approach can be "extremely dangerous" for inexperienced teachers.

"We've seen it be devastatingly unsuccessful: for example, when organisations see it working in another's classroom, go back to their schools and say, 'We're just going to put bugs in people's ears,' and they don't do any of the groundwork beforehand," she says. "Teachers will literally take it out and quit, and say, 'I don't know what you want me to do. You're turning me into a robot.'" 

Tips for success

So, how can schools make sure that this doesn't happen? 

Julie Cohen is an assistant professor of curriculum, instruction and special education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. Last year, she published research around teacher coaching in a simulated environment, and specifically looked at bug-in-ear coaching. She says that there are prerequisites for the success of the approach, starting with the amount of real-time feedback that is given.

"The coach shouldn't be telling you a long story in your ear, because people get buried in that. It is extremely stressful to have someone going on and on about what you should be doing at that moment," she says. 

Instead, to minimise distraction, prompts need to be short and agreed upon between the coach and teacher in advance.

"You should be able to say a single word, which will have a meaning to the teacher," Cohen explains. "It could be the name of the student and the row they sit in, or it could be 'cellphone' if you see someone on their phone." 

Ensuring that the coach is in a different room is also crucial - this helps to preserve the teacher's authority - and teachers must be given the opportunity to practise the technique with their coach in advance. 

"You have to train people on how to use it, because you don't want that to be a factor which influences their performance," says Cohen. "They need to be accustomed to it first." 

It's not just the teachers who need training, though. As Borrero points out, coaches also need to be trained in advance: "We don't let a coach start coaching until they've had about four to eight days of training. They need to learn body cues, they need to know learning cues, they need to know how the teacher is thinking," she says. 

Training for coaches needs to cover how to deliver live prompts and how to support teachers after the lesson, too. Having a detailed feedback session is an important part of the process, says Mccrea.

"There's a variety of reasons why that feedback session afterwards is important. If you do some live coaching with a teacher, at that moment they've got so many things to think about, so it's quite difficult for them to actually remember what they did," he says. 

In fact, evidence suggests that novice teachers tend to remember less about a lesson than more experienced ones, simply because they are more likely to be overwhelmed by being in the classroom. 

"It's totally possible that you could do some live coaching and that very little would change," says Mccrea. "If you really want to make a persistent change, you need to lock in that learning by having a conversation with them afterwards, and even watch back the filmed lesson."

Does that point about experience mean that novice teachers are not the best candidates to take part in bug-in-ear coaching? Mccrea suggests that it could be a technique better saved for more experienced practitioners.

"Experienced teachers have much more spare cognitive capacity, and they might be able to [better] take on board that live guidance from an experienced coach," he says. "I can see people at that level being really up for this coaching as a way to fine tune aspects of their practice."

Cohen, too, can see the potential in using the technique with more experienced teachers, and has submitted a funding proposal to look at using bug-in-ear for training coaches. 

"Teaching children and teaching adults needs different sets of skills. There is overlap, of course, but coaches need skills around having tough conversations, for example, and often they aren't trained in that. I can see how this in-the-moment training could be super helpful for them, too," she says. 

So, there you have it: even if you're an experienced teacher, there might be scope for you to improve your practice with a little live-action advice. Whether or not that appeals to you is entirely up to the individual, though - and there won't be a voice in your ear to tell you the answer to that one.

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