T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: Positive Coaching for Literacy
The Coaching Framework
People who coach others to improve their performance, in sports or business, for example, distinguish between positive and negative coaching styles.
Negative coaching is probably better known. Sometimes called compliance coaching or deficiency-based coaching, this approach focuses on fixing the performer's key behavioral problems. In a simple case, the coached person is asked to list their three greatest weaknesses and then set about repairing them.
Positive (or "inspirational") coaching focuses instead on encouraging the performer to cultivate and extend their most successful behaviors. In a simple version, the coached person is asked to list their three greateststrengths and then set about further enhancing them. One practical example appears within the very successful Harvard Negotiation Project: disputing parties are urged to look beyond their different positions to find and develop their common underlying interests [Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes, New York: Penguin Books, 1981].
Empirical studies in diverse domains (MBA executive performance, treatment adherence by medical patients) show that positive coaching yields more desired behavioral change than does negative coaching [Anthony I. Jack, et al., "Visioning in the brain: an fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring," Social Neuroscience, 2013, DOI 10.1080/17470919.2013.808259 ]. This is partly because negative coaching, for obvious reasons, tends to heighten stress and anxiety and decrease self-confidence. That combination undermines emotional and cognitive change, just the opposite of the desired goal.
Positive coaching, on the other hand, boosts confidence (a big issue for many student writers), along with emotional and cognitive plasticity: people are more willing to try new techniques, more able to execute them, and hence more likely to actually build on their strengths. Brain scans even reveal a physiological basis for the psychological differences between these two coaching styles.
Coaching Meets CCSS
Awareness of these differences can help anyone who wants to promote the kind of nonfiction literacy development relevant to science classes and the Common Core State Standards. That's because positive coaching supports literacy growth in two ways:
(1) Attitude Change:
It encourages your students to view nonfiction writing not as an inspired leap of creativity that is hard and rare, but instead as a design process that virtually everyone can (gradually) learn.
(2) Skill Building:
It enables your students to actually try drafting and revising techniques that they may have ignored or avoided before. This partly happens by talking about their writing in engineering, not literary terms--prototype, constraints, feedback, usability. And partly it happens by practicing with customized scaffolds.
The Need Unpacked
Two subtle but pervasive CCSS expectations call for such positive coaching:
Iterative text revision.
Why are these two "soft skills," which reappear throughout the new standards, often confusing or stressful for students?
First, most people do not pursue either behavior spontaneously. These actions have to be learned, and for most folks, that means that they have to be coached.
Second, both audience awareness and iterative text revision demand cognitive and emotional sophistication, which even many working adults lack. They are not narrow technical moves (although technique is certainly involved) but broadly developmental. That kind of "growth" challenge can make anyone nervous.
Third, many traditional classroom writing activities ignore or even undermine these actions. In class, students write for one person (you). They already know what you like, and they know that you are not relying on their text and have no real need for their content. In life, however, people write nonfiction text mostly for strangers. Those strangers really do need the content and really are relying on the text to meet that need. So outside of school, revising a text until it becomes audience-adequate is vital for reader satisfaction (and hence for writer success).
The Positive Response
Positive coaching offers a sound pedagogical and personal response to both of these sources of nonfiction writing stress.
For audience awareness, positive coaching promotes enhanced emotional sensitivity and more openness to the needs of others. This encourages students to actively help their audience use what they write. New nonfiction writers need empathy to appreciate how their audience will struggle with inadequate (in format or content) text. They also need the commitment to make text usability their own duty. Finally, students need persistence to patiently pursue effective writing as a goal, to improve their performance because others depend on it. Such empathy, commitment, and persistence all depart from adolescent self-absorption and most "no real audience" school literacy practice--a refreshing new emotional stance.
For iterative text revision, positive coaching opens people cognitively to personal innovation and experimentation. From this students can gain the willingness to try new writing tools and techniques--most modeled on engineering practice--to meet the challenge of their new audience-oriented responsibilities above. You can foster adoption of these new techniques,
gradually, by sharing such skill-building literacy-support scaffolds as:
(a) Feature checklists (analogous to those used by professional physicians, pilots, and construction managers) for designing more effective instructions and descriptions (e.g, those at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis0.html and http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysisGd.html ).
(b) Top-down design templates for abstracts, posters, or other writing situations where students need help noticing and responding to unusual (size, scope, or access) constraints on their text (e.g., http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/abstracts.analysis.html).
(c) (Re)organizational cues to help students see and try alternative ways to structure technical text and then signal that structure to their readers.
[Want more relevant background? See