Box of Crayons Blog


Jim Knight on Radical Learning

Jim Knight, president of the Instructional Coaching Group, has spent more than a decade studying instructional coaching. He’s changed the way teachers teach, and significantly improved the way students learn.

In this conversation, Jim and I discuss:

  • Why simplicity is the key to going viral and spreading ideas.
  • Which “this is broken” moment changed Jim’s approach to teaching.
  • The importance of “selective incompetence.”
  • How instructional coaching positions the teacher as a partner.
  • The key principles of partnership, and the difference between “dialogical coaching” and “facilitative coaching.”


In this interview, Jim also mentions:

Education researcher John Hattie

Education trainers Chip and Dan Heath

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Stewardship by Peter Block

Tomorrow’s Children by Riane Eisler

Full Transcript

Michael: Welcome everybody. You are listening to The Coaching Habit podcast. I am Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of Box of Crayons, author of The Coaching Habit. That’s why we call the podcast, The Coaching Habit, brand consistency. And in this podcast, I get to talk to smart, interesting people. Teachers, writers, thinkers, sometimes even coaches about just how coaching or thinking about coaching has influenced and affected their lives. It’s not just about technical coaching stuff. It’s about getting into the juicy parts of other people’s lives.

And boy, I am excited about my guest today. I’m talking to Jim Knight. Anybody in the world of education certainly in North America will know the name Jim Knight. He is a huge a influencer in that space and a great champion for bringing coaching into the world of education. I’ve had a good luck to do a little work with Jim recently and his fans are numerous and he is lovely man. So this will be a great conversation. Jim is the author of Instructional Coaching, terrific book. Popularizes that whole idea of what instructional coaching is. He is a senior partner at the instructional coaching group. He’s also going for brand consistency, providing professional development for coaches around the world. And in fact, he’s worked with over a hundred thousand coaches from six different continents in his time. So a busy man with great wisdom to bring to us today. So, Jim, welcome. I’m so happy to have you on the line.

Jim Knight: I’m very happy to be here. I’m excited and I was just hoping I could just sit here and listen to you all day. It sounds wonderful. I wish I could live up to that wonderful introduction. But I appreciate-

Michael: I was gonna add about your Olympic models and a couple of Nobel prizes. But I skipped that just for the sake of brevity.

Jim Knight: That’s probably good. I still haven’t won the New Yorker cartoon contest. But I’m committed in working hard so I’m hoping I could.

Michael: Did you enter that? Because I—

Jim Knight: Yes, I do.

Michael: All right.

Jim Knight: I have a bet with John Hattie who’s a big educational researcher. I’m sure you know. Probably the most influential researcher in education. And he and I have a bet going that who will get picked first and so far, we’re tied at nothing. So, let’s see how it goes.

Michael: I saw the editor of the New Yorker talking about how they picked the winner. And you know, they get gazillions of entries. They have some poor intern enter them on the computer. They all kind of … Probably each cartoon gets about 10 different themed jokes. And everybody’s joke is a variation on that. They get it down to a short list of 10. They send it around people in the New Yorker who vote on that. And then they get the winner from that. So there you go. Hang in there. It will come good, I’m sure of it.

Jim Knight: Well, if you have any tips from the New Yorker, give them to me offline because I don’t want John to hear. I want to beat him.

Michael: All right. I like your competitive spirit. All right. Obviously the New Yorker, winning the New Yorker competition is probably the pinnacle of the work you’re up to these days. But you’ve had a varied journey to get to where you are. And such an influencer in the world of education. But what is the impact you’re seeking to have in your work these days? I mean you know at Box of Crayons, we talk about bad work, good work and great work. The work that has more impact, the work that has more meaning. So how do you think of great work these days?

Jim Knight: Well, for me, it sort of has a couple of parts. One part is that’s impact is kind of controlling theme. I’ve read in several books that has impact in the title. We talked about high impact instruction. Talked about impact cycle. We talked about communication that makes an impact from the better conversations books. So impact has been key and it’s really to me, the work we do is really about what can we do to have the biggest impact on the quality of kids’ lives. And that also probably means we have to have an impact and should have an impact on the quality of teachers’ lives.

So our big focus is that and we’re just continually … We’re trying to create a kind of company that is clearly focused on moral purpose. And we wanted to … I mean have as much impact as possible. I’m not gonna be content. Our catch phrase that we use to describe what we do is, “Every student every day and every class has excellent instruction everywhere.” So we’re always trying to make sure that we’re moving closer to that goal.

Michael: How do you find the focus behind that goal? Because one way of receiving that is a sense of overwhelm because there’s an awful lot of students. And an awful lot of classrooms getting an awful lot of instruction. So I’m curious to know how over the years you’ve figured out where the greatest levers of impact, the greatest kind of places to put your real time and attention on?

Jim Knight: Well, I really am influenced a lot by people like, Steve Jobs. And all the different people who have written about simplicity and zoning in on the core and getting to the essence. I love Jobs quote that, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” And you know, our coaching cycle that we follow is pretty simple but it took us about 20 years of meddling around to arrive on something that’s so blazingly obvious. And we want to keep doing that. To figure out things like the kind of relationship between teachers and students. And so that would be one thing.

And then when I read Tipping Point way back a long time ago when it first came out. I was struck by the whole idea of creating a virus and spreading ideas like a virus. In fact, I think I did saw it first in Csikszentmihalyi’s book on The Evolving Self. And so we do take a kind of viral approach to what we do. Not viral like we’re gonna make a little funny clip that’s gonna catch on. But more that we’re trying to spread health through a healthy virus. And so those two things come to mind right now as essential. Simplicity and trying to spread these ideas. And we believe if you have something good and then it works. If it’s in simple terms, easy and powerful, people will embrace it. And we’re trying to always get, make our stuff more accessible, more focused and more powerful.

Michael: Is that the essence of trying to make something virus like? In other words, catchable. It’s funny you say that. I’ve said for years that the impact I personally want to have in the world is to infect a billion people with the possibility virus. So I’ve got that metaphor as well. And I’m now thinking to myself, “God, did I get that from the Tipping Point without even realizing that, that’s where it came from.” So I’m curious to know, how you get things to spread? And you know, what have you learned over the years from trying to make that actually happen?

Jim Knight: Well, I don’t think we’re as good as we want to be. And I think there’s two different kinds of viruses. There’s the video clip of the cat going down the stairs that two billion people have seen. But what I’m interested in is, when I say spreading health, I think it’s about just getting better and better at what we do. And getting more and more simple. I think … I mean in my work, it’s just been about trying to solve problems. We start here and we go, “Oh we need to work more on communication.” How will you address that? And then how can we just keep refining it. So the book Instructional Coaching has a coaching model that’s radically different from what we do now. What we do now is, in many ways it’s much more simple and more powerful but that’s what our outcome is.

I guess something that spreads has something to say whether it’s humor or whatever it is. I mean something that spreads. But to me, I want to spread things that our people can see it’s making a difference. One last quick thought about this is, I want our focus on what’s good for kids to be unmistakably evident to everybody. So then when they interact with us and we could easily fall short but they should feel warmth and as corny as it sounds love and affection and kindness. Not that we’re naïve about creating a business and how you have to flourish but there should be this real sense that these people are … They treat you with respect. And we’re spreading respect. So I think that’s maybe another … I don’t know if it’s working or not but that certainly a strategy we’re taking.

Michael: I love them. That piece around … Where that takes me Jim is, people are looking for any excuse not to interact with you. They’re looking for the moment to be able to walk away, going, “Oh they kind of let me down.” So how do you show up kind of with full integrity and full of sense of your commitment being your heart on your sleeve so that people find it unmistakable as to what you’re up to?

Jim Knight: I think we’re transparent about everything we do. I think we position the people we work with as partners, which means we position them as the one making the decisions about what matters most to them. I think we’re honest about what we can and can’t do and help people measure whether or not they’re having impact. And I think when you genuinely see the person … And we don’t manipulate people, we don’t say, “We’ve got a sale for the next two months.” And then the price is gonna go up. We just say, “This is what’s it’s gonna cost.” If we have something that has to say. We put a ton of stuff online for free. People can do it on their own. That’s great. We’re just here if we can be helpful, these are the things we can do. And I think people sense that when they work with us. In a funny way, I think when you treat people with respect, and you give them choices, and you avoid manipulation, and you don’t use little tricks to get people to pay attention to you. I think they actually listen more.

Michael: So that’s where you’re at now. I’m curious just to how you got here. You know, as regular listeners of this podcast know that the phrase I go to is, “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” So I’m curious to know what are maybe two kind of crossroads moments? Those moments in your life, “Okay I’m going to … I could go this way. I could go that way.” And then going that way, it made all the difference as to where you’ve ended up.

Jim Knight: Well, you know I worked in Toronto with Humber College. And I studied English and I was gonna do my doctorate in English and then I got beaten by the education bug. I even did my comps English at University of Toronto. Before I switched to education, I had to do a whole different set of comps, which is some kind of mad, sadistic torture. But anyway-

Michael: I don’t know what comps are. They’re like your practical—

Jim Knight: Comprehensive examinations.

Michael: Okay, got it.

Jim Knight: So at the University of Toronto, understanding Renaissance literature and all that stuff. But I started teaching and then I wanted to spread the word on teaching and I became this certified professional developer in this approach called the strategic instruction model. And I was just kind of starting out quite young in Toronto. Trying to get people to listen to me and doing workshops. I remember I did this workshop at the children’s hospital. They had a center there for kids with learning disabilities. And I could just see during my presentation that people were … They were doing their best not to fall asleep. I mean it was really … They were just like seconds away from passing out and if you’d recorded my presentation, it would have been a … You know it would be better than Ambien I think.

And so that first couple of presentations I did. And also, I was like, “You have to do it the way I tell you and this is what you have to do.” And I realize that what I was doing wasn’t working. And also, positioning the teachers kind of as the receptacle from my learning wasn’t working. And we were sitting around the University of Kansas that’s when I came here as a doc student from Toronto and we’re seated and we’re talking about this grant we had. And I was just one of the leaders of the grant as a doc student. And we said, “Well, if the teachers are gonna use this stuff for sharing, we probably need to go into classrooms and show them how to do it, meet with them and discuss it and do all these things. Because they’re not gonna do it if we do like a workshop. Nobody’s gonna do anything.” And I don’t know if it was me or who it was at the table but somebody at the table said, “Well, if we know that’s true, why don’t we do that with other kinds of learning?” And so, that was kind of the light bulb moment where I said, “We need to address that problem.”

Michael: That moment of going, “Okay this whole premise on how we’ve been teaching people or hoping that they learn is a broken model. We have to shift everything completely.”

Jim Knight: Yeah and I think it’s kind of almost self-deception. I’ll pretend, you’re gonna do it. And you pretend I’m not boring you to tears, you know. And it just lacks any sense of meeting people’s needs. And they don’t have a voice and so, yeah I think there’s this kind of mutual self-deception that takes place.

Michael: So what I’m realizing in the early conversation when we’re talking about what you do. I don’t think we’ve said to the people listening in what exactly it is that you do. So if that was the crossroads moments where you’re like, “Wow! This is a way of thinking about helping people to learn that should saturate everything that we do.” How do you talk about what you do now?

Jim Knight: Well, our focus is on doing what we can to have the best possible lives for the children in schools. And we work with schools. We want to encourage student attitude, student behavior and student learning in ways that are healthy for kids. And we want to see students’ well-being flourished in schools and help them be successful. And we accomplish that through a kind of coaching that I can instructional coaching, which is about position the teachers as a partner. Helping them set a goal. Helping them identify some teaching strategy to help them hit the goal. Helping them learn that strategy sometimes by using checklist that precisely describe them. Sometimes by modeling in some way, maybe looking at a video. Maybe we come in your classroom, maybe we go see another teacher. And then after we’ve explained, having or not in most cases, work and we have to make adjustments until we actually hit the goal we set. First time through odds are, it’s not gonna work.

And that work of instructional coaching is not like you’re 10-minute coaching. It’s a long term relationship but it’s really helping the teacher translate research into practice in ways that are you know as Heath and Heath say, “The goal has to hit them in the gut.” There has to be a goal that … It’s the thing as you say in your book, “That they wake up in the middle of the night thinking about …” It’s what they’re thinking about when they drive home from school. And so, we got that goal and then, what we’re doing is we’re helping them hit the goal. We’re not trying to talk to them or anything. We’re providing a real service.

Michael: Lovely. So part of what you stand for and what I stand for and why I’m so interested in this conversation is, that kind of commitment to ongoing learning, to kind of improving ourselves and I don’t know about you but I found that the older I get, the more I seem to be aware that I just seem to be learning the same damn lessons over and over and over again. It’s like the same lesson just showing up in a slightly different way. So I’m curious to know for you, what’s the hard lesson that you’ve had to learn or maybe you have to keep on learning?

Jim Knight: Oh man! Do you want it personal or do you want it professional?

Michael: You know I would go wherever the juiciest answer is.

Jim Knight: That would be personal then. I think there’s a few of them that are all kind of together. But one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is, I’m not as good as I think I am. Just like you say, your advice isn’t as good as you think it is. And sometimes people would say, “Jim, you’re kind of humble.” Well, that’s because I have to keep a grip on my pride from taking over all the time. But life has helped me become humble because I know how lucky I am to have the help I have. And so, that recognition … Like, I think I have reasonably clear understanding of what I can’t do and that helps me be a better learner because I’m fully aware of the limitations.

I think probably the most important thing I’ve learned in the last 10 years is that, as much as I love my work. And it consumes a lot of my time. The most important things in my life are my wife and my kids. And I can’t let work keep me from focusing on the most important things or in the long run, I’ll end up really disappointed. You know, empty. I think it’s very hard. I like this concept I learned from somebody of selective incompetence saying, you know, there’s just some things you’re not gonna be good at because I would rather be not so good at email and good as a father and a husband than not so good as a father and a husband and really read half of my email. And so, to me, probably the most-

Michael: I can’t believe you’re disrespecting your inbox like that.

Jim Knight: I’m looking at a 185 messages right now but only 1 unread. But anyway, so I would say-

Michael: I love that, yes selective incompetence. That’s great.

Jim Knight: It’s a simple thing to say that the most important things need to be the most important things but I learned that the hard way. You know, I was going down the wrong road and I almost lost a lot of what matters to me five years ago. I wrote about it in the new book actually. And then it kinda … I recognized that I don’t want to be great at my job and bad at my husbanding and parenting.

Michael: Lovely. Thank you. I appreciate you sharing that. You are a very experienced coach and you taught about coaching a lot. In my experience, as you do this a lot, you tend to … At least I tend to, I won’t project it into the whole world. I find that I’ve got tools that I keep coming back to. Some you know, I’ve got a bunch in my tool box but there are just some that I keep pulling up because they seem to have particular resonance or impact or reliability. So I’m wondering for you, when you’re helping somebody, do you have a favorite tool or process or a model that you go to time and time again? I mean this is a great chance to kind of share something for the people listening in to go, “Yeah I’m gonna steal that tool or that process from Jim.”

Jim Knight: Well I really think … I’ll get to just a couple of quick things. One of them is I think, partnership principles that we talk about drive our work. And we’ve been lucky enough to work with people from all over the world and I would say that one thing we hear back on the most is people are grateful for the partnership principles. I think it gives them a vocabulary for understanding the kind of relationship they want to have with other people. Because coaches especially instructional coaches in schools where there is some kind of explanation of ideas, they’re afraid they have to look like the expert and then when they look like the expert, nobody’s really excited to embrace that. I always say, teachers … And I might have heard this from somebody else but teachers love to learn but they don’t really like to be taught. And so I think the partnership principles would be one thing that comes to mind as part of-

Michael: What are the partnership principles?

Jim Knight: Well, the core idea and it comes from Paulo Freire. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that’s where I first started thinking about this. And then a whole host of other books like, Peter Block’s book, Stewardship and the book by Riane Eisler and a bunch of other people. I started to explore partnership. But the core idea is, I see the other person as an equal and because they’re an equal, they have autonomy and choice and voice in what we do. And then we engage in dialogue, not me telling them what to do but there’s real sense in both our brains are actively involved in the conversation. And that work is involves reflection and it involves deep reflective application of the ideas to our lives and to our society, which were praxis would be principle. And the last things is, that it’s reciprocal relationship. It’s a back and forth thing.

I think that the way we approach coaching, we call it dialogical coaching not facilitative coaching. And facilitative coaching, you position the participant as somebody who already knows what they need to do and you’re just listening and asking questions. And you withhold your ideas. And in dialogical coaching, you don’t give in to what you call the advice monster but you share your ideas but you share them in a way that makes it very, very easy for the other person to share their ideas. And so, it’s a back and forth, both our brains are involved. If I’m not sharing my ideas, we’re not engage in dialogue. And so, for dialogue to happen I think both people have to share their ideas. But if I’m sharing my ideas as advice and or looking for confirmation that I’ve got it right, we’re not having a dialogue either. A dialogue has to be an equal sharing of ideas.

Michael: They’re gonna people who are going to be curious about this. Is there a place you can point people to, a book or somewhere in the web where people can find about more of these partnership principles?

Jim Knight: I think if they just look up Jim Knight, Partnership Principles probably the best book on partnership is Unmistakable Impact but if you google around, you can find it and save yourself a lot of money and not have to buy the book. The distinction between different approaches to coaching same thing, if you looked up Jim Knight, Directive Dialogical and Facilitative, you could find it there. I’ve got it online as a blog. So if you google those things, you’d find the blog too.

Michael: Perfect. I want to say our work here is all but done and in some ways, it’s remarkable to me, we’ve been going for 25 minutes because it feels like we’ve barely got going. This is when you and I hang out, we actually end up spending hours talking about this stuff. Because we’re kind of geek out about it.

Jim Knight: Right.

Michael: But for people who are also interested in your work in general, you pointed them to some stuff. Is there a place on the web that you can point them to, to say, “Look here?”

Jim Knight: Two things, I’d say one of them is our main website. It’s And second thing is a blog, it’s Either of those places but probably would be the starting point.

Michael: Perfect. Jim, it’s a pleasure. I know we’ve got other little parts of this interview that we’re releasing but I loved this main conversation with you. So thank you.

Jim Knight: I have loved very conversation you and I have had. I’m grateful for all of them. Thank you.

Michael: My pleasure.

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