Top Oxford Humanities Student shows the way forward through coaching in a knowledge society.
Dr. Mohamed M. Keshavjee (International Cross Cultural Specialist in Mediation) interviews Adam Abdulla – author, teacher, speaker, trainer and expert in coaching.
In today’s world with an information overload, students are often faced with major challenges and through coaching, a student’s inner potential can be realised. In this interview, Adam Abdulla explains critical aspects of coaching and how it can bring out the best in our youth.
Mohamed Keshavjee: So you do what is known as coaching – can you explain what is meant by coaching and why it is important in a student’s life today? I never had coaching when I was young and does this mean that I might have missed out on something?
Adam Abdulla: It is easier to explain what coaching is not and go from there. Most people think of sports coaching or training when the word “coaching” is mentioned. What I do is performance, workplace or executive coaching, which is nothing like that. Instead of telling people what to do or showing them how to do it, performance coaching helps people find their own way. The coach helps the coachee identify core values, set meaningful goals and plan a way forward to achieve them.
People who never get the opportunity of being coached are, I feel, missing out on something. Coaching provides a rare opportunity to be listened to and to explore what’s really important to you. It also enables you to make progress more quickly than any other intervention I can think of.
MK: Why then is it more important today than at any time before?
AA: It is especially so today because people are bombarded with information, advice, instruction and so on, and coaching gives people a chance to cut through this and to hear their own inner voice and what it is telling them.
MK: So, in a way, you are helping a young person to navigate through the maze of information that is today’s culture. Often, this is accompanied by various figures in authority telling a young person what to do and think. Young people, I believe, resent this.
AA: Yes, I am very much aware of that. Whilst some young people do want advice, most do not like being told what to do. In fact, some psychologists consider autonomy to be a basic psychological need. Young people need to have their autonomy respected.
MK: So if coaching is something that is important for young people, are parents aware of it and if not, how can they become aware?
AA: Some parents are aware of coaching – in fact, there is coaching for parents as well as coaching for students. And as coaching becomes more widespread in education, parents are beginning to realise and appreciate its value more and more.
MK: Give me a simple example of coaching for parents.
AA: Imagine a student who struggles to get down to work; the parents are frustrated; they want their child to do well but they don’t know how to “motivate” him or her to study. They’ve tried persuading, scolding, badgering, cajoling, and occasionally bribing – but still the student fails to get down to studying. In such cases, parents can approach a coach and the coach could help them identify an effective way to communicate with their child. That communication might involve asking the child questions about their long-term goals and how they are linked to studying. The aim would be to help the student find their own motivation for studying and to regulate their own behaviour as much as possible.
MK: So, in that case, are you, as the coach, in touch with both the parents and the child simultaneously or sequentially? How do you navigate this process?
AA: Both approaches could work, it depends on how the students and parents feel about the arrangements. It has to be consensual. Coaching will not work unless the “coachee” – the person being coached – really wants to be coached or at least to give the process a try.
MK: What if there is an impasse between the parents and the child? How do you negotiate to get them to engage in the process?
AA: The first step is to identify a common goal which, in the case of a particular student, might be to get into a good university. Once a common goal has been identified, the parties can put their heads together and consider how the student can achieve it.
MK: What if the issue is not a common goal, but instead a common difficulty, for example, the child finds the parents too authoritarian or any other reason?
AA: My approach to coaching is solution-focused, so I would begin by asking everyone involved to describe an ideal outcome. An ideal outcome is simply what people want to be the case. From the child’s perspective, this might be a home environment in which the child feels heard. From the parents’ perspective, it might be a situation in which the child listens respectfully to the parents’ concerns. This is not an uncommon situation in many families in today’s world. The next step is to listen and to see how one can help all of those involved agree on how to reach an ideal outcome.
MK: Your approach then appears to be an asset-based one more than a deficit-based approach. How do you make people feel that going to coaching is not indicative of a dysfunctionality in the family but something that is required for all students in today’s world?
AA: Coaching is different from therapy or counselling. Whereas those approaches tend to focus on what’s “wrong” or dysfunctional, coaching is about identifying and making use of people’s strengths. The questions that a coach asks help people to develop a “glass half full” mindset rather than the typical “glass half empty” attitude. A good coach makes this clear at the outset so that all parties know what they are getting into.
MK: So I take it that this is an integral part of the whole educational process of child development today, and something that each parent has to look at, at some point in their child’s life?
AA: Yes, the earlier this is done, the better. Coaching is a strength-based process and parents would do well to help children become aware of their potential and how to realise it. Parents can help their children (and one another) identify and draw on their personal resources. This is likely to be more productive than focusing on “problems” and what’s “wrong.”
MK: So let us move on to the book you have written entitled “Coaching Students in Secondary Schools: Closing the Gap between Performance and Potential”. What does this book say that I, as a parent of a child, could learn from?
AA: The book shows you how to empower young people by asking the right questions and allowing students to find their own answers. It is about eliciting rather than instilling.
MK: So from what I understand, your book is allowing parents to listen to the inner voice of a child and, in fact, give the child an opportunity to express themselves in a way which is not normal in today’s culture?
AA: Yes, and it is about helping youth to believe in their own voice and to have faith that they can achieve their own goals by drawing on their own strengths.
MK: Tell me what empirical evidence do you have to show that coaching has a positive effect?
AA: I am glad you’ve asked about the evidence because it is growing. There have already been a number of experimental studies in which coaching has been found to be highly effective in helping students achieve their goals. The approach I have outlined in my book is very much evidence-based, and draws on research not only in coaching but also in applied psychology.
MK: I notice that your book has had the benefit of conversations with many experts in the field, including the Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman.
AA: Yes – Daniel Kahneman, who is a psychologist known for his work on cognitive biases and behavioural economics, was very helpful. His generous input helped me to formulate my own ideas. In 2011 Foreign Policy magazine listed him as one of the top global thinkers, his book Thinking Fast and Slow, which summarises much of his research, became a best seller. And many of his key findings are relevant for coaching and for young people.
MK: So your book,no doubt, has drawn inspiration from a number of sources. But how applicable is it across cultures – different cultures have different notions of authority which, in some cases, could be perceived as authoritarian? And secondly, many children today are growing up in diasporic situations, going through the process of acculturation – in simple terms they are having to adjust to new norms in new settings? Is your book culturally- sensitive?
AA: The approach I outline in my book will not work in an authoritarian climate. For coaching to work, people need to believe that others have the right to choose their own path. This may mean that some cultures find it difficult to adopt a truly non-directive coaching approach. However, a great many cultures do value individual freedom and autonomy, and are able to balance these with other values, such as respect for one’s elders and others. For them, coaching could work well.
MK: So you mention individual autonomy, does the process focus on the notion of individual responsibility which, I think, lies at the heart of balancing autonomy with freedom.
AA: A good coach emphasises the autonomy of the coachee, but at the same time the coach will also ask the coachee to think about the consequences of their choices on others. As you say, responsibility sits alongside autonomy. Most students are perfectly happy to think in this way. They do want to consider others. But they don’t want to be told to do so.
MK: Is your book directed to parents, children or coaches? Or is it aimed at all three? And how could it be used by institutions dealing with children?
AA: The book is designed primarily for school staff but it can be used by anybody who would like to adopt a helpful, non-directive, non-judgemental approach to helping young people achieve their goals.
MK: So, it could also be used by, for example, a mentor, the big-brother concept, by someone who is a role model?
AA: Yes. But it should not be confused with mentoring or advice-giving.
MK: So, tell me what is the difference between mentoring and coaching?
AA: A mentor normally passes on “wisdom.” A coach helps students draw on their own wisdom. The assumption in coaching is that students have wisdom already and can use it to find their own way forward.
MK: So individual motivation appears to be at the heart of the process. In simple terms, you give a child an opportunity to dream in technicolor?
AA: Yes, coaching gives young people the chance to get excited about their goals, not the goals of their teachers or parents. Often the goals overlap and the question is not “how can I motivate students?” but rather “how can students motivate themselves to achieve what they want”?
MK: You are touching on a very important idea that a child is like an arrow shot into the universe, Imam Ali has mentioned that our children do not belong to us but it is for us to give them the opportunity to achieve their potential and contribute to the betterment of human society. This principle has been touched upon by poets such as Khalil Gibran as well. How does coaching contribute to that understanding developing in families? Obviously, this calls for a new way of thinking brought about with the help of the coach and all those involved in the process.
AA: All this has to be taken into consideration but coaching should help young people to stand on their own two feet. It gives young people the confidence to take their own steps, to trust their own instincts, and make their own decisions. But it also helps them to remember the social context. They are invited to reflect on significant others but ultimately, they are always trusted to take their own decisions.
MK: Does the process, in any way, make children aware of the wider issues we are faced with, such as the environment, respect for the elderly and disabled, care for the poor and marginalised, and so on? You touched on the notion of trust which is a fundamental principle in many faith traditions and, in fact, in non-faith traditions as well. Can you elaborate on this?
AA: Coaching cannot guarantee that young people will consider issues of global relevance. Often this comes through reading, family influence, moral teaching through community, civic engagement, the school and so on. It is not the coach’s job to instil higher values but by asking open-ended questions, a coach may be able to help a young person to see their actions in a wider, perhaps global, context.
MK: Your book has an interesting cover, it has many hands in different colours. Does this reflect the notion of pluralism because this is a very important element in the educational philosophy of the Aga Khan Academies globally which are committed to promoting greater cultural literacy across the world?
AA: I have enjoyed being able to coach people of different ages and different backgrounds and cultures. I would like to think that all human beings share certain fundamental values, emotions, challenges and ambitions. So the cover of the book was chosen to reflect the idea that we are all striving for something, and that coaching may well be a powerful cross-cultural tool to help people to achieve it. It is certainly my hope that coaching will become available to many more students in today’s world where young people are searching for meaning and are ready to change the world.
MK: Your background is interesting. You come from a bi-racial, bi-cultural, bi-national heritage, and your main training was in the humanities at Oxford where you attained the highest academic record and won a major University prize for classic scholars and today you are teaching at a prominent girls’ school in London and you have branched out into coaching – what role do you see for the humanities in today’s educational system, particularly at a time when exponential technology is a dominant driver. How could coaching be one way of ensuring that our children attain a balanced education which is so important in today’s high-tech world?
AA: There is a wonderful moment in the movie, Dead Poets’ Society, in which Robin Williams plays an inspirational English teacher. He begins by acknowledging the importance of the sciences but reminds his students that poetry is what makes the heart sing. Poetry is what gives expression to the deepest thoughts, feelings, fears and dreams that we all have. A good education will always allow this part of humanity to emerge and thrive. For me, “poetry” here stands for the humanities in general. Coaching helps young people to identify, remember and live by their core values. Even the most committed medic, for example, will have other dreams, values and aspirations. A good coach will help the coachee to think about their values as a whole.
MK: Can there be peer-coaching and how does this work?
AA: Peer-coaching does, in fact, exist in schools and in other organisations. It is an extremely effective way for people to support each other provided that they are well-trained by an experienced coach trainer. Peer coaching has the advantage of creating a safe space insofar as young people feel comfortable with their peer groups.
MK: From my experience many young people enjoy youth camps and episodic programmes where, in addition to making new friends, learning new skills and imbibing certain values and teachings, they are open to new thinking. Could coaching be part of that process and how do you see it working in such episodic settings rather than in formal school settings?
AA: Basic coaching skills such as listening, reflecting and questioning, could certainly be taught during such youth camps and I suspect that they would help young people to communicate more effectively with one another and to enjoy social interactions even more than they already do. In practical terms, this could easily be done in short sessions of say, half an hour, one hour or more.
MK: Could you give us an example of how this could be done in a weekend camp of 50 children? What type of intervention could be envisaged which could be enjoyable as well as a good learning experience?
AA: One enjoyable practical activity is sometimes called “you at your best”. Young people could work in twos or threes and ask one another to describe a time when they were “at their best”. Each individual then gets the opportunity to reflect on a personal success. The young people asking the questions can help that individual identify personal strengths and qualities. Research shows that identifying and reflecting on personal strengths is a powerful way to enhance well-being and become more optimistic.
AA: Email coaching exists today and can be effective. However, in my view, coaching is best when people can see each other. Tools such as Skype, allow this to happen so that any two people can engage in coaching no matter where they are in the world. I have enjoyed rewarding coaching experiences with people in Japan, South Korea and Dubai whilst living in London.
I am now also in the process of developing a mobile app that will help students access evidence-based learning strategies. This means that students will be shown how to study effectively and achieve their academic goals using scientifically-proven approaches. One such approach is to engage in self-explaining. Many students read educational text books and hope to absorb the information. Self-explaining promotes deeper understanding of the material. The platform I am developing will enable students to make greater sense of what they are studying.
MK: Can you elaborate on self-explaining and how it works?
Self-explaining is a strategy students can use to strengthen their grasp of intellectual material. For example, imagine a worked example in Maths. Textbooks often include worked examples that provide each step of the solution without necessarily explaining where that step came from or why it was performed (e.g. “Step 1: Angle X = 120°). In “self-explaining,” students would fill in the gaps, as it were. They would think about the rationale behind each step and perhaps say it out loud to themselves, e.g. “So Angle X is 120°. This is because angles on a straight line add up to 180…” Research shows that explaining things to yourself can help you to consolidate your understanding.
Adam Abdulla’s book Coaching Students in Secondary Schools: Closing the Gap between Performance and Potential is available in paperback published by Routledge, Oxford.
Adam Abdulla, born and brought up in England, attended Latymer Upper School in London, following which he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he won the prestigious Gibbs Prize for Philosophy and achieved a double-first in Classics. He was one of the youngest ever contributors to the philosophical journal Locke Studies. At present, he teaches Classics at Godolphin and Latymer girls’ school in London. This is his first book. He is in the process of setting up his new website. Meanwhile he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.