Philosophy Meets Literacy Through Positive Coaching

08 March 2015

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Philosophy Meets Literacy Through Positive Coaching

When I show high-school science students (or their teachers) how to
design effective nonfiction ("technical") text, they often end up
with a lesson not just in linguistics but also in philosophy--
about writer responsibility.  One way to see this is to tap the
distinction (another philosophical move!) between positive and
negative coaching.

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 greatest
strengths 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 Literacy

Awareness of these differences can help anyone who wants to promote
the kind of nonfiction literacy development relevant to science
classes and the new Common Core State Standards.  That's because 
positive coaching supports literacy growth in two ways:
(1) Attitude Change:
It encourages 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 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--prototypes, constraints, feedback, usability.
And partly it happens by practicing with customized scaffolds. 

Writer Responsibilities

Two responsibilities of nonfiction writers (mentioned in CCSS)
call for such positive coaching:
    Audience awareness,
    Iterative text revision.
Why are these two obligations often confusing or stressful for 

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 philosophical--they call for informed insights
about what nonfiction writers owe their readers (in the "real world")
and why.  In school, students write for one person (their teacher).  
They already know what the teacher likes, and they know that the teacher 
is not relying on their text and has no true 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 success--a key
writer responsibility.

The Positive Response

Positive coaching offers a sound pedagogical and personal response to
the challenge of building responsibility in student writers. 

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 
philosophical 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.  Teachers (and other mentors) can foster adoption 
of these new techniques, gradually, by sharing skill-building 
literacy-support scaffolds already posted freely online, for example at:  




Comments (2)

craighaynes's picture


Wednesday, August 31, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Positive coaching is very

Positive coaching is very much essential for our success. Most probably, we used to improve our positive way of thinking while following positive coaching. Positive thinking will definitely improve our life structure and confidence, negative thinking will kill our creativity; therefore it is quite better to improve our positive way of thinking to develop our skills and strategies.

pablo0's picture


Monday, April 1, 2024 -- 9:21 AM

Positive coaching in

Positive coaching in iterative text revision can foster cognitive openness, encouraging individuals to embrace personal innovation and experimentation. Students, inspired by engineering practices, may adopt new writing tools and techniques to meet the challenges of their audience-oriented responsibilities. Explore our online nursing papers writing tools, available even with a 3-hour deadline, to support your academic journey effectively!

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