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Susan Askew

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Transformative coaching to support professional learning


Susan Askew and Eileen Carnell explore how coaching can support learning within the organisation.

This article presents ideas about the importance of coaching in supporting professional learning. The premise underlying this approach is that the role of the coach is to support people’s learning at work. The central issue addressed is how we learn, and how we can facilitate the learning of others. The emphasis is on helping the coachee, the coach, the coach-learning group and the organisation learn in a particular way.

The aims for transformative coaching are closely aligned with Rogers’ (Coaching skills: a handbook, 2004) definition, in that learning and change, both for the coach and coachee, are at the core. The coach and coachee are in an equal relationship; resourcefulness and responsibility are encouraged, and the coaching and learning process attend to the whole person.

Sue Askew: "Within this cycle of learning, the coach would share hunches, make empathetic statements and may challenge the coachee."

The coaching process is based on a learning cycle. In the exploration stage the coach is actively listening and asking open questions, for example, "Tell me about the issues you want to discuss?"

Following this stage the coach would actively support the coachee in making connections with previous experiences, making sense of what is happening, noticing strengths and personal resources. Most importantly for transformative coaching, within this cycle of learning, the coach would share hunches, make empathetic statements and may challenge the coachee.

These interventions support the coachee to see themselves and the situation in a new light, develop new understandings about themselves, and a new appreciation of the taken-for granted cultural and psychological assumptions that determine how one thinks, feels and acts. This may be followed by establishing a vision for the future, making decisions about new actions and ending with reflecting on their learning process in coaching. Feelings would be explored throughout the cycle.

Reflective learning

Transformative coaching embeds a view of transformative learning that leads the learner, at whatever stage of learning (coach or coachee), to reflect on, and re-evaluate past beliefs and experiences, which were derived from others (Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, 1991). The key word relating to reflective learning is ‘consciousness’ – reflective learning is centrally about bringing something into consciousness that was not there before (Mezirow, A critical theory of adult learning and education, 1981).

When people are working together in any context there is an increased need to bring into consciousness an understanding of how a person sees themselves and their interactions with others.

Transformative coaching foregrounds reflection and we are particularly interested in facilitating the professional learning of the coach so that they feel confident in supporting others becoming reflective learners. We argue that this approach to coaching in an organisation encourages a supportive collaborative climate.

This is a two-way process in that coaching is more effective in an organisational environment that is supportive of this particular approach to coaching. In transformative coaching the learning experience is not isolated from the wider work environment and transformative coaching has an important role in organisational learning. As part of the coaching process, coaches pay particular attention to fundamental themes such as self-identity and empowerment - these issues are fundamental to learning. 

Values and beliefs

Cultural issues are also important in coaching. We start from the premise that all ideas are culturally imposed and all ideas are open to question and challenge. 

Transformative coaching is based in specific values and beliefs. For example, the purpose is to facilitate personal decision-making, foster empowerment and encourage responsibility. It is possible that some people may come to coaching for direction and advice. Because the raison d’etre of transformative coaching is to facilitate professional learning, advice and guidance is not given.

Where appropriate, the coach might ask the coachee to think about what helps and hinders their learning in relation to specific cultural dimensions. For example, the degree to which the coachee feels controlled by others, whether the coachee feels a display of emotions is acceptable, whether the coachee feels threatened by uncertainty, views on the separation of their private and working lives and the emotional distance that is kept between them. In this approach coachees are asked to think about how their beliefs and ideas affect their actions and choices.

Transformative coaching is based on facilitating the coachee in bringing long-held and possibly unconscious beliefs into the "light" for re-evaluation as part of learning about the self before lasting changes can be made.


Susan Askew is a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London (IOE). Eileen Carnell is a writer and educational consultant. During the last four years they have had a central role in running the professional learning programme for the group of coaches who work in the coaching service across their organisation. They are coaches themselves and the ideas in this article are developed from their recent book, Transformative coaching: a learning theory for practice.


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