Co-Laboring: Ensuring All Voices are Heard

Thinking Collaborative thanks Winn Wheeler, Assistant Professor at Bellarmine University for her contributions to Sustaining the Journey for the month of April.
Co-Laboring: Ensuring All Voices are Heard
For the month of April, the Sustaining the Thinking Collaborative Journey will focus on ways in which the Adaptive Schools seminar can be an empowering force within a school district. Drawing upon the dissertation study of Wheeler (2016), each column will focus on a way that Adaptive Schools supports the development of collaboration within an organization. In considering the practice “of co-laboring” – communication is key. In order to work well together, members must have the requisite skills to listen well. Last week the column focused on this need and the role that the collaborative norm of paraphrasing plays in ensuring that messages are heard. In addition to ensuring that individuals are heard, it is important for an organization to ensure a balance of participation, to ensure that there are means by which all voices can be heard.

The work of Adaptive Schools supported this practice in Smith County Schools* (Kentucky) through offering protocols and practices which invited (in structured ways) the engaged participation of organization group members. Structures shared in Adaptive Schools such as Say Something or Assumptions Wall* provided structures which engaged all members in participation. The high structure (e.g. everyone reflects before the discussion, groups members thoughtfully choose what they want to share, only two people at a time are talking) of Assumptions Wall allow a group facilitator to ensure participation of every group member when discussion is focused around topics which might be challenging or difficult. Of course, challenging and difficult work is often at the heart of teachers’ collaborative conversations. Having means to brooch such conversations gives rise to a culture in which they can happen without defensiveness or bitterness.
Ensuring voices are heard is also critical in terms of interacting with stakeholder groups. In the case of Smith County Schools, this need was particularly apparent when a new re-districting plan was developed. Meetings were held across the district over a period of months in order for parents and other community members to share their feedback about proposed plans. Meetings were facilitated by individuals who had experienced Cognitive CoachingSM and Adaptive Schools and specific practices (facilitator moves, intentional use of the norms of collaboration) were incorporated. The application of learning from these experiences proved powerful for community members as well as Smith County Schools employees. Retired Chief Academic Officer, Elizabeth
Griffin reflected on the benefits that occurred as a result of this decision:
At the end of the day if you look at redistricting, something in the past that had been terribly emotional, divisive, I’m telling you, it was the best situation you can have . . . And, here’s the other part – it was because of us going through that process that way that we actually got good information from the constituents that helped come up with a better plan. . . . (Elizabeth Griffin, Individual Interview, September 4, 2015 from Wheeler, 2016, p. 108)

Griffin’s comment eludes to the fact that the redistricting meetings went smoothly, a contrast from previous experiences. She also points to the notion that in hearing the different voices, better ideas emerged. Indeed, hearing and implementing the thoughts of constituents yielded a better plan than the one initially envisioned by district employees.

Comments from two individuals who helped facilitate these meetings suggest why the meetings were better. Rachel Zince and Margaret Turner, instructional coaches, described how they listened to parent feedback about the plan, paraphrased ideas, and recorded ideas so that everyone’s thinking could be reviewed and synthesized. This process of making everyone’s thinking public was important in terms of meeting the affective needs of constituents (many expressed their thanks and appreciation for having their voices heard), but perhaps more importantly this sharing of ideas led to better solutions for a challenge the school district was facing – re-districting students.

To “co-labor,” is to commit to a shared process, it is to be interdependent and this process, though powerful, is challenging. In using structures that balance participation, the Smith County Schools have implemented norms which embed a diversity of thought. Ultimately, the outcome of such sharing is the development of better ideas than would have been created by individuals or even smaller groups. Structures and beliefs outlines within the work of Adaptive Schools were powerful in making this process of listening and sharing possible.

Wheeler, W. C. (2016), Adaptive Schools: Investigating impact, continuity, and change in one school district. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Electronic Theses and Dissertations. (Paper 2463).

https://doi.org/10.18297/etd/2463