Co-Laboring: Listening Well

Thinking Collaborative thanks Winn Wheeler, Assistant Professor at Bellarmine University for her contributions to Sustaining the Journey for the month of April.

Co-Laboring: Listening Well

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.
Within the Smith County School* district (located in Kentucky), the skill of listening well was developed first through Cognitive CoachingSM and later through Adaptive Schools. Participation in Cognitive CoachingSM became part of the initiation process for new administrators and instructional coaches within the district. As the district became more familiar with the work of Thinking Collaborative and eventually engaged deeply in the work of Adaptive Schools, greater awareness of the norms of collaboration emerged. The collaborative norm of paraphrasing focuses on the capacity of an individual to listen well. As noted on the Norms of Collaborative poster (found at , “efficient paraphrase[ing] assists the members of the group in hearing and understanding one another as they converse and make decisions” (“Norms of Collaboration – Annotated”).
In Smith County, paraphrasing became a powerful tool because of the intentional decision to teach others about it and to practice it in the context of professional learning as well as authentic contexts. Sylvia Miller, a literacy coach remembered how her former principal Cora Ellis (who at the time of the interview had become an administrator at the district level) supported team leaders within her school by teaching them about paraphrasing:
One of the things we did with them was practice paraphrasing. It made such a huge difference to their meetings. They would come back to comment and say how it worked and they would say that their role was like that of a facilitator. (Sylvia Miller, Individual Interview, July 18, 2013 from Wheeler, 2016, p. 173)

In these words, is the sense that teacher-leaders were able to facilitate conversations with their colleagues that were authentic; conversation that allowed members of the group to have a voice.

In a similar vein, Rachel Zince and Margaret Turner, both literacy coaches, expressed how paraphrasing was an important tool used in a series of meetings to get parent feedback about a re-districting plan.

When we did the redistricting and we were asked to help facilitate these groups of community members who came from all different areas in our community, some of whom were somewhat heightened emotionally and others who just wanted information or just wanted to give input. To be able to mediate that, we used some very specific Adaptive Schools strategies and philosophies – and to me it was a great growth experience to have participated in that because you got to see it with non-teachers. And you got to see how it really diffused some of the emotional aspect of it that needed to be taken out . . . because really we were genuinely involved in hearing input and. . . sometimes emotion can cloud that … (Rachel Zince, Individual Interview, September 1, 2015 from Wheeler, 2016, p. 108)

Rachel Zince emphasized the value of using paraphrasing as a tool to really hear individuals who were in a heightened emotional state. Margaret Turner focused on the value in terms of making individuals have assurance that their voices were heard. She remembered:

At the end of each session all of the parents [were] saying, “Thank you so much for listening to me,” they just want somebody to hear them. I think [that it] is going to diffuse a lot of the drama and negativity that can be associated with redistricting because the community sees it in a more positive light because they feel like they are being listened to. We’re paraphrasing what they are saying, we are capturing it, validating it . . . . (Margaret Turner, Individual Interview, June 2013, from Wheeler, 2016, p. 109)

In order for the members of an organization or a group to work together, it is imperative that group members work to really listen to one another. The work of Adaptive Schools advocates this practice through the norm of paraphrasing. Furthermore, the practice of paraphrasing is embedded explicitly into many of the strategies to support the work of groups. In Wheeler’s (2016) study of the Smith County schools, it is notable that individuals who were in situations where paraphrasing was used intentionally reported that they felt heard; they felt that their thoughts and ideas were valued and ultimately understood. This sense of being heard and the expectation of listening well to others is one key to the practice of being collaborative.

Thinking Collaborative. (2017). “Norms of collaboration toolkit.” Retrieved from:

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).