Written by Christina Botbyl, Curriculum Director, American International School, Kuwait
Framing the Conversations
Through the seemingly simple act of listening, human beings acknowledge and include each other. The willingness and the ability to listen (or not) determines the depth and quality of a conversation. Listening opens the door and invites people in so that we may know, respect, and empathize with each other. The reciprocity of listening creates an opportunity for individuals to care and be cared for.
Conversation protocols provide a dialogic framework that supports and encourages focused listening. They provide inclusive opportunities for collegial shared inquiry. It is always interesting to hear colleagues ask, ”Oh, we’re not doing a protocol, are we?” or “Are you going to suggest a protocol?” The subtext of such questions indicates that there are voices or ideas that the questioner might prefer to exclude or avoid. While excluding certain voices may allow a group to work faster, an unwillingness to listen to diverse thinking can create an echo chamber in which exclusive agendas are pushed forward.
Have you ever asked a colleague for their feedback in the hallway during a five minute break? Have you ever listened to a colleague share the story of a failed lesson? Did you immediately point out what they could have done differently? Have you received unsolicited advice about your teaching practice when all you really needed/wanted was someone to listen? As the late Stephen Covey (2004) observed, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (p. 251).
Solving problems and offering advice are automatic reactions that often require little effort. The human brain engages in fast thinking when we offer automatic and quick solutions on the spot. We react and offer advice without pausing to think about what the speaker has actually said, asking for further details, or considering that advice might not even be what the speaker is seeking. When we invoke slow thinking to focus our attention on the subtleties and complexities surrounding a problem, better solutions emerge. Slow thinking allows us to engage in a contemplative process that often results in more effective and sensitive feedback when we focus our listening to really hear the message being shared.
Collegial relationships, instructional practices, and learning reap the benefits when the conditions in our professional lives are transformed to allow for deep and focused listening.
Learning to Listen
Focused listening is an act that does not always come naturally. The structured conversations of protocols provide a consistent framework that supports and encourages slow thinking. A protocol can serve as the invisible guardrails that keep conversations on target, focused, and productive.
While framing a conversation with a formulaic structure may seem cold and fake, conversation protocols are actually inclusive and heartfelt. Critical Friends Group® (CFG®) protocols create a space that allows for productive, solution oriented conversations that respect that time is finite, encourage creativity, require participants to practice focused listening, and home in on supporting communities as they strengthen professional connections.
CFG protocols frame a wide variety of professional conversations to solicit feedback, diverse insights, and action oriented solutions. There are protocols designed to fine tune and improve pieces of work (e.g., assessment task sheets, project outlines, policy statements, rubrics), to find solutions to professional dilemmas, to brainstorm and improve ideas, to explore the thinking and learning of students by examining their work, or to dive into data to uncover the next instructional strategies to support learning.
When critical friends convene to put all their thinking into their work, they engage in scaffolded opportunities that shift their thinking about any number of aspects of their professional work.
Conversations Encourage Agency
Critical friends help each other to discover that the answer to any inquiry can be found within each of them! Engaging in a scaffolded process slows thinking to create space to listen before engaging in the fast thinking that leads to action. As a result, actions are more purposeful and taken only after they have been considered and well thought out.
Building a Community Through Listening
Training, forming, and facilitating professional learning communities allows participants to develop, clarify, and extend their understanding of the work of teaching and learning. The frameworks of structured conversations provide collaborative opportunities for all voices to be heard and respected.
Practical, job embedded opportunities to engage in structured conversations nurture shared inquiry, listening, and collaborative conversations. Occasions to implement a conversation protocol to impact teaching and learning include unit planning, co-planning learning cycles, moderating assessments, and examining data. It is even possible to employ a protocol to shape a vision that can take a program or an organization into the future. Through a structured conversation about an imagined future, a strategic action plan emerges to reveal steps to lead to new heights. Critical friends become trusted thought partners, helping each other to think deeply, access our creativity, and solve dilemmas.
After rounds of a dilemma analysis one colleague observed, “I think we know now why it’s called critical friends. We have a support group of colleagues who have a wealth of knowledge to impact our thinking.”
Listening as an Inclusive Practice
Engaging in listening focused conversations invites and includes a diverse group of participants and promotes inclusive practices within an international school community. Developing and practicing focused listening skills with colleagues extends equity and includes others.
When we truly listen to all voices within the context of structured conversations, our understanding of each other grows. Such practices allow people to listen to one another because it is through listening to one another that we are able to take another’s perspectives into account (Adams, et al., 2018). Our colleagues are humanized through their words and actions which can lead to developing a sense of empathy and compassion that supports human flourishing for all.
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Christina Botbyl is currently the Curriculum Director at the American International School Kuwait. She is also an International Facilitator with the National School Reform Faculty leading and training educators to become better listeners, collaborators, and thinkers through Critical Friends Group® work.