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Helping Students Learn How To Listen

Take a look at the picture accompanying this article. Lots of hands raised, many students wanting to say something. Is this the sign of a health classroom of learners?

Maybe, maybe not.

Many students are focused on talking more than listening. Often they have the impression that the more they talk, the higher course participation grade they’ll get. This can result in listening to respond, not to understand.

The challenge to real listening in schools

Some of this is cultural, of course: we live in a time that can conspire against really listening to each other. Social media fosters talking more than listening. The ability to fully concentrate has degraded under the influence of constant stimulation, distractions, and competing demands on our attention — sadly, this is as true for teachers as it is for students. We fill what not long ago were small gaps of unscheduled time; we attend to the incoming tide of email and news, send texts to family and colleagues, listen to voicemail. Anxiety builds and passes among us, as communicable as a stomach bug.

As both a cause and a result of this anxiety, students (and their parents) are often more concerned with academic outcomes than with understanding what they are learning. And in the midst of: How can I get an A in your class? My parents will lose it if I get another B — the listening part of their lives gets increasing short shrift. The classroom steamroller starts to chug along; everyone wanting to talk, few really listening.

The good news is that there is a lot that teachers can do to slow down the classroom steamroller while strengthening student learning.

Structuring classroom conversations differently

Here are some ways to structure classroom conversations differently.

Build in pauses: during a short silence, ask students to think about what they have been hearing, rather than saying anything aloud. Then ask what they learned from the silence.

Paraphrasing is a powerful tool in which we try to summarize in detail what we heard the other person say; practicing it can be built into the classroom norms.

Try this paraphrasing experiment: pair students up and have one listen to the other speak on a topic for 2 minutes. Encourage the listener to just listen and not to interrupt. Then ask the listener to summarize what they’ve heard in as much detail as they can.

Teachers can model careful listening by taking a moment in class discussion to paraphrase what a student has just said, suggesting, “Here’s what I hear you saying” or “let me see if I have this right….” Students may be surprised at learning what they’ve missed or confounded. Or gotten just right.

A closing exercise in the last few minutes of class can emphasize the importance of listening to understand: summarize the comments of the two students to your right. We need to emphasize that “participation” is listening in a way that is productive for oneself and for one’s fellow students. Speaking up is a contribution only when it adds to the conversation that is already being collaboratively crafted. A listener who says, “Lily made a point about xx and we dropped it altogether. I’d like to go back to that,” has helped everyone tune in more closely.

Pay attention to the unfolding conversation in class. At the beginning of class, assign one student to scribe as the conversation unfolds — a rotating responsibility — so that everyone has a chance to exercise listening closely without even having the option of responding. Once or twice in the class period, have the scribe read aloud from her notes, helping students become more aware of non sequiturs and comments that have detracted from the conversation. The notes may also simply be made available to all students on the class webpage.

And, finally, I have used “the proverb game,” a short Improv exercise, to slow students’ tendency to talk without really listenng to each other — — as well as to build cohesion in the classroom. You can learn more about how to use the proverb game in your classroom here

There can be a great relief — and challenge — for all of us in getting accustomed to a different rhythm and pace to classroom discussions, shifting the emphasis from speaking to listening, slowing down the steamroller. As unsatisfying as a frenetic “conversation” can be, it also pulls itself along, and that brings a kind of ersatz energy, a false sense of really getting somewhere. Real learning comes from doing the hard work of becoming more comfortable with silence, with the pauses and opportunities for reflection that support listening, with taking responsibility for sitting in the driver’s seat of the steamroller — and then placing it in park.

Author, Father (grandfather!), Spouse, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Faculty, Stanley King Institute

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