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Virginia Journal of Education


The Power of Listening



by Paula Denton

"That's interesting. Tell me more."

These simple words are some of the most inviting in the English language. Try using them the next time you're at a party, a faculty meeting, or the family dinner table, and really pay attention to the person's response. Chances are the speaker will relax, open up, and become more trusting, even more thoughtful-all because you're listening.

From business executives to religious leaders, people of divergent walks of life recognize the power of listening. That's why corporations train employees in listening (to increase productivity and boost sales), why marriage counselors teach couples to listen to each other (to understand each other's true feelings), and why health care professionals take seminars in listening (to pinpoint patients' concerns and problem-solve with colleagues more successfully).

Listening also plays a vital role in the classroom. We cannot teach students well without listening to them. Today's teachers are under enormous pressure to teach more content to more diversified groups of students. Listening can help us meet this challenge.

What Listening Does
Listening lets us know the student
. To be known and understood is a basic human need. When we fulfill that need for students, they feel a sense of belonging and significance in the classroom community. That makes them more motivated to learn. Furthermore, knowing students fully enables us to adapt our teaching to fit their needs.

The best way to understand people is to listen to them. Through careful listening, I learn that Trisha cares hugely about appearing capable. This tells me that it might be best to give her any needed redirections in private. Listening to Ben sharing about his weekend, I learn that he likes having choices of activities. I make a mental note that giving students choices in their learning, a structured classroom strategy I use, might be especially effective with him. My teaching improves when I listen more carefully.

Our listening helps students know themselves. By listening to students and reflecting back what we heard, we can help them become more conscious of their own interests, talents and questions. This self-awareness is essential if students are to learn at their best.

For example, Mr. Whitt listens as Brian explains how he thought of his writing topic. "At first I was just gonna write about space invaders again so I could trade ideas with Mike and Taiki. But I'm getting kind of tired of that. Then I thought about how I really like my new dog and I thought it would be different and fun to write about that 'cause it's something real."

After pausing a moment to take this in, Mr. Whitt responds, "Ah, so you're changing how you choose topics. You're going from science fiction to nonfiction. You also seem to be looking inside your own mind for topics that you care about, even if your friends are writing about something else."

Mr. Whitt's close listening and thoughtful paraphrasing helps Brian become more aware of how he's growing as a writer. This awareness will help Brian practice, reflect on, and build on his newfound skills.

Listening builds a sense of community. When we listen and reflect back to students what we understood, all the students in the class get to know each other. The class hears me say, "So, Jerome, it sounds like you're concerned about how the older students might act if you say that to them on the bus," and then they see Jerome nodding solemnly. This lets them gain empathy for Jerome. As students learn more about each other, they come to see themselves more as a community.

Just as powerfully, when I, as the teacher, listen to all students, I set a standard for respect and empathy, which are so fundamental to a strong community. I'm showing that all students are worth listening to and all opinions are respected, regardless of whether we agree with them.

Listening makes our questioning more effective. Asking questions is an effective teaching strategy. But if we're going to ask students questions, we'd better listen to their answers. They can tell when we're not taking a deep interest in their answers, and they'll stop responding.

Suppose I say to Elena, "You've shared three interesting facts about Cesar Chavez. What else would you like to know about his life and work?" Elena says something about strikes. But I'm not sure what she said because as she was talking, I was thinking about something else. I respond vaguely with, "Hmm, interesting." Elena knows immediately that I hadn't really listened and assumes a somewhat dissatisfied look. One or two more times of this kind of response from me, and Elena will stop engaging with my questions.

By contrast, if I'd listened attentively, I would have understood that what Elena wanted to learn about was hunger strikes because she'd read that Chavez did them, and they weren't really like a "strike." I then might've said, "Sounds like you're interested in hunger strikes because they seem to be different from strikes where you refuse to work." I then could've helped guide Elena in researching hunger strikes. Feeling my engagement, Elena would likely take my questioning seriously the next time and gradually develop trust in my genuine interest in her learning.

When we listen, students take their learning more seriously. What about the child who responds to questions with jokes or sarcasm? If we listen carefully, we can usually hear more serious messages within.

For example, Ms. Leon asks Alyce, "What will you write about today?" "I'm gonna write about . nothing!" Alyce grins.

Ms. Leon is sorely tempted to say, "Well, that's not a choice. You'd better get going on this assignment!" Instead, she takes a moment to consider the student's words as a genuine attempt to communicate rather than as a challenge to her authority. "Hmm. Nothing . How would you write about nothing, Alyce?"

"Can't!" Alyce chirps.

"So you'd really rather not write at all right now?"

"Yep, that's right!"

"Well, did you know that even professional writers sometimes don't want to write or find it really hard to write? Would you like to hear some things that they say help them?"

Alyce looks surprised. "Yeah, I guess so," she says cautiously.

If we listen for the real message behind students' wisecracks or casual chatter, students will begin to take their own words more seriously. "Wow, my teacher cares what I think. What do I think?" the self-talk might go. When they question themselves like this, students are on their way to stretching their potential.

How to Listen
Listening is easy. You just get quiet and let the words fall on your ears, right?

Wrong.

Listening is more than passively receiving someone's words. It's actively searching for the speaker's intended meaning, which often requires paying attention to what's being said beneath the words.

How often, for example, do students say "I don't care!"? If we listen well, we may pick up that they don't really mean they don't care. Depending on the tone of voice, the context, and other signals, "I don't care!" may mean "I'm angry," "I'm afraid," "I don't know," "This is too hard," or "I care, but I'm saying I don't care because I want to appear cool."

To understand which meaning is behind "I don't care" and all the things our students say, we have to give them our full attention while they're speaking, suspending for the moment our own agenda and point of view. This is hard, because most of us are in the habit of planning what we'll say next while someone's speaking. Suspending our own point of view can also be hard because it can feel like we're implying agreement. But suspending is not the same as giving up. To listen to a student express his opinion on how a rule isn't fair does not mean agreeing with that opinion. It does mean fully understanding it. After understanding, we can agree, open up the question for a group discussion, or hold firm to our position after supplying an explanation.

Listening and responding to students is therefore a multi-step process: We take in their words; we figure out the true intention behind the words, looking at tone, context, and other signals for clues; and only then, do we think about how to respond.

Two strategies--pausing and paraphrasing--can help ensure that we take in and understand what students are saying before we answer.

Pausing. Pausing, or waiting three to five seconds before responding to others' words, is a simple and effective way to become a better listener. Knowing that there will be this think time later frees us to attend fully to a student's comment while she or he is talking. Then, during the pause, we can ask ourselves, "What am I hearing and seeing here? What's this student really trying to communicate? How can I best respond?" To perceive the true message, pay attention not only to the student's words, but also to tone of voice, facial expression and body language.

If we're not used to pausing, three to five seconds can feel like a long time. And at first our mind may go blank during the pause or focus only on how awkward the silence feels. Counting silently to five can help. As pausing becomes more second nature, the counting will fade and we'll naturally begin to use the time to consider what the student said, what he or she intended, and finally, what we might say.

Paraphrasing. Paraphrasing, or restating the essence of a speaker's message in one's own words, allows speakers to check whether what they said was what they meant, allows listeners to confirm that their understanding is accurate, and leads both to think more deeply about a topic. This is a powerful strategy when holding problem-solving discussions, making plans, or trying specifically to deepen mutual understanding of an issue. Here are some ways to paraphrase effectively:

Use your own words. Depending on the situation, we can state the speaker's main idea ("So you need to create a hero in your story"), name indirectly expressed feelings ("You seem to be sad about your cousin moving away"), organize many students' thoughts into categories ("It sounds like there are two categories of ways to make recess fun for everyone: people in games can do things to include others, and people not in games can do things so that others want to include them"), or name principles that tie ideas together ("You gave lots of predictions of what will happen to the seeds we planted. Many of you are thinking about the conditions that make seeds grow, such as temperature, light and moisture").

Avoid using "I." Many of us have learned to begin paraphrases with "What I'm hearing you say is . " or "I'm understanding that . " This can inadvertently take the focus away from the student. For example, if the teacher leading the discussion about seeds says, "So, what I'm hearing are considerations of the conditions that make seeds grow," the message changes subtly. The focus shifts to the teacher's understandings rather than the children's. Some children might even wonder, "Is that what the teacher wants to hear? Did we say something wrong?" Some alternatives to using "I" include "So you're saying . ," "You seem to be feeling [wondering, thinking, doing] . ," "You're thinking about . ," and "You want us to know that . "

Keep it brief. Brevity in paraphrasing helps keep the focus on the student rather than shifting it to our own thoughts and feelings. In the above examples, the paraphrases consist of one or two sentences. The fewer words we can use to convey our sense of students' messages, the better.

Use an approachable voice. Recall that the purpose of paraphrasing is to make sure we have truly heard and understood the speaker. Remember, too, that we are in a position of power over students. It's important, therefore, to actively help students to feel safe communicating their true thoughts and feelings. One way to use voice for this purpose is to inflect it as if asking a question, which signals that students may correct our understanding ("So you're saying that we need more details on what worms eat?"). Another is to choose tentative words such as "seem" ("You seem to want your poem to express how you dislike snow") or "it sounds like" ("It sounds like this class has three different ideas").

Follow paraphrasing with an open-ended question. Sometimes a pause and a paraphrase are all that's needed to help students sharpen their self-awareness and stretch their learning. Other times, once students confirm that we have truly heard and understood them, they may need an open-ended question to prompt them to think further. For example, after hearing a student excitedly rattle off disparate facts about snakes, a teacher says, "You know about lots of different kinds of snakes. What's most interesting to you about snakes?" The teacher's question helps the student take the analytical step of identifying one aspect of snakes to focus on in her writing.

No time like now to listen
In today's fast-paced culture and time-pressured classrooms, listening is in danger of becoming a lost art. Understandably, teachers often feel they don't have time to pause, to suspend their own agenda for a moment, to take in and search for what their students are trying to communicate. But the truth is when we take the time, we are repaid many times over in more perceptive teaching on our part and higher quality work on students' part. Rather than teaching faster, our challenge is to teach better, beginning with listening to our students.

Denton, director of program development and delivery at Northeast Foundation for Children ( www.responsiveclassroom.org ), is a 25-year teaching veteran. She is the author of The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn.


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