Improving Listening in the Classroom: Teachers
14 Jun 2022
I have been reading the terrific ‘You’re Not Listening’ by Kate Murphy. Over the next two weeks, I want to share some of the thinking from it in two blog posts: one on how teachers can develop their own listening, and the second on how we can seek to actively teach listening in the classroom.
Murphy believes that listening is a skills and art that is profoundly missing from modern society:
“Listening is something you do or don’t do every day. While you might take listening for granted, how well you listen, to whom and under what circumstances determines your life’s course – for good or ill. And, more broadly, our collective listening, or the lack thereof, profoundly affects us politically, societally, and culturally.”
Teaching is one of the most interpersonally challenging professions. That challenge isn’t just about the extensive degree of talking we need to do, we are also tasked with demonstrating a deep and respectful manner of listening.
A moment to reflect on the listening demands placed on a teacher makes the challenge clearer:
1. Listening for behaviour – making sure that the conditions in the classroom are conducive to learning.
2. Listening to check for understanding – can we be sure that the young people in the room are clear on what they need to do?
3. Listening to peer dynamics – as teachers we are constantly monitoring a room, checking to make sure the students focus is on their work and there is not an issue approaching that might derail learning.
4. Listening to be responsive to questioning. We ask a huge amount of questions, which means we also need to have the capacity to listen and make sense of the information we hear back.
None of these listening skills are passive – they all require explicit effort. The effort, however, pays dividends. Young people are, as we know too well, discerning: they understand when they are in the company of someone who cares and who is determined to listen to them.
They can also spot the opposite a mile off: someone who is casting judgement on them, who appears disinterested to their ideas, who merely wants to switch the narrative back on to themselves as quickly as possible. The teacher, that is, who just never stops talking and uses their position as some kind of intellectual pedestal to lecture young people.
To commit to improving our capacity to listen, therefore, will not only make us better teachers – it will make us better, more empathetic, human beings.
While we will look at more practical aspects of how to develop our ability to listen shortly, there is a fundamental mind-shift that needs to take place to enable good listening. It is one which seeks to view our classroom spaces as a place in which alongside imparting information, part of professional role is also about listening deeply and with understanding.
I have been a volunteer for a few years with a mental health charity in Edinburgh called Health in Mind. Every couple of weeks I facilitate a peer support group for individuals with anxiety and or depression.
Now I am not claiming to be an expert listener, but I do know that often my best listening of the week happens in those ninety-minute settings.
My approach in these groups is to always make sure that people who attended the group felt seen and validated. Often that isn’t by seeking to provide a solution to how they are feeling, but to merely show them that they have been deeply listened to.
Murphy acknowledges this innate desire we have to offer solutions and a quick fix in her book:
‘Being aware of someone’s troubles doesn’t mean you need to fix them. People usually aren’t looking for solutions from you anyway; they just want a sounding board… The best you can do is listen. Try to understand what the person is facing and appreciate how it feels
There is a way of being that I know I have to be in during the sessions: one that is receptive, without judgement, and very aware of the things that can detract from me providing my full attention.
I check in with myself regularly throughout the sessions, asking myself the simple question: are you present? That often means dialing out, or muting, the inner monologue that can often be running while we attempt to listen to others. It means bringing that stillness, that connection and that curiosity that is the bedrock of deep listening.
How does that process work? Carl Rogers, the influencial psychologist, called this process active listening, and said of it the following:
“I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.”
The classroom is a different context, yes, but fundamentally that need to feel seen and validated is at the core of any group dynamic. For teenagers in the classroom, it is just as evident a need. That question also becomes important when teaching: am I really present?
It is so easy to get the physicality of listening completely wrong, so that it becomes something that causes irritation, rather than something that enables another individual.
Watch any expert listener and the first thing you will see is a stillness that is utterly focussed on the individual.
That stillness is balanced with eye contact that is sustained. As a rule of thumb, the listener should seek to hold eye contact more than the speaker.
In the classroom this stillness is challenging, but it is an important message we are sending to a class – when somebody speaks in this lesson it is vital we listen intently. We can encourage a class to do the same – to show respect to others by turning our body language towards them.
Maintaining that stillness is balanced with open body language that is encouraging. It is why not having our hands in our pockets or arms folded at the front of a room is important. We are a visual representation of what good listening is for the rest of a class to learn from.
Leaning our bodies forward towards a listener can also help them feel ready to share more. A warm smile or a nod of the head can also really help a speaker feel like they are being respected and listened to. The nod can be overdone – we just need to give the occasional movement of our heads to show that we are paying attention to a speaker.
To be a good listener requires us to become more accepting of silence. That, in a classroom setting, can often feel uncomfortable – and we often feel the need to jump in and finish sentences. That, however, can be damaging to a young person’s confidence and distrupts the messages we want to send in our classrooms about quality listening. To return to Murphy:
To be a good listener is to accept pauses and silences because filling them too soon, much less pre-emptively, prevents the speaker from communicating what they are perhaps struggling to say. It quashes elaboration and prevents real issues from coming to the surface. Just wait. Give the other person a chance to pick up where they left off.’ (p. 189)
Silence is not only acceptable in the classroom, but it is a invitiation for the young person to expand and to reveal more. I know that the deepest insights and best answers in my own classroom often came from times when I have deliberately muted myself, and given space for real thinking to take place.
Listening and curiosity, for me, are also deeply connected. We want to listen deeply to something a young person offers us, because we are curious about what their unique perspective might bring.
That for me, was one of the real joys of being an English teacher: having my own understanding enriched and inspired about texts with the original thinking that young people provided.
It can be simple phrases:
“That is really interesting, how did you arrive at that thinking?”
“I’m fascinated, talk me through how you got to that answer?”
“I love that, what made you think…”
Part of listening in the classroom involves seeking to deepen a young person’s thinking, and to encourage them to voice some of their internal thinking. That can also be where we move to asking some probing follow up questions, to really open up perspectives:
“Let me see if I am clear here…
“Can I chek to make sure I have understood you properly…”
“Can you expand on that?”
“Can you build on the detail there?”
One of our listening aims as a teacher is to provide a point of reference and the capacity to summarise thinking for others. Once we have modelled this skill with a class, we can open it out and encourage others to do the same – so that everyone is listening intently.
“Let me see if I have understood you.”
“Can I explain that back to you?”
“Am I right in thinking that you…”
Next week I will look at how we seek to deepen the listening of our students in the classroom. Until then, this wee clip from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is absolute gold dust in illustrating listening: