Listening Well

The Quiet Secret that Propels Active Learning

By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center 

What does it look like when someone listens well? How can you get your students to do that—when listening to what you say, and when working with each other? How can you get better at listening to them?

Teachers encounter the listening challenge every day, with students of every age and in almost every context. For example:

  • As you start to give directions to your class, you might notice students in side conversations with each other. How will you respond?
  • Or maybe when your students “turn and talk,” they don’t paraphrase, summarize, or question what their partner says—actions that increase understanding on both sides.
  • You may also be working on your own listening skills. How might you respond to students in ways that acknowledge their thinking and push it deeper?

Some people think of listening as a passive act, in which we simply take in what other people say. In reality, it’s the quiet secret that propels all active learning. Unless we listen consciously, we can’t be sure that we are really “in communication.” We may be missing all kinds of opportunities to learn — and to teach!

That’s why the Common Core has put listening front and center as an “anchor standard” for college and career readiness — a fundamental skill that we want students to have when they graduate from our public schools.

The skills of listening well

What does it look like when we are listening well and attending to each other? In the ideal scenario:

  • We actively attend to the speaker.
  • We focus on the speaker’s intent or perspective.
  • We paraphrase or summarize what they heard.
  • We ask clarifying questions.
  • We respond in a constructive and meaningful way.

Each of those skills takes plenty of practice!

For example, as you actively attend to what someone says, you might lean forward, nod thoughtfully, or indicate interest by the expression on your face. Even without words, you can encourage the speaker to say more, offering a quiet mind and space so that the other person’s ideas can take shape.

Students rank as their favorite teachers the ones who “really listen.” Whether you do that in a class meeting, an advisory group, or a one-to- one conference, it’s a chance to earn their trust and open their minds. Arielle, in grade 10, described the value of listening to peers from different backgrounds. “If you’re in a group with all the same type of people,” she mused, “you’re only gonna get one idea.”

Teachers can also model (and unpack) key listening skills in a transparent manner. “Most important, I don’t ever talk over the students,” said Rosa Miller, a fourth-grade teacher of English language learners. When she gives directions, “If anyone is talking, I stop talking.” At the start of each year, she and her class agree to make that habit a norm in all their conversations. “It’s a sign of respect for each other as well as the teacher.”

Academic learning from intentional listening

Young listeners need scaffolding as they learn to paraphrase or summarize what they hear. If they feel unsure about what someone meant, they need practice in asking questions to clarify the speaker’s intent. Both those steps will lay the foundation for powerful thinking, especially if teachers encourage them to build on what they hear.

“When you’re learning new things, you are merging them into something that you already know,” Gretel Ly tells her “expert teams” of first-grade students, who have been researching the animal kingdom. In the video excerpt below, she asks them to share with a partner “what you have been able to hold on to from your research work.”

The children start out the exercise with phrases the teacher gives them, like “I’ve learned that . . . ” or “I heard you say that . . .. But before long the camera reveals growing interest and connection between partners. The room buzzes with the responses of young listeners practicing their skills.

By high school, students will be exercising those same skills in the challenging academic tasks that ready them for college.

In a ninth-grade class debate on gun control, one teacher noted, his students’ performance matched right up with Common Core speaking and listening standards. Helped in part by sentence-starters he supplied, his students were verifying what peers intended to say (SL.9-10.1c) and actively building on what they heard (SL.9-10.1d). Two examples:

“Ramon, is it fair to summarize your point by saying that the Founding Fathers wanted the U.S. Constitution to change over the years?”

“Brady said that a citizen’s right to bear arms can’t be taken away because it’s a Constitutional right. But I want to challenge her conclusion, because citizens also have a right to amend the Constitution. For example, Prohibition ended because voters repealed the 18th Amendment by passing the 21st Amendment.”

Both interpersonal and academic

These students are both respectfully addressing the ideas of others and pushing each other’s thinking deeper. In social, emotional, and academic settings throughout their lives, those skills will serve them well. Listening well and attending to one another:

  • Affects the developing relationships so important in building a culture of inquiry.
  • Establishes habits of thoughtful discourse about things that matter.
  • Enables them to thrive and contribute in the contexts of college, career, and community life.

So let’s take a fresh look at this “soft skill” so necessary to success. Listening — the quiet secret that propels all active learning — may begin in the hush of attention. But it can help solve the hardest problems in the world.

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2 responses to “Listening Well”

  1. Kitty Dixon says:

    Kathleen and Wendy, this ties in so much with the work and learnings we have had in our Oral Language project in New Haven Unified School District and Alum Rock Union School District, led by Bee Medders!!! This is also so true in our Early Learning work. So fascinating. Love the title!!

  2. Bee Medders says:

    Thank you for this blog and I too love the title! I’d like to add, I’m also noticing in our work around Oral Language that listening is probably the most neglected skill taught and yet one of the most essential life skills. I had the pleasure of working with Gretel quoted in this blog. She served as one of our lab teachers in our Foundations in Language and Literacy Series. A key learning was knowing what to listen for gives purpose for listening. In addition, student talk not only provides formative assessment to inform instructional moves to meet the needs of students but also students learn they have a voice. Traditionally in school, a quiet student was rewarded for “behaving” and those who were outspoken and asked questions often received negative consequences. Reward and punishment create a system of fear perpetuating, unintentionally, a vicious cycle of injustice and inequity. I appreciated the invitation you ended with. “So let’s take a fresh look at this “soft skill” … listening…” I too think the ability to listen can help solve the hardest problems in the world. I think If we could learn to listen and understand one another, perhaps everyone will be able to coexist in peace! I hope for opportunities to continue the dialogue and to listen and learn from each other.

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