A conversation about listening
I work in a Maths department with 5 colleagues (Rich, Pooja, Wali, Katy and Mehdi). This week in our department we went into each other's classrooms with the objective of listening to listening. We then met on Friday to discuss what we had heard.
We started the meeting with a general discussion about which factors might affect listening (from this post):
- The teacher's delivery
- The relationship between the teacher and the students
- The connection between the students and the content
- The students' relationships with each other
Rich started the discussion by saying that the relationship between teacher and students is the most important.
Pooja identified that tiredness (the time of day) as a key factor. Rich described the situation in a previous school of his where they had decided that teachers should talk less in the final period of the day. Wali added that the ability to focus of longer periods of time depends on the maturity of the students; he noted that his A2 students can listen for longer, but that this might also be connected to their desire to learn.
Pooja identified the fact that students might have individual issues, or personality traits, that inhibit their listening. Wali added that some students might have specific educational needs that might affect their ability to listen.
Katy noted that the link between the students and content is important, and in particular the level of difficulty; students must find it hard to listen if they cannot access the content.
Rich talked about creating an environment for listening; when watching Wali's lesson (see below) he noticed that students had no choice but to listen, or at least look like they were listening.
Wali talked about the importance of teacher delivery, and levels of enthusiasm; he tended to be more enthusiastic when explaining important points. He had experimented with being more relaxed in his delivery, but it hadn't been as effective.
Mehdi added to this with the observation that students can tell when he is less enthusiastic through his body language.
At this point, I asked: how we know whether students are listening? Rich commented that you could feel that students are listening. We all agreed that you get a feeling (as a teacher) when people are listening, so I probed a little further: where does this feeling come from? Wali put the feeling down to the lack of interaction, which everyone appeared to agree with.
I think there may be more to explore around this feeling, and how we notice the signs of listening.
What if no-one is listening?
I then asked: if you feel students aren't listening, what do you do then? Wali explained how he picks students to answer questions (especially if they appear not to be listening), although Mehdi added that sometimes you just "need an answer" and pick someone who appears to be listening more attentively.
Mehdi described how, when he feels the students are getting bored, he changes what he is doing, perhaps playing a game, to wake the students up. We all talked about the importance of variety to avoid student boredom. Mehdi explained how he plans these games in advance if he suspects the lesson might be dull.
Katy then talked about a lesson she had just taught (on rounding and estimating, and upper/lower bounds) that she felt hadn't gone well. She said she realised the lesson was "terrible" about 5 minutes in, that students were bored and that the content was too difficult for many. She could not think of an interesting way to deliver this piece of content, had started with a bad example and "it just went downhill from there." On reflection, she realised she hadn't thought through the lesson fully.
Choosing to listen to someone else
At this point, the conversation went in a different direction. Katy asked the question to the group (presumably related to something that had just happened in this lesson): What do you do if a student in your lesson says "I don't get this, but I'll just go on YouTube when I get home"?
Katy said she felt insulted when students said this, which resonated with others in the meeting.
Pooja connected this to students referring to textbooks while she was talking. She feels annoyed when students do this, and says to students, "You can trust me." Pooja added that many students who were looking through the textbooks were impatient to get to the 'solutions' and did not want to listen to her explanations of the method; by doing so, they were missing important information.
Rich didn't see a huge problem with students using other resources, as he could see why students might get sick of (his) voice.
I asked everyone in the group if they could think of any reasons why students might want to watch videos at home. A number of reasons were given:
- Videos give students more time; they can pause/replay bits they don't understand first time.
- Students watch videos at home on their own, in a quiet and comfortable environment, away from teacher expectation or the pressure of comparison with others
- They have a choice when to listen, and who they listen to.
Rich felt that this kind of comment from students might conceal a deeper issue; students may be putting aside their inability to understand, a kind of denial that they are struggling.
We then talked about each other's lessons we had been into.
Wali started by describing Pooja's lesson where students were working on a paired card activity. The structure of the task ensured that students had to communicate to solve the problem, and the result was that students were listening to each other intently. We agreed that the way that activities are structured is crucial to enabling listening to happen.
Pooja described a lesson of mine she had been into. She noticed that students were listening to each other, and that I (as the teacher) was listening to them. Following some paired work, we joined together to solve some student generated problems; this is a form of listening to students.
Mehdi watched Wali and Rich teaching, and had noticed that sometimes students carried on working while the teacher was talking. This was something he had noticed in his own lessons, and was reassured by the fact that this happened in other lessons too. He wondered how and when he should ensure that all students are listening: when is it suitable to stop students, even if they are all working well? At this point, I talked about my urge to talk at times when it was probably not necessary, and recalled an event from my lesson where I knew that a plenary was not required and resisted the urge to conduct one.
Rich talked about Wali's lesson where all students were focussed and engaged; they were all listening to Wali as he spoke. Rich wondered whether he preferred his lessons to be "a bit louder", but then he wondered whether his lessons should perhaps be a bit quieter, like Wali's. After some discussion around this, he concluded that it probably depended on the students.
Katy heard Mehdi teach, and liked the atmosphere in the classroom. Students had self-selected to work in pairs or individually, and conversations were mathematically productive. She reflected on her dissatisfaction that a number of conversations in her classroom that were "about random things". She liked the way that Mehdi listened to the students, and then reflected their questions back towards the whole class.
As is always the case with these Friday meetings, our discussion continued past the hour that marks the end of the school day. We left the discussion hanging in the air, with a target to continue to notice occurrences of listening in ours and each others classrooms...