In a previous post I recorded a few initial thoughts on student listening to teachers.
Since that post, I have been reading Teaching Mathematics: Towards a Sound Alternative by Brent Davis, in which he describes the importance of listening:
[Listening] is something we enter into, something that we are, emerging from our occupation with others and with their meanings.
Listening is crucial for students and for teachers.
As a teacher, focussing on listening ties together a lot of the work I have been doing around noticing, opening-not-closing, valuing students as sense-makers, dialogic teaching, responding to students in-the-moment and forming a learning community:
Listening is a participation in the unfolding of possibilities through collective action...
Without listening, none of these practices are possible.
But just listening is not enough. Davis talks of various types of listening, from 'evaluative' and 'interpretive' listening, through to hermeneutic listening, which he describes as 'negotiatory' and 'messy'. Hermeneutic listening is characterised by participation in conversation, by 'interrogation of the taken-for-granted and the prejudices that frame perceptions and actions'.
In order to move from evaluative to hermeneutic listening, we as teachers may need to:
...[abandon] the belief that teaching is a matter of causing learners to acquire, master, or construct particular understandings through some pre-established (and often learner-independent) instructional sequence. In [hermeneutic listening], learning is a social process, and the teacher's role is one of participating, of interpreting, of transforming, of interrogating...
In order to have a classrooms where we listen-to instead of listen-for, we may need to change how we view teaching and learning.
I have been listening to the words of JG Bennett on listening. In this talk, he asks various questions of us about how we listen to others, such as:
- Is my concern what the other is saying, or what I want to say?
- Why does it happen that one chooses what one wants to hear?
- Can we listen and think at the same time?
He explains that listening requires energy. It is not possible to listen constantly, but neither is it necessary. We are selective in what we choose to hear, and we will conserve energy if we feel what is being said is not relevant.
If this is true, this has huge implications on how we should teach. Are we demanding too much of our students to listen to us speaking for long periods of time in quite technical language about something they have not necessarily chosen to listen to, and expect them to think about and understand what we are saying at the same time?
Do our methods of teaching enable listening to occur?
Conditions for listening
Since I have started researching my own teaching, I have noticed that I have a number of urges/habits when teaching that I would like to be able to resist (and act differently):
- The urge to tell; I often know before I start speaking that there is a better way, if only I could work out how to do it.
- The urge to correct, rather than give students time to make sense of what they are doing
- The urge to talk, e.g. when students are working well and need more time
- The urge to close rather than open
- The urge to go quickly rather than go slowly
- The urge to be loud rather than be quiet
- The urge to be exasperated or frustrated when students don't do what I would like them to
- The urge to speak rather than listen
- The urge to react rather than respond
These urges could all be considered as counter to my aims of creating good conditions for listening... so why do I act on them?
Perhaps these urges stem from years of habit, forming what might be considered my 'personality'. Perhaps some of them may stem from a desire to strongly control and direct what is happening in my classroom, possibly due to constraints such as time, and a need to cover a content-heavy curriculum.
A a teacher I must direct learning to some extent, but I would also like my classroom to be a place where students feel listened-to, where they have some agency. Herein lies one of the dilemmas of teaching.
During one of my lessons today, a colleague came in to listen to what was happening. Students were working beautifully in pairs, happily engaged in conversations about mathematics. I was really pleased with how the students were working as a community and listening to each other.
In this moment we both noticed how students often seem to listen to each other more attentively than they do teachers, and asked: Why might this be the case?
Here are some of our thoughts on the reasons why students may be able to listen to each other more easily than a teacher, based around the idea of around proximity:
- proximity of distance
- proximity of expertise
- proximity of language
- proximity in what is considered relevant
- proximity in status
- proximity of relationships
It was really useful having another pair of ears in the classroom. Follow this, I suggested that everyone in the department should listen to each other teaching; on Friday we will meet and discuss what we have heard. What are the conditions that enable listening?
In response to this, one of my colleagues said: "Whose listening are we talking about, the teacher or the students? How can we measure whether people are listening? This will be really difficult!"
I couldn't agree more; watch this space to find out what everyone heard!