Learning to listen (part 2)

Communication is hard. We have all of these pictures in our mind, and we try to put them into words. Even when we say what we mean, whoever’s on the other end has other pictures in their head, and the words don’t always match the same pictures. (And sometimes we promise follow up posts in two days and don’t post for two weeks…)

When I wrote about listening in part one, I was talking about the act of listening; the mental process of turning sounds we hear into meaning, especially in conversations. But when people say ‘listening,’ they mean all kinds of things besides that. Today’s post is about some of those other meanings – particularly, what adults mean when they talk to children about listening and what we mean when we talk about listening to a group’s perspective.

‘Good Student’ Listening

When humans sit in rows, there are expectations and norms of behavior. The one at the front is important, those sitting must be silent, attentive (head up, facing forward, perhaps taking notes), obedient. Throughout formative years in western schools, the successful students, the ones in rows, learn to meet these expectations, to listen this way, and they are called ‘good students’. Those who cannot sit still and face forward silently face mounting consequences. They are called ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’ and made to go to principals offices and their parents have conferences and the letters they take home make them feel inadequate and insecure. This is one mode of listening we learn.

This kind of listening skill is useful to have – those who learn it can attend college and conferences, rise in tax bracket and status, move to nice neighborhoods whose schools have children who sit in their rows and listen.

I’ve said that communication is difficult. Even one-on-one, we all too frequently need to clarify our meaning, restate and reframe our sentences. Teachers in classrooms have a Sisyphean task, to corral the students into their silent, forward-facing rows, and then somehow communicate with them, transfer knowledge to all of them, unilaterally.  If the students are very good, they will appear to hear everything, and perhaps take notes. As is often the case, however, their questions after the fact and their quiz and test results reveal a tragic lack of hearing.

Didn’t I go over that in class? Weren’t you even paying attention? Were you listening?

Some of the difficulties in communicating come from bad estimates of inferential distance. You should click the link to find out more, but in short, we assume that others have a similar frame of understanding that we do, and will therefore understand what we are talking about. More often, those we speak to don’t have our background knowledge or assumptions, so much of what we say falls short in conveying the intended meaning.

Teachers and lecturers run into this problem all the time – they expect students to have read and comprehended more than they have, or know that their students lack prerequisite knowledge and have to reteach. Moreover, those at the front face rows of students with different backgrounds. Whether or not they know the inferential distance between them and their students, juggling the expectations and abilities of a heterogenous group is nigh-on impossible. Some students get left behind, while others are bored with coverage of concepts they already know. Some teaching strategies and assumptions and examples work with some students, but not with others.

What’s the point here? Listening in classes is hard for students and speaking to rows of very different individuals is hard for teachers, but what do we do about it, besides recognize that it is hard?

I wish that I had a way to make all classrooms places of genuine communication and learning, but I am long on problems and short on solutions. I have been a fan of learning models that get away from rows and lectures. You’ve probably heard of Montessori and not heard of Sudbury or Summerhill. For some, rows are a ludicrous proposition for learning, and they are done away with. I don’t know if the free school model would work for everyone; it has its own problems.

Listening to groups

Another meaning of ‘listening’ is giving time, weight, and credence to the perspectives of a group of people. Commentators talk about listening to “the experts,” politicians talk of listening to their constituents, social justice peddlers talk about listening to the downtrodden, education reformers (some education reformers) talk about listening to teachers or, in rare, shining moments, listening to students.

It turns out that in order to help people, the necessary first step is to listen to them. I can’t say it better than people who are very very good at talking about listening, but I can repeat what I’ve heard my experience and send you off to better sources.

You are likely clever and already see where these listenings overlap, and what conclusions I intend for you to draw from reading all this, but bear with me as I spell it out.

The ‘good listening’ we learn as students is not really listening, and it prevents the kind of listening we need in order to help kids learn. If we care about changing things, we have to listen to those in need, not sit them in rows and tell them to shut up and listen. While this group listening concept applies to any sort of world-saving you might want to engage in, I care about education most, and you, reading this, probably care about it at least a little.

There are some signs that students are slowly having a say in the conversation about their education. Not all is bleak. But there is a long, long way to go if we want to get out of the rows.



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