Learning By Sharing

When I was in Norway last spring (2013), I kept in touch with people back home a few ways. One was through a blog I regularly occasionally rarely updated. Another was through a writing group that my friends and I put together to share our fiction, poetry, and essays. ‘Write More, Write Better’ was more fun than the blog – reading the excellent stories my friends wrote, I was inspired to write my own. Where the blog felt like an obligation, the writing group was an opportunity to create and share.

While I was abroad, I also started sharing my writing in print: I started writing for the Diamondback (The University of Maryland’s Independent Student Newspaper).  I have shared my opinion in a column every two weeks since then, except summer and winter breaks. This past friday, I wrote about the frustration of writing dumb, context-less papers that are only read by professors and thrown away.

Trash bin

I keep my old papers in a circular file.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that it is a product of blog class. Blog class is a great example of sharing-driven education. Other classes have student blogs or course blogs, and some classes publish student writing in other media. As I argue in the article, the sharing is limited to far too few classes. If no one will ever see my paper, and the assignment is not inherently captivating, I will not care enough to spend time making it good. After the fact, there is little opportunity for feedback and iteration or improvement. All in all, the current system is bad, and the massively better replacement is obvious and easy.

Share the work online.


It's a no brainer!

The image search results for ‘no brainer’ were too good to choose only one.

Sharing is good. 

From my experience, sharing writing makes writing better. I am much better at writing than I was a year ago – faster, clearer, and more concise. You can tell, if you look at my articles and blog! It has not been a constant improvement, but a general trend upward.

I attribute a good deal of the improvement to the feedback I get. When people see an article they like, they tell me. If they disagree, they tell me that too. If the point I tried to make was unclear, I get to revisit the point and try to clarify it, and I learn to be more straightforward in the future. You may have had friends edit your paper before, you know how useful genuine feedback can be. Imagine if you got feedback like that on all of your writing, and on the trends in your writing over time – how very useful it would be!

Sharing is good in other ways too.

They know all about sharing. And caring.

Writing for a real audience makes the writing real – I am not just writing this post to get a grade, I actually want to convince you of my point! Not only can genuine context improve your writing and your motivation to write, it can actually make a real difference! Reading what my friends write actually shapes my views – how about that!

Go, start blogs, share on email or facebook, share, share, SHARE!

Sharing isn’t easy, especially if you do not get lots of hits or feedback at first. If you keep bothering your friends about it, eventually you’re likely to write about something interesting to someone, and the conversation will begin. I have been using bitly to shorten links; it automatically and conveniently tracks clicks from different sources, giving you a sense of how wide your message is spreading.

So, maybe you are sold on the whole sharing thing, at least for writing, at least when you have time. If not, let me know, and I can badger you with more reasons why it is good. The internet provides lots of good ways to start sharing some things: text, images, video, web projects. In case you haven’t heard, or never thought of sharing, WordPress, Flickr, and Youtube make it painless to broadcast content. Email, Facebook, and Twitter are also cool, but y’all probably know about all that. I am a fan of Google Drive for document sharing and collaboration, but I know those who use and love Dropbox and Box for file sharing, and you can do the Microsoft or Apple thing too, I guess. Git is unbeatable for code projects, but it is super cool for text that many people might edit together.

Basically, the internet makes sharing super-easy.

Really easy.

What about all the things we learn that don’t fit as nicely on the internet? Can you share what you learn in Business Law or Introduction to Logic? What about the hovercraft or bridges you build in first year engineering? Are people really going to read your undergraduate research blog?

My answer is yes, they will read it, find a way to document what you are doing, and share it. If that means writing paragraphs about basic business law scenarios or little logic problems, so be it. If you need to take pictures of a project, do that. If instead of the internet, you share through conversations with your friends or family – that’s great too, as long as you share. If you are sharing, you will learn.

Even better than just sharing, you can encourage your friends to share, provide feedback, and help create a sharing community. We aren’t learning alone, no matter how the assignments are designed or graded. Months ago, I wrote a different column about the other side of sharing – Why You Should Read Your Friend’s Stupid Blog.

It’s important!

I can’t possibly take all the classes that everyone else takes – if I want to be all smart-like, I gotta talk to people about those classes! If you want to be all smart-like too, you’ve got to share and participate in the give and take.

Of course, I would be hypocritical if I didn’t take some steps to do better sharing of my own. In order to make it easy for you to view alllll my writing, I made a new page for it – Other Stuff I Wrote. Check it out if you like!

If you have things to share, by all means, include me. I am sometimes good about giving feedback, especially if you ask me directly. The key is not going to be sharing your work in my comment thread though – it’ll be starting your own blog and sharing there.

Now get out and Share!

Share All The Things!


[Brief Lumosity and Duolingo update: I have been cruising along pretty well on Lumosity, but I have not been very active on Duolingo. According to the Lumosity people, my brain is growing, which is cool – I have yet to notice myself remembering things that I would otherwise forget, but I don’t know when that is supposed to happen. My German has stalled, but hopefully I will plunge back into it once the semester is over… Has anyone gone over and tried either of these sites? Any other interesting daily-training-type sites that I should look into?]

Learning about the Internet (An introduction for the curious)

I am often surprised when I meet incurious people. As a curious person myself, I am always trying to understand. I love to know the particulars about a subject, but I often find that the most useful knowledge is general – how do the basics of banking work? What are the main types of animals and plants? About how many people live on each continent?

Antarctic Penguins

And how many penguins?

This kind of general knowledge lends insight into daily questions – underlying concepts help frame new data. For instance, knowing a tiny bit about how the international money supply works means that when I see the headline “IMF’s global forecast is most optimistic since crisis,” I know that

  • IMF is the International Monetary Fund, and that
  • if the global forecast is optimistic, they may be more likely to lend, which will probably
  • impact negotiations in and about Ukraine.

Not that this particular information changes things, but you can see how earlier curiosity about the general Way Things Work pays off.

So, what are the basic things everyone ought to know?

This question has plagued me and many others since forever. Should we read all the Classic literature? How far do we need to go in Math? Science? Geography, History, Politics? Pop culture? Classic Movies? I call the general problem of ‘what content to choose’ the Selection Problem. I don’t have a name for this specific subproblem, the “what should everyone know?” question, but I have thought about it lots and still only have musings, not a solid answer.

The big, starry universe.

It’s a big ol’ place. And complicated! (image not to scale)

It seems likely that we ought to know the basics about the big stuff – the things we interact with every day, the things that shape our lives. We ought to know how our food and water get to us, how people and the universe work. A passing familiarity with money and politics and geography and history are likely candidates. From the post title, you can probably guess that I would also include a basic knowledge of the technology underneath the Internet.

With the onward march of technological progress, there has been a growing movement for young people to learn more about technology, particularly coding. It’s mostly worked! Lots of people have at least seen code, and maybe written a little bit. They still don’t know the big picture stuff, but at least they know that computers are good at following specific directions and bad at knowing what you want them to do.

Even if you have seen some code and you’ve remember from somewhere that the Internet was started in 1969 by some scientists or the military or someone somewhere,

1) You are reading this on a computer, and probably 2) have only a fuzzy idea of how the words got to your screen.

Lucky for you, I just built a website (knommon.com – go check it out!) and through that process, I learned a ton about how the internet works! I’m here to share what I learned with you.

(Note: This is just an intro, and might be flawed: there are lots of other places to read about this, in any level of detail. Search on the terms mentioned here to find literally thousands of pages explaining what’s going on)

So, the Internet is a series of tubes. Right? Haha, ah, hahaha. ha.

All jokes aside, tubes is not a very useful analogy. I think a much better image is a food court! That’s the one I’m sticking with.

A food court

A fancy one, with lanterns! (also not to scale, though it is closer)

So, you have your computer, and there are lots of other computers around the world. Some of the computers are like yours – desktops, laptops, phones – in our analogy, the hungry mall-goer looking for a bite to eat. There are also big, professional computers, the ‘servers’ that you have heard about but maybe not grokked. They are like the kitchens behind the food court storefronts, ready to produce your food for you.

What does a meal consist of? How do you find it and get it? In a food court, it’s pretty easy. On the internet, it’s less familiar.

Let’s start with what you already know – what you do to access the internet.

You fire up a web browser, Chrome or Safari or Firefox or Explorer or Opera (okay, not many of you are on Opera). You use the search engine or enter a url into the address bar. The page shows up, or it gives you an error. You do whatever you came to do, browsing, reading, clicking links, playing games, signing in and out, adding items to a virtual shopping cart – generally, conducting transactions.

What happens back in the kitchens that lets you get the food you want? Underneath the pretty layout of your browser, and floating in ‘the cloud’ is the cool software that makes web browsing possible. Step by step:

1. You enter a url (Uniform Resource Locator – the address you type at the top, it starts with ‘http’)  in the browser. This is like you deciding what type of food you want to eat – for this example, Chinese. But, your browser doesn’t know where to look to find that page – so it has to look!

2. The browser tries to find out what server that url represents. To find out, it does a Domain Name System (DNS) lookup. DNS is big and hairy and complicated (like some of the mall maps I’ve seen), but you can think of it as asking some mall staff person where to get Chinese food – they might know, or might not, but if they don’t, they’ll at least point you to someone else who knows. Your browser sends a message to the local DNS server, probably the one provided by your internet provider e.g. Verizon, which might or might not know the location of the server you want – it might ask some other DNS server.

3. DNS lookup returns the Internet Protocol (IP) address that corresponds with the url that you entered. The IP address lets your browser locate and send messages to the server where the webpage you want is stored. It’s like knowing which restaurant in the food court to go to if you want Chinese food.

4. Your browser sends a request to the server located at the IP address it found through the DNS lookup. Once you know where to get the food, you go and put your order in. With the request, your browser sends useful information, like your computer’s IP address, so that the server can send back what you want.

5. The server responds to your request. For most websites, the server does some internal processing on the information from your request, so that it knows what data to send back to you. Server side processing, like all of the topics I am introducing here, is a huge topic that I can’t even begin to do justice to here. Some of the things it might involve are:

  • Finding, adding, updating, or removing information in a database
  • Complicated math to make sure your data is secure from hacking
  • Piecing together information and code and turning it into the response it will send to your browser

All of this is like what is going on in the kitchen and even in the business office of the Chinese Restaurant. They buy food, they prepare it, they cook it, they do all kinds of steps necessary to making your dish that you don’t have to worry about. Servers are like that too, only even less visible.

6. Your browser interprets the response from the server and renders a beautiful webpage for you to view and interact with. The response it gets is usually in the form of a page of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) with some other files that help make it beautiful and useful. These often include Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Javascript files, and resources such as images or videos which populate the page. The browser knows the rules to put all of these files and resources together, and it follows them, like you putting the sauces and toppings on your food just how you like it.

Then you eat! Of course, unlike at the food court, you probably want to visit lots of sites and many different pages on each one – like ordering six items at nine restaurants at an enormous food court with millions of options.

The basics are still the same – when you click a link, your browser sends a request to the server. If it already knows where the server is, it doesn’t need the whole lookup process, but links to other sites do. When you fill out a form online, your browser turns it into a different kind of request for the server (POST instead of GET), but the general steps of the process are the same.

Sometimes, the server will send along extra data, so that when you click a button or through a slideshow, your browser already has what it needs, and doesn’t need to request anything more from the server. This is particularly true for games and videos, where a large file will load with a single request.

What’s best, your browser handles all this for you! And you didn’t have to cook.

Chinese-style fish

Just like this fish. Don’t worry about it.

So that’s how it works! Of course, there are lots more details to learn if you want to really get it. It took actually building and getting a website hosted for me to understand what I do understand about the internet. If for you it means sitting down and writing some code, I highly encourage it! If it means reading more blogs and articles, that’s good too.

I introduced this post by talking about curiosity, and how we ought to be curious about the world we interact with. Here’s a much better post about curiosity over on LessWrong, which, if you haven’t stumbled on before, is a great site for learning and being smarter.

Curiosity is better than solemnly valuing The Truth. Hopefully I have, through my wonderful analogy, made the inner workings of the Internet a little bit less intimidating, so your curiosity can carry you the rest of the way. I could point you to some links, but, wouldn’t it be better if you explored on your own?

Go forth!

Understand ALL The Things

Triple Cross Upside Down Post Part 3

Hi Readers! This is the third and last of the triple post thingies – I hope you enjoyed seeing some different perspectives! This one is from Tish (beyond the tour). Check out Part 1 by Jenn and Part 2 by me also! And if you’ve got the time, click on over to the links in my sidebar, and show some love to the other blog class bloggers, they’re great people and writers!


From High School to College: A New Kind of Learning

Tish – beyond the tour

From my experience and the experiences of my friends,  students tend to struggle with learning in college for different reasons.  I have seen students come from high schools where they were the class Valedictorian and once they come into college they struggle to find their niche and excel at the same level. These struggles seem to stem from the following factors:

1.   The Level of Difficulty of their High School

2.   Inability to adjust to different teaching methods

3.   Time management

While these are only three of the possible problems, the overall theme is that with each grade sequence in one’s life (elementary, middle, high school, college), you need to make an appropriate adjustment to understand how to learn at that level.

Each grade level in elementary and secondary school increases in difficulty but the there is a drastic shift from high school to college.  Once you enter college you no longer have the confines of your home to protect you, your parents, or anyone else to influence you.

The Level of Difficulty of their High School

It is a known fact that there are differences in teaching methods between high schools across America. Some schools offer AP and IB classes while others do not. Some schools use a 4.0 grading scale while others use a 5.0 or even a point system out of 1000. Some schools have Rhodes scholars and Ivy League graduates teaching students while others have volunteers.

With so much variation in high schools it can be expected that students will be coming in with different levels and experience learning. This is why colleges typically require that students submit a “Secondary School Report” which details every aspect of their school. Admissions Representatives will then compare the student to their high school. Depending on a school, a particular student could have been in the top of their class at a not so competitive high school, come to college and not do as well since their school did not adequately prepare them.

Inability to Adjust to Different Teaching Methods

As stated in the previous section, many students struggle learning in college due to the level of difficulty of their high school. This struggle continues when students are forced to adhere to different teaching styles. In high school, many teachers will spoon feed their students the information they teach in order to make things easier for them.  In high school there are make up exams, your teachers will contact you if you’re failing a test, and they generally hold your hand through everything.

 Once you enter college, you are faced with different professors who each have varying ways of teaching. Some professors teach solely out of a textbook [which means going to class isn’t necessary]. Some professors talk the entire time during a lecture without stopping for questions.  Some professors will teach one concept in class and put a different concept on the exam which creates confusion for students.

Each professor you encounter in college has a different teaching method which can make learning a bit difficult. With that in mind, students [particularly freshmen] struggle with figuring out how their professor teaches and how they can utilize their teaching method to learn accordingly.

 In order to overcome this, students should meet with their professors and teaching assistants in order to get to know them on a personal level and learn their teaching style.

Time Management

Out of all the reasons why students struggle with learning in college, time management is the most important.  When students enter college they are given a new sense of freedom: they are no longer confined to their homes, no parents, no supervision, new friends, and endless experiences.

With that being said, some students struggle to balance their new found social life, sleeping, and studying.  Deadlines start to creep up on them and, as the picture to the left illustrates, there is pressure to keep up with extracurriculars, family, work etc. in order to be a “successful student”.

In order to overcome these problems, time management is VERY important. The University of Maryland for example gives students agenda books once they move onto campus. This allows students to write down dates and deadlines and help them manage their school and study time. Along with the agenda book, UMD offers learning assistance services to help students work on basic study skills, techniques, and ways they can effectively manage their time.


Overall, each student learns at a different level and pace. It is imperative that as students enter college, they are aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and the fact that college is an entirely new chapter of their life that they must plan for accordingly.


Thanks for the great posts, Tish and Jenn! Readers, let me know if you want to do some kind of post-sharing stuff; I think I like it!

Triple-Cross Upside Down Post Part 1


So for class, Jenn(medievaltourist) and Tish(beyondthetour) and I are each writing a post around a shared theme (learning in college) and posting to each other’s blogs! How cool is that?!

I’ll post Jenn’s today and mine later today and Tish’s even later today, or maybe spread them out over today and tomorrow and saturday, depending on how I’m feeling. Check out their cool blogs in the meantime!

On being a Medieval Studies Major:

(Jenn, aka medievaltourist)

As I mention on my About page, I created my Medieval Studies major through the Individual Studies Program (IVSP) at UMDCP. Now, while being the only Medieval Studies at a university of 26.708 full-time undergraduate students is pretty awesome (if I do say so myself), it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Let me start from the beginning.

For anyone to create a major at UMD, they have to come to the IVSP office with some idea. In other words, no, you can’t major in Underwater Basket Weaving (unless, of course, the appropriate classes are offered). From there, you start building your major: you have to decide what kinds of classes you want to take and be able to justify why they are necessary for the major, you have to define your major, you have to think of a Capstone project, etc. etc. After all that, you propose your major to a board and it’s up to them whether you get to declare a major in the degree you built.

My point? You have to be really dedicated to your idea. Of course, if you’re going to IVSP to create a major, then I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve made the commitment.

If the board approves your major, you’re set and take the courses you prescribed for your major. For the most part, the majors consist of pretty standard courses in various departments. Mine isn’t an exception. My Medieval Studies major consists of the following concentrations:

  • History

  • Society & Culture

  • Religion & the Foundation of Church Latin

  • Modern Language Study

Now these seem like pretty straightforward concentrations, right? They are for the most part (i.e. anything related to language and basic history), but medieval stuff isn’t really popular at UMD, which means that courses frequently are not offered or get cancelled. This means I sometimes have to get creative with replacing classes. Other times I just have to pray really hard that it works out (like I did for next semester, and, lo and behold, it worked out!).

Despite the difficulties of being the only Medieval Studies major, it’s such a rewarding experience. I get so much great feedback and encouragement from professors and other students, and whenever I get to talk about my major I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Not to mention that taking the initiative to build your own major looks pretty great on your CV.

I do have a confession to make, though: I am extremely possessive of my major. I want nothing more than to have a fellow baby-medievalist follow in my footsteps and create a Medieval Studies major, but I cannot stand it when just plain History students claim to be Medieval Studies majors. Just no.

This normally happens at the beginning of the semester when we go around the class and introduce ourselves to our professor and fellow classmates by stating our names, majors, and interesting facts. I feel so accomplished when I introduce myself as a Medieval Studies major. But for some reason there are always a few History students doing concentrations in the Middle Ages who feel that it’s OK for them to copy me and say they’re Medieval Studies majors, too. This usually results in me giving them a half glare that tries to tell them You know nothing.

I think a Game of Thrones reference is pretty appropriate, don’t you? [Via]

So, my tactic has changed, and instead of making my interesting fact that I grew up in a foreign country or have studied seven languages or that I can touch my nose with my tongue, my interesting fact now is that I am the only Medieval Studies major in the history of the University of Maryland. BAM.


[HT to Learning Learning [ed: That’s me!] for finding this gem via]

[Disclaimer: Snark emphasized for dramatic effect. Author is not actually this stuck-up about her major. Usually.]

But if you get as excited as I do about something, please come talk to me about creating your own major! It’s so rewarding and a great experience. Not to mention all the other awesome people you meet along the way!


-Rob again –

Pretty cool stuff! I can confirm that IVSP is the way to go. Look out for more cross-posting action soon!

Learning is taking something away

Theorists like to use pictures to describe how learning works. “Not filling a bucket but lighting a flame.” Constructivists are gathering wins in the neuroscience, with their picture of learning as building connections between nodes of ideas.

Adding and connecting ideas? That sounds a lot like the learning I’ve mostly done! You too? Pretty cool stuff.

I don’t know what she’s learning, but she seems very pleased about it. (Creative Commons – From Here)

Today, though, I want to talk about a different picture of learning: Taking something away. The image in my mind is that of the gardener, trimming the dessicated away from the healthy. While it necessarily follows the adding and connecting processes, cutting away nodes is arguably more valuable. To me, the ability to effectively prune mistaken or non-useful concepts sets highly capable critical minds apart from those minds less mature.

What am I talking about? Trimming trees? No! It’s about cutting out mistaken beliefs, misshapen concepts, and false ideas.

Although, if you had mistaken notions about how to trim trees, and then you pruned those ideas from your mind… (CC again, from Here, which is a strangely nice site for an Oregon municipality.) Do NOT cut along C-X.

When I learn, I begin with a set of assumptions. In some few situations, every bit of material is brand new to me; most of the time, I have some background knowledge. If I hear things that fit well with the background knowledge that I had, it is hard to tell what was there before and what was newly added (i.e. learned) from my participation!

However, if I had an idea that new evidence clearly contradicts, and I actually change my mind and how I see the world, THEN I know that I have surely learned. When my old idea is debunked and I see more clearly, I have more power to understand the world around me and predict what will happen.

Where do you find this sort of learning? Yes, you can watch Mythbusters or read popular science myths debunked or what have you. Those give you the instant thrill of changing your mind, if you had actually believed mistakenly and buy into the evidence presented. (Mythbusters is entertaining, sure, but hardly good science.)

In fact, you can learn this way all the time – with the right mindset. Developing a discerning eye means looking critically at your own beliefs. If you could state in sentences what you believe before going into a lecture or reading a chapter, and then explain what changed afterwards, then you are aware of what you learned. I have been trying to practice this, and have found myself frustrated by some classes that do not take anything away, particularly in the social sciences.

Teachers: if you do not find out what your students already know, you might not be adding any new knowledge or taking any misconceptions away.

I find that my mind is sharper when I know what I know and what I don’t, and I learn faster when I am focused on finding and correcting my misconceptions. I hope you can find some of your own false beliefs and learn too!

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.


Learning to listen (part 1)

It’s a noisy world. Listening is hard. Listening means lots of things to lots of people, and everyone recognizes that it is pretty important. I am gonna make this a multi-part post, since there is lots to talk about. This is part 1, and I’ll link to part 2 when it goes up! (Edit: here’s part 2!)

Listening is hard and important, which makes it a good candidate for learning and practice. TED talk:

Julian Treasure does a little bit of unsubstantiated fear mongering with an undertone of luddite Gen-Y bashing, sure. BUT, he has mindfulness exercises for listening, and exercises are wonderful, so it probably balances out.

Even if we aren’t losing our listening, we don’t practice the receiving end of communication nearly as much as the broadcasting end, at least not explicitly.  Listening is a skill we ought to think about and work on.

There are lots of things we listen to. Music, the thumping about of roommates, construction noise when we try to work. All kinds of online ed materials: Podcasts, lectures, TED talks. What does it mean to be good at it? How does one become a ‘good listener’?

Just as we mean different things when we talk about listening, doing it ‘well’ has different meanings. Today, I’ll focus on choosing the things you listen to and developing interpersonal listening skills.

Listen intentionally and choose the things you listen to.

If what we learn is who we become, and we learn through our ears, we should be selective about what we listen to, and how closely we listen to it.  I listen to C-SPAN radio as I drive. If I get stuck listening to C-SPAN callersNPR is often good too. I try to process what I am hearing, especially when there is a good interview or speech. I make connections to what I already know, but also consciously note information that is new or did not fit with my previous understanding. I think of questions that I would ask to clarify or delve further into particular issues. I have gotten good at filtering subtle, meaningful insight from what is not. (I might do another post on learning to recognize and learn from experts rather than others, since most people are mostly wrong about most things.)

You don’t have to listen to C-SPAN. That might not be your scene; that’s totally cool. I am me in part because of what I listen to. Maybe you like Ted talks, maybe you just want your Beyoncé playlist. It’s all good, as long as you know that choosing is part of defining who you are. So, choose!

C-SPAN or no,   discerning bull from not-bull is an awesome skill. If you are mentally engaged with what is being said, you will notice more and, consequently, learn more. Don’t tune out talking heads as background noise like you did when you were five – some of them are actually okay. Others are crappy. Telling one from the other is hard, and takes practice, but I believe in you.

[EDIT: Forgot to mention Night Vale, which is super cool. Got any cool podcasts or things you listen to? lemmeknowinthecomments]

Listen to those around you

Another habit or set of habits has to do with interpersonal listening – one on one and in groups, where your role is both listener and speaker. I’ve had the amazing chance to learn a bunch of good listening skills as a counselor at the Help Center, UMD’s peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline. Still, it takes effort and concentration to actually listen to friends and siblings, especially when I have opinions on the subject under discussion.

Some things to focus on:

  • Actually hear the words they are saying. Seems obvious, but there are times when a few words go unheard and we shrug it off, since we got the gist. Instead,
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even if it is “can you say that again?,” asking for clarification works to help us understand what someone is saying.
  • Don’t judge, jump in, or interrupt. Basically, listen instead of talking. This one is especially tough for the extroverts or those with strong opinions. I’m still no pro at this in some settings, but I’ve found that focusing on how much I should be speaking as a fraction of the number of people in a conversation helps. If I am one of three people, I should have one third of the speaking, or thereabouts. If I am one of twenty, a twentieth, and so on. Of course it is a guideline and there are exceptions, but it helps me shut up more.
  • Use nonverbal or monosyllabic cues. Nodding, saying ‘mhm,’ eye contact, generally using active listening skills. It can feel silly to overdo it, but it’s harder than you would think.
  • Summarize and reflect your understanding of what they said. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you or your friend are bad people – communicating well is really hard!

Actually, wikihow has a wonderful post about listening well, with illustrations and generally more time and thought put in than I have. It’s worth actually reading.

Like most actual skills, listening takes time and practice for the benefits to show. It’s worth it. Your relationships get better, you retain more information, and the world sounds better. Pretty neat!

Music for now:

Note: Part 1 was about deciding your listening environment and tips for interpersonal listening. Part 2  includes thoughts about inferential distance and the difficulty of communicating, plus the concept of listening to stakeholder groups as a society, plus classrooms and listening to students.