Sunday, 14 April 2013

Listening's Down So Listen Up!

There's a huge problem in the world today.  No, it's not the sequestration, gun control, or equal rights marriage, but it's something that has to do with each one of these issues and more.  The problem is that people aren't listening like they used to.

Don't just take my word for it.  This past week, President Obama noted this problem himself when referring to the gun control debate.  "Part of the reason it's so hard to get this done is because both sides of the debate don't listen to each other," he stated.  "Sometimes we're so divided...the two sides talk past each other."

This problem isn't solely confined within the halls of Congress. Further evidence can be found right in your own pocket.  With the advent of smartphones and iPads, the practice of plugging in and tuning out has skyrocketed.  Just look around the next time you're walking downtown.  You'll probably see a number of those ubiquitous white earbuds.

Some could argue that this leads to better listening, but it doesn't.  Here's why.  Back when I was a kid, listening was a communal activity.  Whether it was the news on television or the record on the turntable, we often listened with others and reacted together in real time.  Now, when we're plugged in, we shut others out and rely solely on our own interpretation of what we hear.  

Not only that, with more choices right at our fingertips, what we listen to is tailor made.  Sure, we have greater access to listen to a variety of things more than ever before, and this is a good thing.  However, with so much choice and a competitive 24 hour news cycle, news outlets are pressured to sensationalize or even editorialize their content.  As a result, we may gravitate only to outlets that support our views thereby limiting our exposure to differing opinions.  

And because of Youtube, iTunes, on demand TV and more, we can listen to whatever we want whenever we want.  If it doesn't interest us, we can stop it and move on to something else.  No longer do we have to weigh whether it's worth getting up to change the channel.  With one swipe of a finger, we easily move on to something that may interest us more.

None of this bodes well for our students and their ability to develop effective listen skills.  It's no wonder that when I give a set of instructions in class, a student invariably raises his hand and asks a question that I just explained.  With all of these societal factors at play, who can blame him?

Instead of pulling out all of our hair, maybe we should remind ourselves why this is the case and think of how we can help our students develop active listening skills.

For starters, check out this Ted talk about listening by sound expert, Julian Treasure who reiterates these points and offers valuable listening exercises:

With Treasure's challenge to teach listening in mind, here are some possibilities to consider in our classrooms:

  • Focus on listening in Homebase:  Why not try out some of Treasure's exercises in homebase.  Here they are once again:
    • Listen for Silence:
      • Take three minutes to sit in silence as a group to "recalibrate our ears."
    • The Mixer:
      • Notice all of the "channels of sound" in a given setting.
    • Savoring Sounds:
      • Listen to mundane sounds and develop an appreciation for them.  Let them become your "hidden choir."
    • Listening Positions:
      • Become aware of your listening position or "filters" by determining how you listen differently based on what you are listening to.
    • RASA:  
      • Practice this active listening process:  Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask.
Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards for Grade 8
  • Teach a listening mini-lesson:  By referring to the Common Core standards for speaking and listening, we can develop meaningful lessons for our classrooms.  One example that some teachers use is teaching students to piggybacking (spelled piggybacqing) for discussions:
    • Beg to differ
    • Agree
    • Connect
    • Question
  • Make time for debate:  Good debaters know how to listen to all sides of an argument before debating.  Not only that, while debating, they need to listen carefully to what their opponents say so they can respond with a rebuttal.  Lastly, debating also reinforces other essential skills such as making claims, citing from a source, and speaking clearly and confidently.  Possible debate topics include:
    • Is a particular character ___________ or ___________? (ex. strong or weak)
    • What's the most important theme of a book?
    • Is the book or movie better?
  • Teach a mini-lesson about perspective:  Listening enables us to hear different perspectives.  By teaching a mini-lesson about perspective and giving time to explore a variety of them, this thinking will help students understand the importance of listening and be able to take on other points of view.  Ideas may include:
    • Writing from a character's point of view.
    • Analyzing why authors write 1st person or 3rd person.
    • Exploring the role of secondary characters.
    • Comparing the voices that are heard in a text with the voices that are not heard.
  • Read sources from differing points of view:  This is perfect for informational text reading.  Currently, Grade 6 students are reading through a series of sources on a given issue (ex. teaching cursive, banning dodgeball, using cell phones at school, etc.).  An added bonus is that some of these sources are digital, so students have to listen carefully to hear both sides.  As they are learning to analyze the sources (who wrote it and why) and determine the author's point of view.  At the same time, they're learning to let go of their own preconceived notions about the issue until they've read through all of the sources.
In the end, teaching listening may be one way we can help solve a huge problem in today's world.  And while I'm not naive enough to believe that listening will automatically build consensus, I do believe that it will lead people to talk with (instead of past) one another.  It will also help develop a society full of people who understand and appreciate their differences as well as the similarities.

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