Make time to listen — and listen well

I was listening to an 8-minute TED Talk this evening called Five Ways To Listen Better.  The speaker, Julian Treasure, made the point that our schools don’t teach listening and they should — it’s an important skill. I couldn’t agree more, and it occurred to me that I should be explicit about one of the many ways that the school I plan to open in 2013 will be different from other schools. We will begin the year with a unit teaching students skills to improve their listening, and we will practice listening on a daily basis throughout the year.  Students will listen to each other in discussion — and listening is different from “waiting for your turn to talk.”  Listening means actively engaging (including body posture) and often asking thoughtful questions so that you can better understand what the speaker is saying.

Anyway, that TED talk, which I learned about because it was featured on the TED home page (pictured below)

led me to another talk about listening, called Evelyn Glennie Shows How To Listen. In this talk, Ms. Glennie, an accomplished percussionist, shows the difference between merely playing the notes on a page of music (as a technician) and playing with emotion and passion (as a musician). She plays the same piece twice — once somewhat robotically, and then with style — the way a musician would play the same piece — to demonstrate her point. Here’s a quote from her talk:

So in the same way that I need time with this instrument, I need time with people in order to interpret them. Not just translate them, but interpret them. If, for example, I play just a few bars of a piece of music for which I think of myself as a technician — that is, someone who is basically a percussion player… and so on. If I think of myself as a musician … and so on. There is a little bit of a difference there that is worth just — (Applause) — thinking about.

When I heard her say that, I thought about how most schools today are built on the factory model, where students move from French to Biology to English class every 50 minutes, with very little passing time between classes. It’s a hectic schedule that does not allow TIME for teachers to get to know students as well as they could. In public middle and high schools, most teachers of core academic subjects teach five classes of about 30 students, which means 150 students. When I taught private school, I was fortunate to teach only about 70 students (four sections of about 18 students each), and there were still a few quiet students who I did not get to know as well as I would have liked.

Ms. Glennie’s point is that she needs time to explore so that she can be a musician rather than a technician. That idea reminded me of an excerpt from a book I recently read. This is from the introduction to a book by Dr. Bill Smoot, an English teacher in California. The book is called Conversations With Great Teachers.


As a former high school history teacher at a private school, I did have more flexibility than I would have in a public school, but I often felt like I was a delivery boy for a curriculum that seemed ill-matched to most of my students’ interests. This is the topic for a longer post (indeed, I started to address this issue in a post from a few weeks ago, titled What is History? Why we need to hook students with current events), but suffice it to say we need to trust our teachers to teach about things they love and care about. Furthermore, we have to give students space to choose the topics THEY love and care about.

We want musicians, not technicians.

And along those same lines, I don’t ever again want to hear a student read a Power Point presentation to me. Despite expressly telling students not to do this, inevitably a few will choose, as a presentation style, to read a Power Point. That reduces them to technicians. Worse, some students (this happens more in group presentations, but I’ve seen it in individual presentations as well) will actually have trouble pronouncing words on the Power Point that they are delivering.

If all you are doing is reading a Power Point, I can just read it on my own. I don’t need you to be a technician.

The middle school I plan to open will feature a small student body (20 students per grade — in each of 6th, 7th and 8th grade) and we will work on listening and speaking (and presentation) skills on a regular basis. We’ll watch TED talks and discuss which ones are most effective.

Students in most schools don’t get much experience with public speaking — unless they do debate. Now debate can be a great thing, but I agree with Zoe Weil who, in a brilliant TED Talk, worries about some of the unintended effects of debate.  She talks about how schools should be more about sustainability and humanity and justice, and she shares this vignette about how she was listening to NPR on the radio… (click the link and it will take you to the point in the video where she says the words that follow):

There was a report about an Oxford style debate that was being conducted at NYU.

And the subject of the debate was this question: “Is the US responsible for Mexico’s drug woes?”

And I remember sitting in my car thinking “That’s really a bizarre question” because how could anything as complicated as Mexico’s Drug Woes be reduced to an either/or question about another nation’s culpability.  Then it got me thinking about all the debate teams in all the schools where kids are arbitrarily assigned one side or another of a fabricated either/or scenario and they’re taught to research it and they are told to argue it and win.

To what end?

At the school where I taught most recently, the debate team got team sweatshirts that said on the back of them: “Resolved: To Win” — that slogan bothered me.

I worry that while debate teaches how to speak and how to think on one’s feet, the goal is not to listen to the other side empathetically — the goal is to listen for weaknesses in the other side’s argument and to attack. It seems disrespectful (as does much of what passes for public discourse these days) and what we should be teaching more of is how to LISTEN.

Getting back to Zoe Weil’s TED Talk — she then wonders: “What if, instead of debate teams, we had solutionary teams?” What if we had students come up with solutions to real problems — in their own schools or in their community or in the world?

That’s another premise behind our new school, Triangle Learning Community (TLC) — students are capable of far more than we often give them credit for, and if we let them do important work, they will rise to the challenge and amaze us. TLC will mentor 6th and 7th graders so that they have the skills and the support system to take on a major capstone project in 8th grade that will change the world. Maybe one of the 8th grade projects will be to make a “How to Listen” website.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Make time to listen — and listen well

  1. Bill Smoot says:

    Thanks for your kind mention of my book Conversations with Great Teachers–and the link to this great TED talk. I might add that one quality many of these great teachers had in common was a sensitivity (a listening) to their students. They were deeply intuitive about how they were being experienced by the student.

  2. Pingback: 528 Digital Learning » Listening and Teaching

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