Aim: to explore the role of listening in teaching & learning and to identify effective strategies that promote good listening, develop listening skills, and celebrate and foreground the vital role of listening in the classroom and beyond
I have always been interested in the significance of quiet more generally in teaching, particularly its importance for deep thinking, reflection and creativity. From this basis I have come to consider how much we prioritise and praise oracy in the classroom, seemingly setting it above and apart from the integral skill of listening. As part of the old English Language GCSE we would assess Speaking & Listening; there were specific discussion tasks which focused on and promoted listening skills. With this no longer a formal part of the curriculum, I believe we have lost something valuable, and this year I wanted us to explore how we might consciously make the skill of listening a priority in our classrooms, how we recognise good listening and how we develop this explicitly as a skill as teachers and students. This also seemed a natural evolution from our previous Teaching & Learning projects on responsive teaching and the revision of departmental feedback and marking policies.
In terms of achievement, I had begun to notice a pattern at NLCS; students who relished class discussion and spoke with eloquence and confidence in class and extra-curricular activities appeared at times to fall slightly below expectations in examinations, whereas those students who ‘fell beneath the radar’, who were often described as ‘too quiet’ and encouraged to be more active in class discussion, seemed to thrive academically and were frequently among our highest achievers in examinations. Perhaps we as teachers were missing something here – were we really listening and recognising the quality of what vocal students were saying with such assurance? Were we also overlooking the impressive listening skills of quieter students? Of course we should continue to build all students’ confidence and ability to speak in discussion and to express their opinions, but we should not forget that equally students also need their listening skills developed and recognised. We as teachers need to listen carefully in order to do this effectively.
There seems to be currently very little research and writing on this important area of practice but I include a short reading list of texts that I used in my thinking and that we shared as a staff. Despite all the external pressures this year of a school inspection followed by Covid 19, we have, as a staff made some interesting and valuable discoveries and have had the opportunity to learn greatly from each other’s practice.
August Inset Session: The Significance of Quiet in Teaching & Learning
Autumn Term: Focus on Teacher Listening
Teaching & Learning Session, HoDs Meeting, Dept discussions
Spring Term: Focus on Student Listening
Teaching & Learning Session, HoDs Meeting, Dept discussions, HoDs feedback to JTB
Learning Walk focus on Listening
If not interrupted by lockdown Open Door week would have had Listening focus and a summary of the findings of the year would have been presented. This paper is in place of this.
The following is a collation of ideas from reading, Teaching & Learning Forum sessions, Journal Club, observations and feedback from different departments on their discussions and sharing of effective practice. Staff have been generous in reflecting on their practice and sharing their ideas.
Listening is a crucial skill for teaching for a number of reasons: to know our students; to recognise what they know and what they don’t know; to use questioning effectively; to teach responsively; to give effective feedback; to ensure every student is valued. Common barriers to effective listening can be distraction, assumptions about what colleagues /students are saying, concerns about the pace of the lesson, classroom management issues, anxiety about ‘losing our place’ or chain of thought. It was often noted that listening is so important in the giving and receiving of feedback; we hear the negative and make assumptions (this also applies during feedback conversations with colleagues after observations for example). Staff considered how you could build in time for listening in lesson planning and to be prepared to adapt / change / respond to the needs of students. It was recognised that listening tasks can be more challenging at certain times in the day so lessons should be planned accordingly with a recognition of this.
This is a vital skill for emotional and academic development of students, and we know there is a clear link between students who listen well in order to allow deep understanding and reflection, and high achievement. It is estimated that 80% of what we know is acquired through listening (Hunsaker 1990). In encouraging student listening we are fostering empathetic and collaborative future leaders and citizens. We considered that listening can be particularly challenging for teenagers for a variety of reasons; they be be distracted, tired, struggle with their attention span or be suffering from anxiety or stress. In order to address listening effectively we need to understand and be able to discuss and support students with these challenges. In all our discussion we were very aware that SEND students, particularly those with ADHD, may find listening a particular issue, therefore teachers should be sensitive to this and should seek extra advice from the SEND coordinator as to how to best provide support as it will differ in individual cases. It is also vital to consider the role of knowledge and understanding in listening, when students do not understand the content of the lesson, listening becomes increasingly challenging for them as they lose track of what is going on. This needs to be addressed and understood before expecting the student to absorb new material. The more we work at planning engaging lessons that are challenging and stimulating, and the more enthusiastic we are about our disciplines, the easier it is for students to listen and concentrate in lessons.
Classroom Management for Listening
A noisy or disorganised classroom makes listening challenging therefore effective classroom management is key.
- Use the classroom layout and employ seating plans in order to create a calm atmosphere
- Use a clear routine and stick to it (formal lesson start standing behind desks, no calling out)
- Make sure your expectations are clear and consistent
- Make sure there is silence and that students are clear when they should listen – explain why it is important
- Explicitly tell students when tasks are testing their listening and praise good listening
- Ask students to reflect on their listening
- Use no hands questioning regularly
- Address any issues with individuals (use the form tutor) so that ‘loud’ behaviour does not dominate or cause disruption
- Don’t let students interrupt explanations / or task setting. Tell them to listen (they can note down their question if necessary) and then to ask at the end if the question hasn’t been answered already
- Try not to paraphrase student’s answers – they should listen to one another directly
Tasks for Listening
This is a collation of suggestions from different departments, so obviously some will more ideas will be more relevant to particular disciplines.
- Many reported that group work was effective and productive only if it was carefully planned and meaningful – structured work that was clearly scaffolded, given a set time frame and a clear outcome.
- Class discussion and use of questioning is crucial, and in all lessons, but can always be worked on in terms of promoting listening. Use bounce questioning regularly (asking one student to develop / respond to/ present alternative idea to another student’s answer). This encourages students to listen to one another. Have a bank of phrases for this – do you agree? can you develop? can you rephrase? can you challenge?
- Pair / share discussions are useful for encouraging reflection. Try asking students to share the points made by their neighbour.
- Take students to lectures
- Structure listening tasks (eg listening to a lecture) by providing questions to give the students a focus
- Debates and role plays test and develop listening skills
- Providing notes and Powerpoints for students to annotate can mean that they can focus on listening rather than worrying about writing everything down which can impede listening
- Use of anecdotes to aid explanation
- When students do presentations, request each member of the group prepares a question to ask
- Use the radio as a resource (eg Today for Economics and Politics, In Our Time for English and History). Follow up questions test understanding.
- Ask students to evaluate, with examples, other’s presentations or performances
- ‘Speed-dating’ task: students are given topics (information to read and absorb, about 6 different topics) which they then have to explain to another student who has a different topic. They go back to the original topic sheet to see what they could add to their explanation and then swap explanations with someone else, they then chose another topic. By the end they will have explained 2 topics and have had 4 explained to them. Use timers to keep it brisk!
Listening and Feedback
Parent evenings: teachers should make sure that they listen carefully to students and parents at parents evening (as well as vice versa). This is invaluable in helping students progress as we can better target our teaching and support.
In class: Teachers should praise listening in class and comment on listening skills in reports so that the importance of the skill is clear to students. We should also help students who find listening harder to work on this skill – talk to individuals after lessons, share concerns with the tutor.
Oral feedback in class and in response to homework is vital: use discussion and follow up questioning in order to check student understanding of the feedback
Teachers and students continue to work at listening as a vital skill through tasks, teaching approaches and classroom management
Students are clear that listening is valued as much as speaking through discussion, feedback and reporting
During observations staff look for examples of effective listening and reflect on these in feedback and in terms of their own teaching
This year has allowed us to recognise the importance of looking closely at the fundamental, basic skills that we might take for granted; not being afraid to put these skills in the spotlight has immense value in terms of change, development and improvement as teachers and learners. Small adjustments in our approach and strategies can have a powerful impact on the effectiveness of our teaching and the atmosphere that we create in our classrooms, in our school and beyond.
‘Silence in the Age of Noise’ Erling Kagge
A meditation on the power of silence by a Norwegian explorer.
‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’ Susan Cain
An exploration of how modern Western culture tends to misunderstand and undervalue the traits and capabilities of introverted people.
Useful tips on effective classroom management
Clear summary of the purpose of listening and tasks to promote listening that is originally designed for support of GCSE English Language Speaking and Listening component, but can be applied more generally
Tips on effective management of class discussions
Jessica Bedi (AH Teaching & Learning)
Special thank you to English, Economics, Biology, MFL and Drama Departments for all the help.