Learning to Listen

Stop for a moment and listen.

What can you hear?

Children playing? Adults talking? Lights buzzing? A computer humming? Mopeds beeping?

How well do you listen?

When was the last time you thought about how well your students are listening – and how much they can in fact hear?

I have visited hundreds of schools worldwide; a few have thought about sound but most haven’t. I have trained teachers in rooms while competing with the noise from ceiling fans. I have observed lessons where a thin partition wall has separated a quiet reading activity from a loud debate. More often than not, the offices and boardrooms where I have met senior managers are far away from students, comfortably insulated from external noise.

Hard of hearing

Hearing is hard if the environment is wrong. As Julian Treasure, author of How to be Heard, said:’The soundscape in a room is rarely designed by anybody.’

When we speak to a class, ‘too much water is evaporating before it reaches the flowers’. Students end up putting more effort into understanding what’s being said (by the teacher and each other) rather than trying to hear.

He suggests that noise levels in classrooms are often extremely high – according to one study, the average in Germany is 65dB, where normal conversation is 40-60dB and ambient noise levels are around 30. Levels of 65dB means shouting to be heard*. From row three back, speech intelligibility becomes 1.5 or less, meaning one word in two is being heard. And don’t forget that the naughty kids often sit at the back – and talk.

The ability to hear is on a continuum. Roughly 2% of the world’s population has a chronic, severe impairment. People’s hearing can also be adversely affected by colds or influenza, hayfever, ear infections, or conditions such as hyperacusis (intolerance to everyday sounds) or misophonia (selective sensitivity to specific sounds). Some of these can come and go, but on average 16-18% of the school population is suffering from some form of hearing impairment on a given day. And this is before we consider those who are learning in a second language.

As teachers, we rely on our hearing: to communicate with students, to check they are on task, to sense when it’s time for a change. Hearing is an ability but listening is a skill. Assuming the environment is such that we can hear, we all still need to learn to listen.

Learning to listen

Listening is making meaning from sound. Or, to put it another way and paraphrase the American reading specialist, Pam Allyn, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Development at Scholastic Education, listening is like breathing in, speaking is like breathing out.

Through learning to listen, we can recognise patterns to distinguish noise. We need to help our students listen with purpose, to be prepared for what they are going to hear, to look for clues, and to understand the reasons for listening in the first place.

Start with some simple exercises, both for yourself and for your students. At the beginning of this blog, we asked you to stop and listen: how often do you take time to do that? Practise focusing on individual, everyday sounds, learning to discriminate one from another as a classically-trained musician might distinguish the instruments in an orchestra. Reward yourself with a few minutes of silence each day to recalibrate and keep yourself attuned.

In your lessons, make listening necessary:

  • avoid repeating what you or others say
  • devise activities where students need to have listened carefully to complete a task
  • make sure that students answer the exact question they are asked
  • encourage students to speak audibly so that everyone can hear
  • sometimes speak quietly.

And encourage active listening:

  • demonstrate what this means through eye contact, asking questions and recapping
  • help students identify the features of language, gestures and other non-verbal clues
  • present materials clearly with prompts to support listening, such as using your voice to signal a change in focus or to emphasise key words
  • practise strategies to structure listening, such as forming mental pictures, or thinking of a question to ask
  • ask students to reflect on how well they listened.

It is particularly important to help younger learners form a habit of listening. Try fun ideas such as:

  • working in pairs to retell a story the teacher has just narrated
  • inventing a story with a partner by taking turns to say words or phrases
  • drawing what someone has told them and relating it to someone else
  • sitting back to back, pretending to be on the phone, to deny non-verbal clues
  • providing frameworks, such as counting how many times a word is said, or giving them the topic first and asking them to think of questions to which they would like answers.

The ability to listen well is vital in all subjects. Don’t leave it to the language or music teachers who naturally teach the skills: you can ask them for advice too.

And above all don’t take listening – or even hearing – for granted. You might be surprised what you, and your students, are missing.

References

Sound schools: the importance of good acoustics

Treasure, J. (2017) How to be Heard. Mango, USA.

*If you would like to test sound levels, try Google’s Science Journal app.

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