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June 3, 2021

Three Ways I’ve Become A Better Listener

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; but when you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama

What does it really take to be a good listener? My entire life I’ve struggled to answer this question.

In elementary, middle, and high school I won either “most talkative” or “most social.” I loved public presentations so much that I got a degree in broadcasting and intended to spend my life narrating stories from the field. After a career transition to teaching, I quite enjoyed the feeling of being on stage. I created and sang songs, gave incredibly entertaining lectures, and presented ideas in a logical fashion to my students.

About four years ago, I began reading about focusing on student voice within the classroom and elevating this as the predominant voice. As I began to think about how my classroom could transition to meet this focus, I had to let go of part of my practice. Not only did I enjoy the presentations, but they defined my teaching style. (My Nicki Minaj integer song was a classroom stopper!) Yet, as I gained more experience and redefined my role as an educator, I realized I needed to elevate student voice and minimize my own.

I also began to realize that I was a rather poor listener. At times, I spoke for students, picked up their pencils to finish their work, and misinterpreted their explanations.

Since prioritizing listening in the classroom (both on my behalf and also for student-to-student conversations), I’ve engaged in a variety of instructional strategies that have dramatically helped me improve my listening capabilities. I also redefined my role. I used to think I should fix student thinking. That if I didn’t tell a student their errors, I was misleading them. I now understand that in order for a student to open up about their thinking and for me to truly hear and understand them, I need to remove judgment of them as people and mathematicians.

I’m now an expert questioner instead of an expert corrector.

This transition has led to a variety of instructional practices. This year I’ve been continuing to develop my listening capabilities through three of them in particular:

1. High Engagement Entry Tasks

Most of my classes now begin with Number Talks or Which One Doesn’t Belong. In both of these entry tasks, student dialogue is the prime focus of the lesson. In number talks, I document what students say about a number sense problem. Questions are generated by students and formulated in ways that seek to understand student perspective, rather than to judge an outcome. As I document, I have to listen carefully enough so that I can write exactly how a student sees a problem, rather than how I want them to see it. This shift has allowed student misconceptions to arise, which then leads to later investigations.

2. Small-Group Meetings

During these high-engagement entry tasks, I wasn’t hearing from every student. Rather than put students on the spot and force them to engage, which could cause anxiety, I now meet with those students in a small group. In Meeting Students’ Needs in Number Talks, I check in with students as a way to better see their misconceptions. Through the use of manipulatives and questioning, I try to understand their thinking, which helps me to plan future lessons for the class.

3. Making Time For Rich Tasks

I used to teach a class that focused on solving 20 math problems in a period. Now I’m working to engage students in rich tasks that allow them to develop a skill over time. I use a strategy called Learning Menus, where students work independently and take the time necessary to demonstrate multiple strategies and explanations. Now when I read their in-depth explanations on their menu tasks, their thinking comes alive. Though they’re not speaking to me audibly, I “hear” their arguments on paper.

As I’ve become a better listener, I’ve begun to realize:

  1. Some of my students don’t know what I thought they knew.
  2. Some students know more than I ever thought. I’m continuously surprised by how and what my students are able to articulate.
  3. I’m no longer a “know it all” leader in the classroom. My students often bring up ideas that I’m unprepared to address. As such, I have worked hard to give myself permission to think about their thinking and respond with a question when I’m ready.

Being a listener has helped me understand my students. I know where each one of them is at, not where I want or wish them to be.

In addition, I’m becoming less stressed. The pressure to keep up those amazing presentations was intense (I no longer generate dance moves for math concepts). Sure, there’s an entertainment factor that’s been lost, but the exchange for the increase in student voice is worth it.

My evolution as a listener has helped me develop a deeper connection with my students and for that, I am incredibly thankful. How do you elevate student voice in your classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

This work was made possible through support by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.


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