Teaching Opinion

Learning and Leading by Listening

By David Ginsburg — March 23, 2012 2 min read
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A lot of teachers give students participation points for speaking up during class discussions. The more students contribute, the more points they get.

I’ve heard teachers say this motivates students, and it does seem to motivate some of them--those who need or want to improve their grades. But participation points can be de-motivating for students who aren’t concerned about their grades. As a result, some students dominate class discussions, while others daydream during them.

Another problem is that saying a lot doesn’t always equate to learning a lot. A higher order skill like synthesizing information, for example, is all about processing information rather than providing it--in other words, listening rather than speaking.

Unfortunately, the more some students speak, the less they listen. Sometimes they’re so preoccupied with crafting or rehearsing in their minds what they’re going to say that they end up repeating what a classmate already said. And students aren’t the only ones whose listening skills suffer when teachers dole out participation points. Keeping a running tally--on a laptop, tablet, or clipboard--of students’ contributions can be so distracting for teachers that they don’t hear everything students say.

And listening isn’t only important when it comes to learning, but also to leading, as Bernard Ferrari asserts in his recent McKinsey Quarterly article, The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening:

Throughout my career, I've observed that good listeners tend to make better decisions, based on better-informed judgments, than ordinary or poor listeners do--and hence tend to be better leaders. By showing respect to our conversation partners, remaining quiet so they can speak, and actively opening ourselves up to facts that undermine our beliefs, we can all better cultivate this valuable skill.

I agree, and there’s no more important place to cultivate this skill than school, especially since students do a lot of things outside of school that can detract from listening. And it’s not just students, as my wife and kids point out whenever I’m tweeting while they’re talking.

How, then, can you cultivate students’ listening skills? First of all, model those skills yourself. Give students your undivided attention--again, hard to do when you’re entering participation points on a laptop or tablet. And show students you’re listening by validating their comments--not by agreeing with them, but by repeating in your own words what they say. (It’s also great to then ask students to do this.)

Also be sure to use teaching techniques that provide students equal opportunities to express themselves, and encourage them to listen to each other and you. Think-pair-share and cold calling are two such techniques.

But whatever you do, forget about giving students participation points for contributing to class discussions. Sure it’s important for kids to speak up, but they’ll never learn or lead to their potential if they’re talking when they should be listening or not listening when others are talking.

Let me know what you think. I’ll be all ears.

Image by Isselee, provided by Dreamstime license

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