A few years ago, as a teacher at a New York City middle school, in Brooklyn, I was administering the listening portion of a standardized test. “Listen,” I read aloud from the teacher’s manual. I looked at the rows of students, who stared back at me, ready, silent, nervous. In a sense, they were listening. But a certain kind of listening was unknown to many of them: the kind that absorbs cadences and inflections as well as meanings, the kind that takes in more than it understands.
Our education policies have been hacking away at listening. In some districts, a teacher is not supposed to speak for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time, and students are not supposed to stay silent for long. They turn and talk; they perform tasks; they work in groups; they press buttons on gadgets. They might know how to listen for instructions or information, but not how to sink into sounds and words. They do not know how to pick up overtones, refrains, allusions. What they know is pancake listening: flat, warm for an instant, and then gone.
“Listen!” says Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach.” This is no ordinary listening. It is the sort that takes in “the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling”; it is this very roar that one hears “Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in.” In the poem, the speaker recognizes the pebble’s sound; he says that Sophocles heard it long ago on the Aegean and that it “brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” The sound is past and present, faraway and near: “we / Find also in the sound a thought, / Hearing it by this distant northern sea.” Listening to this poem, one senses centuries of listening in it. What has happened to listening of this kind?
Listening requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect, or want."
Schools have turned away from listening for several reasons: It is hard to measure; it requires the “imposition” of specific material; and it is difficult. When the whole class listens to a poem or other reading, how can a teacher determine how much the students understood? She may question some of them, but she will not have time to question them all. She may give a test, which will likely reveal that some students remembered and understood much more than others. This is unacceptable, according to education leaders; all students must gain something concrete from each portion of the lesson. Therefore, teachers should talk less and have students do more.
Such a trade-off has serious consequences. When you stop expecting students to listen, you abandon the very things that demand listening. Who will dare to teach William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” out loud, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”? Who will take students into Walt Whitman’s elusive “A Riddle Song”? In the name of comprehension, students are given very little to comprehend, very little that will build in meaning. Resonance shrivels up and staggers off the stage.
As a result, students hear only the immediate meanings of words, if that much. The name Akaky will not bring to mind Nikolai Gogol’s “Overcoat” or the language that surrounds it; a reference to “outsiders” will not bring to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The title The Sound and the Fury will signify nothing.
On a practical level, the loss of listening means the loss of basic comprehension. If students expect to understand everything, they will understand little. Learning requires patience; a student must be willing to tackle a text or problem repeatedly, considering it from different angles. Listening helps because it involves a certain surrender, a willingness to sit with what one does not already know. Listening has still more benefits: It is a sign of courtesy, and it places limits on chatter.
Some may say that listening of this kind is not important to everyone. Perhaps not—but shouldn’t it exist as a possibility? Must we cater to the uninterested at every turn? Listening requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect, or want. Of course there are dreary speeches, god-awful poems, and other things that do not merit long listening. It is on educators to select and put forth the best. But if children and adults lack the practice of listening, they will treat even the best as an annoyance, having no idea how to take it in and seeing no reason to bother.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Let Us Not Abandon Listening