There are many best practices when it comes to active listening, and of course, books have been written about how to better communicate, how to connect with others, how to listen empathetically, how to ask better questions, how to influence people and much more. In the classroom, there are nine fundamental best practices for teaching listening that will help students become better, more aware listeners. Learn more through the International Listening Association. I am a member and have found amazing people and resources there. Remember, there are at least Seven Levels of Listening.
Teach the difference between hearing and listening.
This is a great place to begin! Hearing is the automatic processing of sound. Our ears are always “on,” so they develop fatigue and essentially only pay attention to unusual things. It’s interesting that we have eyelids, but we don’t have earlids. Listening requires choice. It requires us to put energy into the communication process.
Say things like instructions only once.
With few or no exceptions! There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to repeat instructions, especially for students with needs. But otherwise, here’s what’s going on with active listening in mind: when you repeat yourself, you are teaching the students they don’t have to listen the first time. They can keep their side conversation going, finish whatever it is they wanted to do, and eventually listen to you the third or fourth time. This is not the encouragement we want!
Avoid repeating what students say.
It’s a typical practice for teachers to repeat what students say, often with clarifications, additions, and summaries. But the lesson there is that the student’s words weren’t good enough, their ideas not sufficient for some reason. Clearly, there are times where a student doesn’t speak loudly enough, but get in the habit of asking them to repeat.
Reinvent raising hands for the classroom.
Raising hands often disconnects the other students. Some students are intimidated by hand-raising and many stop their thinking process hoping that someone else will answer. Often hand-raisers are just waiting to respond, rather than listening to others. Try some other systems that can help students focus on the conversation, such as talking sticks. Eventually, students can learn more in a structured environment like Socratic Seminar.
Call on multiple students at once.
Instead of calling on students one at a time, try calling on several at once and then have the other students put their hands down. “Okay, let’s hear from John, then Ari, then Keisha.” This allows everyone to do their best listening.
Consider teaching nonverbal cues.
Many students do not know how to read nonverbal cues, so they have to rely on artificial means like raising hands to know when it’s their turn to talk. But we use “Turn-Requesting Cues” and “Turn-Keeping Cues” and “Turn-Yielding Cues” all the time, even when we don’t know exactly what they are.
Use a lot of turn-and-talks, think-pair-shares, think-draw-shares, etc.
The great thing about having paired activities, even brief ones, is that half of the class is speaking and half the class is listening… at the same time! Make sure to teach the students how to best turn-and-talk.
Listening burnout happens. Consider WWB: wind, water, birds.
We only have a limited amount of listening energy, so find ways to help students rejuvenate and replenish. I used to play calm classical music, especially while students were reading or writing. But after learning more from Julian Treasure, I switched to playing nature sounds full of WWB: Wind, Water and Birds.
Activate curiosity and wonder.
One of the best ways to help students become better listeners is activate their curiosity and wonder. We all know that we pay better attention to things that spark our curiosity and wonder because we want to know. That wantis an important step in choosing to listen.
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