November 30, 2022
In today’s world, there’s a lot of talk about teaching kids to talk to each other—and for good reason. But as a former middle and high school teacher and administrator, I wish we were thinking strategically, not just about teaching self-expression—but also, about listening!
In most schools, assessment of listening skills stops after or around second grade (when students stop being evaluated on whether they follow directions), except for foreign language classes. However, in our tech-centric and polarized world, listening is a skill that can—and must—be explicitly taught and assessed through adolescence.
Listening is hard for Gen-Z students: 1) short attention spans (it’s hard to pay attention long enough to deeply engage with someone else’s point), 2) discomfort with mono-tasking (it’s hard to focus fully on someone else, especially without a device), and 3) low intellectual resilience (it’s hard to listen to an idea you disagree with, especially in a world where algorithms feed you content you find pleasant) are but a few challenges kids face in active listening. These challenges compound age-old reasons why listening is hard, like how to listen instead of just thinking about what you want to say next!
Listening is high-stakes. Listening skills matter for learning—auditory processing and engaging with other perspectives is a foundational cognitive capability necessary for any academic context. Listening skills matter for belonging—feeling heard creates trust and deep listening builds empathy. Listening skills matter for well-being—they are key to articulating emotions, receiving feedback, self-regulation, and developing in-person relationships. And, of course: listening skills matter for life beyond graduation—in an age of AI, skills like active listening hold a premium. In a divided democracy, listening skills are how you navigate to sustainable compromise. In fields from law to medicine to business, listening is a strategic tool and tightly-held value for any great leader.
So, listening is hard and high stakes. What’s the good news? It’s teachable—to an extent. While a “listening mindset” may take years to develop, listening skills are practice-able and learnable; given a framework, any teacher can teach and assess students’ listening skills.
Today’s discussion dilemma
How can teachers teach and assess listening skills in middle and high school classrooms?
Cultivate a culture of listening by establishing concrete routines to make listening easier, visible, valuable, and powerful in your classroom.
The knee-jerk response
“I don’t have time to teach sixteen-year-olds listening—shouldn’t they have learned that in circle time in elementary school?” Yes, probably—but a lot has happened … and continues to happen … in their lives and on their screens. So it remains a worthy endeavor in middle and high school classrooms.
How to do it
- Make listening easier by scaffolding students to “listen to yourself” first. Common wisdom and cognitive science both agree that to listen deeply to someone else, you first have to find silence yourself. Help students “listen to themselves” before asking them to listen deeply to each other—perhaps by writing in preparation for a discussion, even just for 3-5 minutes. This will help students transition off-screen and get ready to focus. You can instruct them to write down anything in their head that might distract them from engaging fully—and responding to whatever prompt you would like.
- Make listening visible: An obvious but often-not-articulated challenge with listening is that it’s “invisible.” So, give students ways to make it visible! I’ve written elsewhere about the value of using a gesture as a “visual like button” (when students agree with something being said, they then have a way to engage immediately—and communicate their listening!). Another trick is, during a student-led discussion, ask students to call on each other … but instead of simply hand-raising or making eye contact, ask them to hold up a finger for every time they’ve already spoken—and a first if they haven’t. This slows the conversation down and makes it the responsibility of someone who has been heard to make space for someone who hasn’t yet.
- Make listening useful: As crazy as it is to say, you have to show students why listening matters. Design assessments that reward good listening in class. For example, grade students on artifacts that show they are listening, like their notes from a discussion—and give them note-taking scaffolds like In-REAL-Time Notes (stop 3x per conversation, write down classmate’s name, classmate’s idea, how idea changed or challenged your thinking). You can go one step further and then ask students to “Footnote-a-Friend” in their next written assignment, officially “citing” an idea raised by a classmate that changed or challenged their thinking, which will reward students for actively listening to viewpoints other than their own.
- Make listening powerful: show students the power of feeling heard: This sounds simple, but the power of a round of shout-outs, or even just several shout-outs before you dismiss class never gets old. Choose five students and thank them for their specific ideas or contributions to class, and rotate through the whole class intentionally. Students are shocked—and honestly, moved—when you’re able to repeat back to them what they said. Even more powerful? Asking them to do this for each other (though, that’s an advanced listening move). Either way, helping students recognize the power of feeling heard makes them more likely to want to make others feel that, too.
These are simple moves any teacher can make in a class discussion to help teach and assess listening by making it easier, visible, valuable, and powerful. I’ll close with a favorite quote: the late and great thinker Simone Weil once observed that “attention is the rarest—and purest—form of generosity.”
In today’s world, that has never felt more true. And attention is the gateway to listening. Here’s to raising Gen-Z’ers who are generous, effective listeners!
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.