Teachers spend a lot of time talking: explaining, leading conversations, giving demonstrations. But listening can be equally powerful — and it’s a skill that not everyone masters, often because people don’t realize its importance.
Gillian Parrish, a research and communications specialist at the Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis, says educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of listening as well as talking. She offers three reasons listening is crucial to building a good classroom culture:
Parrish likens a discussion when participants ask questions and then listen to the answers to “an open window, open to whatever comes in.” This opens all participants to new ideas and helps them really understand them.
“Listening is the zone in which inquiry happens, in which questions arise and tug at us and the seeds of ideas germinate,” Parrish said. “There is a growing awareness that as educators in today’s polarized yet shrinking world, opening up spaces in ourselves and our classrooms is a way of modeling dialogue, collaboration, curiosity, creativity and compassion.”
When students feel they are genuinely part of the conversation, they are more likely to really understand what they are learning and remember it.
“The effect of a good listener on student learning is electrifying,” Parrish said. “When students are heard, when their insights strike their listener, when their questions open up discussions, when their ideas are taken up and explored sincerely, then they blossom.”
This type of open-ended conversation can move students from being passive consumers of information to more self-directed learners.
Not every lesson lends itself to a conversation between students and the teacher. But when teachers are engaging students in a discussion about the meaning of what they have learned — the causes of the French Revolution, for example, or the implications of a recent scientific discovery — the conversation will be more rewarding for the teacher and the students if people are listening to each other.
This means more than simply pausing to let the other person speak.
“Think back to those teachers that really cared about what you had to say, that heard your words and were sparked by them, that really took in your questions and mulled them over themselves, even if they are old questions in that field,” Parrish said. “That kind of listening makes our classrooms into vibrant learning communities.”
Our culture is often easier for extroverts than for introverts, which means it “tends to be afraid of silence,” Parrish said. That’s why it’s so important to both tell students what good listening can accomplish and model it for them.
The pause after a question doesn’t have to be an awkward silence: It can be the space where deeper ideas take root.