Prepare them for a life of listening

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Many adults are incapable of quietly paying attention to others but your pupils can be different, says Victor Allen

"Sssshhh", "I won't continue until you are all quiet", "Three, two, one ...", "I don't mind waiting; it'll be your break you'll lose", "If we can't get this done now, we'll do it after school". These are all familiar phrases used to elicit that all-important full attention in the classroom.

But I often ask teachers whether they have explained to their pupils the importance of learning the skill of listening - something many adults have not mastered. Pupils know that they come to school to learn about history, maths, science and so on. But school is also a place for pupils to socialise, appreciate that we all have to do things we do not like and understand that everyone has a right to be listened to.

The notion of listening to an adult talking for some time is relatively unfamiliar to many young people. The challenge is to engage pupils who may prefer to have an in-depth conversation with each other. So how can you motivate them to change? How do we engage their listening skills?

I am not talking about simply imposing silence. Even if the class has been quiet while you have given your information and explanations, you may still be asked: "So what number do we start at?", "What page are we on?", "How many do we need in our group?" There is a big difference between silence and having your audience listen.

It is instinctive to be sociable with others. The difference between a classroom of young people and a roomful of adults, however, is that adults will understand the social etiquette of quietening down and ending their previous conversation to engage their brain and listen. This is a skill that can be learned in the classroom.

Make developing listening skills a target - when to listen, how to listen and how to process information. Don't patronise, be informative and when pupils respond to your request for quiet, praise them for showing maturity. In this way they learn that silence, and listening, can be useful and pleasurable. It is not a punishment.

You need to explain clearly how useful it is to listen and follow instructions in many aspects of life. Get pupils to help each other within the classroom. Friends can remind others not to talk but to listen. Peer pressure can overwhelm the request for quiet from a teacher. Discuss how pupils feel if they do not answer a friend who talks to them in class.

Ask: "Who finds it hard to be quiet? Who finds it hard to listen to what others are saying without wanting to add their own comments? Who finds it hard to not talk over others?" This can be done at the start of a lesson. It is especially worthwhile to do it at the beginning of term so that pupils see you as a guide not a disciplinarian.

I stopped a class of Year 9s who are capable, able and full of excitement but who chattered. "Excuse me," I said. "What method would you like the teacher to use to get quiet within the lesson?" I spoke calmly. The children sensed I was genuinely curious. After a short conversation they said that all the teacher needed to do was raise their hand. We practised during the lesson and they became quicker to quieten down.

We then talked about how enjoyable it was for me to talk to them in this way. Better, they agreed, than their poor behaviour earning them detentions. I got them to repeat what we had discussed. It's good for pupils to hear themselves making adult commitments.

According to Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, a good proportion of society would fall within the category "extroversion", a term that relates to drawing energy from external sources. They are the people who prefer noise and the sound of their own voices, the individuals who enter a room proclaiming loudly: "Where are my keys, where are they?" as they frantically search.

Children like this - statistically about half your class - will find listening difficult and you will need to provide support in controlling their natural impulses. To build on their listening skills, ask pupils to watch about a minute of a documentary or an interview you know they will find entertaining. Explain your intention of assessing listening skills then ask questions at the end.

After the session congratulate your pupils on listening so well and ask them to consider what helped them to process the information.

Then try an experiment where half the class is allowed to chat and the other half sits quietly. Does the playing of classical music distract some individuals and help others?

The aim is to develop the listening skills of each pupil. But also encourage pupils to understand the strategies they need, individually, to feel secure. And what do they feel you can do as a teacher to support this process? They will have learned a valuable lesson. And most importantly, you will be encouraging your class to believe they are developing listening as a skill for life.

Victor Allen is a freelance behaviour and leadership consultant and founder of Mirror Development and Training.

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