As educators, I’m sure that many of us assume ourselves to be naturally good listeners, in part because we spend a good chunk of our day reminding other people to listen to us, and also because we’ve made a career out of being well-mannered swots.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Whatever the case, it might perturb you to know that listening isn’t a skill that comes naturally to most people, even teachers. A study from Nichols and Lewis (1954) showed that, on average, people retain just 25 per cent of what they hear – that’s one word in every four.
And this study was conducted long before smartphones. Which leads me nicely into my next point: in today’s noise-filled world, I believe that listening is a dying skill. We live in an age of instant replay, catch-up TV and information availability. If you’re distracted mid-way through your favourite show, you rewind it. If you don’t like a song, you skip it. If the article’s too long, you read something shorter. We communicate through text message and emojis and share our important life events on social media; it’s all about "show and tell" and little to do with listening and responding.
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This is a real problem, especially for us teachers.
The art of listening
Because listening isn’t just about catching information in morning briefing; it’s about wholly connecting with the people, world, time and space around you.
As Julian Treasure explains in his Ted talk "5 ways to listen better", listening is how we create meaning from sound; it’s how we make sense of the world around us. When we practise conscious listening, rather than just hearing sounds, we enrich and deepen our experience of day-to-day life.
So if life-enrichment is something you feel you’d benefit from, here are three of Treasure’s strategies that are applicable inside and outside of the classroom:
Schedule a few minutes of silence each day
If your students are amiable, try this within lessons; if not, make a routine of listening to silence for three minutes at some point after you get home — even if this means shutting yourself in the bathroom for three minutes, away from the rest of the family. This allows your ears time to recalibrate and reset, and it’s not bad for your inner peace either.
Practise ‘mindful listening’
The next time you’re in a noisy room, whether it be a classroom, coffee shop or a park, pause and get curious about the levels, directions and features of the sounds you hear.
This is something that I love to practise with my students. I have the kids wear blindfolds and then I wander about the room like a lunatic; opening drawers, turning taps on, treading loudly and quietly. Afterwards, we consider what the sounds were like (sharp or soft; long or short; flowing or jumpy, etc.), asking ourselves which direction they came from in relation to us, noting hidden sounds within sounds. This sounds a bit "out there", I know, but the kids love it.
A welcome side effect of practising mindful listening is that you and your students may develop an appreciation of even the most mundane of noises: the comforting hum of a classroom projector; the rich crescendo of a draw opening; the thunderous pounding of water hitting a sink base. There’s beauty here, if only we hear it.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of special educational needs and disability interventions, as well as wellbeing strategies