As a teacher of teachers, I know how important communication in the classroom is if a teacher is to be truly effective. We who teach teachers and teachers themselves spend much of the classroom time talking and, consequently, plan presentations that focus effort on speaking, showing, demonstrating, using PowerPoint and other visual techniques-all to “cover” (a word that can mean “conceal!”) the lesson content for the day. We may forget that communication is a two-way process, and more than just our “presentation” skills.
All of these skills are important, of course, but maybe just as important is the ability (whether natural or learned) to listen effectively. I fear we teachers and professors spend too much time on the talking end of the communication loop: telling, selling, and (even) yelling. Our teaching method seems to focus on the question “can you hear me now?” (as the old Bell Telephone advertisement used to say).
The best teachers and professors I know put much effort into the other side of the loop: listening. What goes into “effective” listening? It is more than biding your time until a student stops asking a question or disputing one of your arguments so you can get back to your own talking task.
How often do teachers merely pretend to listen as a “mere courtesy” while they actually use this time to plan what they themselves want to say next? Some Eastern philosophers-like Lao Tzu in the ancient text Tao Te Ching-emphasize a teacher’s need to listen rather than to instruct. As Lao Tzu puts it: “The quality of silence conveys more than long speeches.” These philosophers advocate “deep listening,” what might be called “listening with the third ear.” How do we do that?
I have tried in my own college courses to develop “deeper” listening by keeping eye contact with students, nodding as they talk, showing in my own facial expression intense interest in what they are saying, rephrasing what they are saying to show I have heard their point or question, giving them an opportunity to correct what I THINK I heard, and, accepting any clarification they then choose to provide.
To listen with “the third ear” I attempt to hear not just what they say but also the emotion behind that comment and then respond with brief acknowledgements like “it sounds like you are confused” (or distressed, angry, happy, etc.) to give voice to any unstated emotion that may be even more important than the spoken words themselves.
Listening takes practice and does not usually come naturally to most educators-but it is worth the time and effort as we continue to develop our own teaching ability and to pass that on to students by example as well as precept.