Ready to listen

cogs.pngA brief post on getting pupils to pay attention

Pupils do a lot of listening in classrooms – to explanations, information, narratives, arguments, model answers, feedback, dialogues, other pupils’ contributions and interactions, instructions, advice or guidance, and so on.

Listening as behaviour

Interestingly, listening is often framed as simply something which pupils are either doing or not doing, more or less by choice. As such, the language of listening (“listen”, “pay attention”, “concentrate”) is often used in classrooms in relation to behaviour or to ‘expectations’. Pupils are ‘expected’ to listen, as though this is simply an act of obedience, rather than a complex cognitive process. Even rituals and other devices designed to help pupils to listen – stopping talking, putting down pens, tracking the teacher, sitting up, leaning forwards, and so on – are often framed as ‘expectations’ rather than skills.

And to an extent, of course, this is all fine. To an extent, listening is about behaviour – about choosing not to follow distractions. And we certainly promote effective listening by holding pupils accountable, not just for their apparent attentiveness but for their engagement with content or their retention of information.

Listening as skill

But as with different kinds of reading, different kinds of listening (like those listed above) actually present their own sets of cognitive challenges and, arguably, require their own sets of skills. These can be taught and practised; they can be modelled by teachers ‘thinking aloud’; and – as with reading – they can be developed through discussions or structured activities, in which pupils articulate and process their understandings and responses.

Being ready to listen

But they can also be developed simply by how the instruction to listen is framed, so that pupils are directed to listen in a specific ways, using particular skills, rather than just to switch on their attention in a generic way. All teachers do this intuitively, of course, but I think it is something we can think about and practise more.

In some schools and classrooms, teachers ask – by convention – for “active listening” or for “thoughtful listening”. This language reflects a shared understanding that listening involves deliberate cognitive processing. As an instruction, of course, it remains generic. And it requires repeated unpacking, so that the phrase ‘active listening’ doesn’t become just a synonym for ‘paying attention’.

The key is always to think: are pupils prepared for the particular kind of listening I want them to do, and what can I say now to ready them? Below are just some of the strategies I see being used, or have experimented with myself, for directing pupils’ listening. I know there will be many more.

(Of course, all of these could apply to pupils’ reading as well.)

Focusing attention

Help pupils to focus by ‘pointing them’ physically towards the speaker, the screen or an object – real or imaginary.

Eyes on me while I…

As you listen, watch…

Now all turn to… and look carefully at…

Close your eyes and imagine…

Keep your eyes on this…

Help them to focus by ‘pointing them’ mentally towards specific ideas.

As she speaks, listen out for…

Be particularly aware of…

Notice…

Keep track of…

Pay particular attention to…

Foreground or pose questions to be answered.

The question here is…

Let’s try to find answers to…

See if you agree that…

My question to you is…

Set challenges, so that listening feels almost competitive.

Your challenge is to spot…

If you listen carefully to these instructions, you might be able to…

There are six main points to pick up on here, if…

It’ll be tricky, but see if you can…

Encourage perseverance, by the suggestion of intrinsic rewards.

This is really worth…

During this, keep trying… so that…

You don’t want to miss out on… so…

Keep listening out for… so you achieve…

Encourage visualisation.

Try to picture…

Listen and imagine…

Try to see in your head what…

Hold an image of…

Encourage questioning.

Try to think of questions that you need…

Make a mental note of anything tricky, which…

Come up with three questions to…

Keep asking yourself…

Suggesting personal investment

Talk about value.

There’s a lot of valuable…

Remember how important…

Get as much useful … from this as you can, so that…

Suggest kinds of personal response.

Try to feel…

Surprisingly, you’ll find…

Enjoy the way…

You might be a bit cross about…

Prompt empathy.

Remember that the person…

Imagine how difficult it must be to…

Try to appreciate the way…

Prompt scepticism.

See if you really agree…

Look for flaws in…

Don’t be too quick to agree with…

Promoting specific kinds of thinking

Encourage recall.

As you listen, remember how…

Link this back to what you know about…

This will remind you of…

Require categorisation.

Look out for examples of different…

Try to separate…

Look for overlaps between…

Require application.

Think how this applies to…

Keep thinking of how we could fit this with…

Think of how you might use this to…

Encourage analysis.

Think about what underlies…

Can you work out why…?

Try to break down the reasoning for…

Prompt synthesis.

Look for patterns in…

If you put this together with what we…

Think about what connects…

Promote evaluation.

Decide how well…

Decide which ideas are least…

Notice what is successful about…

Require creativity.

Try to turn this into…

It’s worth thinking about what you could do with……

Think about how you would make a…

Encourage prediction.

Try to anticipate…

See if you can predict…

Thinking ahead to…

See also Teaching talk

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