Around the Web: Listen Up

Henning Mankell’s opinion piece in The New York Times reflects on something Africa has to teach the rest of the world: the art of listening.

photo by ky_olsen via Flickr

Listening well means shedding preconceptions about what you expect the answer to be. This is the opposite of the kind of conversation that a multiple-choice test encourages. The Times recently profiled two school systems that attribute their success, at least in part, to a curriculum that is not tied to testing. The Finnish school system, where “the primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,” has been receiving a lot of attention recently, but it may be hard to adapt Finland’s system to work in the U.S. Schools on military bases, on the other hand, suggest how a few tweaks could make American schools more successful.

Also in the Chronicle, Rachel Friedman describes how a semester of listening led her not so much to change her strict attendance policy as to better appreciate what it meant for her students to follow it. (Dean Dad takes a different approach to attendance.) Many of your opportunities to listen—especially when it comes to learning how your class fits into your students’ lives—come in office hours. Faculty Focus offers some tips on how to make the most of them.

Listening well also means listening at length, and it’s a skill that students need to learn, too. On the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog, Lucy Ferriss argues in favor of “verbal surfeit” in the form of doorstoppers—books that allow the reader to luxuriate in words and more words, to listen, as it were, at length. In an earlier post, Ferriss connected the rise in students’ use of “relatable” in their papers and their sense of themselves as consumers. Students might be reading Infinite Jest in their free time, but their expectations about how a book is responsible for connecting itself to their lives leaves them closed to what literature might teach them that they don’t already know. Students’ sense of themselves as consumers has also affected their ability to listen in the classroom. Jeff Selingo reflects on the difference between teaching well and teaching to consumer expectations.

New classroom technologies are changing how we listen. In a short video profile of Kristin Kipp (named the National Online Teacher of the Year), Kipp and her students reflect on how the online setting changes the quality of their interaction—students are less shy when asking a question means emailing the teacher, Kipp can give individual attention without worrying about classroom management, and, freed from the strictures of a finite class period, the online discussion board shows a much deeper and more thoughtful conversation than might have happened in a classroom. New developments in Personal Response Systems and other classroom technologies now allow for instructors—both in-class and online—to mine student data and tailor their students’ experiences accordingly. Does data-mining bring us back to the cookie-cutter responses of standardized testing, though? Not if it’s done right, with the understanding that all the technology can do is put the right people in conversation with each other. (For example, the instructor and the student who’s quietly struggling to keep up; or two students who came up with different answers to the same question.) For the real learning to happen, they have to start listening.

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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