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April 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 7

Reader's Guide / Better Listening, Better Teaching

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      In too many classrooms," the influential education researcher John Hattie has written, "there needs to be less teacher-dominated talk and more student talk and involvement." For Hattie, this isn't just a matter of appearances. There's solid research evidence to suggest, he says, that "challenging, relevant, and academically demanding" instruction correlates with teachers talking less, and that effective teachers tend to "use more general class talk and less directive talk."
      So how do educators get to that point? On this question, Hattie offers some simple but compelling advice: "The most important task is for teachers to listen." Listening, he suggests, is the pedagogical gateway to more effective classroom inquiry and discussion:
      Listening needs dialogue—which involves students and teachers joining together in addressing questions or issues of common concern, considering and evaluating differing ways of addressing and learning about these issues, exchanging and appreciating each other's views, and collectively resolving the issues. Listening requires not only showing respect for others' views and evaluating the students' views … but also allows for sharing genuine depth of thinking and processing in our questioning and permitting the dialogue so necessary if we are to engage students successfully in learning. (p. 73)
      By doing more listening, in other words, teachers can spark students' ownership of the content, deepening their perspectives and conceptual understanding. Hattie adds that better listening can also help teachers get a stronger sense of students' individual voices and learning needs, which in turn can help teachers in shaping lessons and instructional strategies.
      This issue of Educational Leadership explores the topic of deepening discussions in classrooms and schools. But as you read the stories, you might also consider how much of it is conversely about educator listening, to borrow Hattie's formulation. Indeed, many of the articles stress the importance of opening up space in classrooms—and in our attitudes—to better hear students.
      In the lead article, for example, developmental and cognitive psychologist Wendy Ostroff urges greater use of classroom dialogue with younger students to build on their natural capacity for creative thinking. "We need to hear from kids, listen to their genuine interactions, and allow them to challenge our biases," she writes. This is especially critical "because kids are often swiftly disenfranchised by hierarchical models of education"—a process that inhibits their curiosity and initiative.
      Focusing more on older students, author Mike Anderson offers specific advice to help educators change their language habits during classroom discussions to allow students to do more of the talking and thinking. Through common "teacher-centric" verbal tendencies, many educators send the implicit message to students that the discussion is about what they want to hear, not what students really have to say. "By shifting these habits," Anderson writes, "educators can emphasize student ownership of ideas, create cultures of safety and collaboration, and swing the ratio of teacher-to-student talk in favor of students."
      Such principles can extend beyond individual classrooms. In their article, Anne Vilen and Ron Berger describe how whole schools are working to carve out more time and space for students to engage in structured yet authentic conversations on issues in their lives and communities. Such recurring dialogue not only improves students' communication skills; it also allows students to bring more of their "whole selves" to school, to take a greater stake in their learning community, and to gain confidence in their own voices.
      None of this is to suggest, as Hattie acknowledges, that teachers don't frequently need to take charge of a classroom and provide directive information. But the authors in this issue remind us that listening can be a powerful form of teaching and learning as well. As LauraMarie Coleman shows in her article on discussions in math classes, richer instruction often lies in resisting the urge to step in and give the answer.

      Reflect & Discuss

      "Empowering Children Through Dialogue and Discussion" by Wendy L. Ostroff

      ➛ Ostroff notes that young children engage well in divergent thinking—imagining highly unusual perspectives or ideas. Can you think of a time when a child surprised you by coming up with an unusual idea or solution?

      ➛ Think of a wonderful discussion with children under 9 you've observed. What elements do you think made the discussion successful?

      ➛ Talking with children about big ideas can be "delightful" as Ostroff says, but it can sometimes be difficult. What are barriers you've found to having kids this young do a real discussion? How might you overcome them?

      "Your Words Matter" by Mike Anderson

      ➛ Do you find yourself using teacher-centric language during discussions? How might you change that?

      ➛ When a discussion isn't taking off during class, what strategies do you use to move the conversation deeper?

      ➛ What one shift in language or behavior could you make to turn the focus on your students during discussions?

      ➛ How do you currently assess your class discussions? Do your methods tend to reward volume over quality?

      ➛ Could a group grade for class discussions better serve your students? If so, would the grade count?

      ➛ How might you use Wiggins's rubric to facilitate deeper academic conversations?

      "Courageous Conversations for Equity and Agency" by Anne Vilen and Ron Berger

      ➛ A leader quoted in this article says he wants discussion to spread through his school to give youth "a sense of what community can really be." Watch the video of "Crew" conversations at this school, linked on p. 40. What do you see in the video that reflects a strong community?

      ➛ Have any students at your school been targeted or threatened in an incident like the one described at Casco Bay? How could you have made student discussion more a part of your response?

      ➛ Do an equity audit: Who is doing most of the talking during your class discussions? Whose voices are being pushed out?

      ➛ How can you give students more agency in directing and facilitating academic conversations?

      ➛ Choose a protocol mentioned in the article and commit to trying it. How do you anticipate that it will improve your next class discussion? How will it ensure every student is being heard?

      End Notes

      1 Hattie, J. (2012.) Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

      Anthony Rebora is the chief content officer for ISTE+ASCD, overseeing publications and content development across all platforms.

      Previously, he was the editor in chief of Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, and led content development for the association's fast-evolving digital outlets.

      Under his leadership, Educational Leadership won numerous awards for editorial excellence, increased the breadth of its coverage and contributors, and greatly expanded its online reach.

      He was formerly a managing editor at Education Week, where he oversaw coverage of teachers and teaching policy, and played a key role in online editorial strategy. He has written and developed impactful content on a wide range of key K-12 education topics, including professional learning, school leadership and equity.

      As a content developer, his foremost goals are to empower diverse educator voices and raise awareness of critical issues and solutions in education.

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