Inquiry and the art of listening

I’ve been wondering a lot about listening. I am currently in the very rare position of being home for a while – recovering from surgery. My head has been too foggy to do much reading or viewing…so I have turned to podcasts to pass the time. I am a huge fan of the podcast already but have been very grateful to have so many beautiful things to listen to while recuperating. Listening has given be hours of joy and learning. As a teacher and teacher educator I DO spend a lot of time talking so it is both luxurious and enlightening to spend hour after hour not saying a word…but instead listening to the wisdom, humour, music and passions of others. Teachers, in general, are talkers. Older readers of this blog might recall the animated Charlie Brown cartoons where teacher voices were communicated only with a kind incessant trumpeting sound as the children endured the boredom of their classroom. When I interview students about teachers, the most common criticism is simply that they ‘talk too much’ – we do!   But true teaching - especially in the inquiry classroom is surely more as much about listening as it is about talking.

My enforced listening time recently included an interview with the great author Ben Okri. The interviewer asked him about the role of listening for him as a writer. He responds:

“You have to listen – you have to listen to the world. You have to listen to sound of people’s voices - the secret sound of people’s voices. What they are saying and what they are not saying. A lot of the world is about what is not visible and what is not said. ‘Listening’ also stands in for ‘seeing’ and for attentiveness - It is a metaphor for profound attentiveness.”

If you are unfamiliar with Ben Okri and his beautiful writing, do yourself a favour. His writing is testament to the power of listening to the world . Here is the link to the interview although it may only be accessible to Australian audiences.

In another delightful moment of radio listening this week, I heard Erick Greene, a Montana based biologist, discuss his research into birdsong. His curiosity and careful listening has led to discovering the amazingly rich repertoire of sound each bird species has. His amazing work has its genesis in long walks in the woods as a child, where he would listen to the world...


Having an inquiring disposition as teachers means committing to being ‘profoundly attentive’ to our learners – and indeed to the world around and within us.    This is such an enormous challenge in the average classroom dominated by distraction, urgency, multi-tasking, noise and busy-ness. But perhaps, by taking a moment to commit to listening as we begin each day – we can better hear the ‘secret sound’ of children’s voices – and our own internal voice.    True listening is one of the best tools we have to inform our work.   Here are some reminders of things we can do to ‘attend more profoundly’ as we teach:

 Inquire into listening itself

Spend time helping students investigate the skills of true listening. At the risk of being ‘formulaic’ it is valuable to share with children some of the ‘micro-skills’ that help us be more attentive listeners. These skills include using body language (eg. leaning in), eye contact (if culturally appropriate) some encouragement (nods, etc), no interruptions, reflecting back what has been said, etc.   Both students AND teachers benefit from explicitly naming listening as a valued process in the classroom.

Value moments of silence

Bring some deliberate, quiet moments into the day. Suspend all talk for short periods of time - not as a disciplinary measure but rather as an opportunity to ‘attend’ to the self. Classrooms can be incredibly noisy places. Moments of silence can offer us all the chance to re-group, breathe and reflect.

Small, focused groups

The bigger the group, the harder it is for us to really attend to something an individual is saying. How many times have you found yourself losing focus when listening to a child in the larger group because others are becoming restless or irritable?

Form a circle

Think carefully about the physical arrangements when you are in discussion. Seating a group in a circle often helps us to listen better to others and brings a more equitable feeling to the conversation (rather than the teacher in the chair and students on the floor)

Stay open to what you might hear

When a student shares something, be conscious of HOW you are listening. Stay open and mindful of your biases. As yourself ‘what are they revealing to me?’ ‘What is being left unsaid?’ Try to hold your responses/opinions back until they have really finished sharing. Sometimes our responses are unnecessary anyway!

Stand back.

When students are busily engaged in learning tasks, remind yourself to take a back seat for at least some of the time – and focus on what you are noticing as you observe and listen.  Early years teachers do this well - but close observation and listening remain powerful ways of assessing learning at all levels of schooling.

 Remember wait time.

We know the importance of wait time but we still don't do it particularly well. When you ask a question – wait before prompting or re-asking. And wait after the response….inevitably the child will add more when there is space and time to do so. Get comfortable with silence - it's thinking time.

Slow down.

Good listening needs time. Commit to spending sustained time in conversation/observation with just a few students each day. Is there a space in your classroom that is dedicated to small group or 1-1 conversation? Is there a focused, quiet zone?

 Listen with your heart

In some ways, this can be the hardest thing of all for the busy teacher to master. ‘Heart listening’ has been described by the wonderful, late Glen Ochre as what we do when we “consciously get into our wisest self so we can give the person our full attention and allow our hearts, not just our ears, to be open to hearing. If we do this, all else will follow. We will look and sound caring and engaged – because we are.” (Ochre 2013:59)

 Ask better questions

Great inquiry teachers know how to encourage students to share their thinking by being skilled listeners and by asking better (not simply more) questions. Questions – and how we ask them – can quickly shut down OR open up a conversation. The combination of the right questions and true heart-listening can yield our most powerful teaching and learning moments. I am currently working on another post about my favourite questions…stay tuned.

Genuine inquiry compels us to listen – to the world, to each other and to ourselves. True listening is so often a victim of the talk-centred, busy world of teaching. How can we better ‘still’ ourselves to listen with our hearts, to hear what is said and unsaid by our students and our colleagues?

 Just wondering...