Monday, April 18, 2011

Teacher as Listener: What are you listening for?

One of the items on the RTOP is, "The metaphor 'teacher as listener' was very characteristic of this classroom."

Overall, I think it's a good thing for a teacher to be a listener. Over time, however, my views of what this the metaphor means have changed. I am more interested in how a teacher listens than if they listen.

One kind of listener I see I would describe as a "misconceptions listener". The misconception listener has several characteristics:
  • They almost exclusively listen to students' ideas through a lens of correct and incorrect (rather than listening for the possible productive beginnings of ideas, or whether or not a student's idea involves appeals to evidence, or to consistency, or whether or not a students' reasoning is plausible, mechanistic, compelling, particularly lucid, etc.)
  • They are often aware of lots of misconceptions and difficulties. They often, but not always, utilize classroom strategies that aim to elicit and confront them.
  • They have a difficult time letting incorrect ideas become the focus of discussion (unless it's to discuss why the incorrect ideas are wrong). They subconsciously fear that an instructor's engagement with (or silence about) wrong ideas is tacit endorsement for those ideas being correct.
  • When students are off the mark, they use Socratic questioning strategies to guide students back toward saying the right things (and almost never use dialogic questioning strategies to help everyone, including the teacher, get to know their ideas better).
  • They often have developed a good poker face to use with students. Because of this, they too often engage with students in a way that involves a significant degree of deceit.

Let me state that there is nothing wrong with (1) listening for and having concern about the disciplinary knowledge that may or may not be evident in student ideas, (2) being aware of common difficulties and building instruction around them, (3) using questioning strategies that aim to nudge students along, (4) deciding at times not to discuss with an entire class a confusing idea, and (5) having a good poker face.

My concern is with instructors whose whole range of listening behaviors falls narrowly within the confines of "misconceptions listening". Misconceptions listeners never really listen to their students' ideas on their own terms, because they are always on the look out for what's wrong with students' ideas. Because misconceptions listeners never really listen to their students' ideas, they are unlikely to grow as a teacher. My concern is that misconceptions listening is not a generative practice. In my experience, it seems to be a dead end for many instructors.


  1. Brian, I like this list. It gives me some things to reflect on. But I have never heard the term "dialogic questioning strategies" before.

  2. I'm not sure the term exists, but... With Socratic questioning, I ask questions because I see myself as the primary authority over knowledge. And since I have that knowledge and the novice does not, my questions are aimed at helping the novice to align their thinking with that authority. In dialogic setting, I recognize that I cannot be the authority on what's in a student's mind. I ask questions, so that together we can make new meaningful knowledge together.

    In practice, the difference can be subtle. But once I started noticing the difference, I couldn't stop noticing.

  3. This really hits home for me, since I find myself often exhibiting these behaviors. When student misconceptions pop up in discussion, I often find myself thinking "ah-ha" and try to steer conversation toward addressing them. This has given me a lot to think about and work on. But I'm wondering if you might have some footage, or some dialogue showing a preferable alternative to a misconceptions listener.

  4. @quantumprogress I feel like I should say that I think these behaviors can be very positive elements of classroom discourse, especially within a well rounded diet of listening and engagement behaviors.

    I think you do right by yours students to notice and talk about misconceptions. To never steer the conversation toward misconceptions (and towards addressing them) would be silly.

    I will work on a post to address some footage or dialogue that get at alternative ways of listening.

  5. "They often have developed a good poker face to use with students. Because of this, they too often engage with students in a way that involves a significant degree of deceit."

    I think the poker face is about making yourself remote, or opaque: you don't want the students to know what you're thinking, ostensibly because you don't want to "give it away," but also because what you're thinking is perhaps insulting to the student. So you are deceitful in the sense of pretending you are thinking nothing at all, when actually what you're thinking is a big deal.

    I think this particular kind of falseness, in the form of remoteness, is very bothersome to students (and anyone). When we don't know where the other person is coming from, we get anxious and don't show our cards. And if students aren't willing to share their ideas, our opportunities for formative assessment are going to be more limited.

  6. Welcome to the fun Rachel!

    (Your link doesn't work for the uninvited)

    You and Brian have me seriously rethinking my previous perception of the value of the poker face. I had always thought of it as a way to communicate non-judgement. Hmmm. Lucky for me and my students I have a terrible poker face and haven't tried to use it on them (I'm more of the grinning idiot type).

    In the absence of video of myself interacting with students, this conversation will help me pay better attention to my interactions with students, and then to reflect on what I am communicating in those interactions.

  7. @ Rachel "And if students aren't willing to share their ideas, our opportunities for formative assessment are going to be more limited."

    That pretty much drives it home for me. If students are not going to invite me into their learning, then I don't stand a chance of doing my job.

    I think I gradually stopped trying to use a poker face, as I became better at joining in with students about whatever happens to be perplexing to them. Of course that meant I had to start noticing that perplexity. Or, more often, notice the seeds of perplexity, so that I could nudge them toward something I think they will genuinely take up as perplexing.

  8. Thank you - I enjoyed the read. I know I've always been bad at the poker face, but now I have some rationale that allows me to worry less about that. Your post reminds me of an excellent paper I read about listening by Brent Davis