Training the Brain to Listen: A Practical Strategy for Student Learning and Classroom Management | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University. They have written several books, including Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice.

During the school year, students are expected to listen to and absorb vast amounts of content. But how much time has been devoted to equipping students with ways to disconnect from their own internal dialogue (self-talk) and to focus their attention fully on academic content that is being presented? Listening is hard work even for adults. When students are unable to listen effectively, classroom management issues arise.

Explicit instruction on cognitive strategies that can help students learn how to learn may have a positive impact on both academic performance and classroom management by emphasizing that students are in charge of their own behavior and learning. Teachers we've worked with find that classroom management issues decrease over time as students begin to master thinking skills that help them become more self-directed learners.

Learning to listen well is a prime example of a skill that many assume shouldn't need to be taught. The Common Core State Standards for Language Arts recognize the importance of listening as an ability that students must master to become college and career ready:

Students must learn to work together, express and listen carefully to ideas, integrate information from oral, visual, quantitative, and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt speech to context and task.

From a developmental perspective, this Common Core standard is interwoven with the acquisition of verbal and social skills that are critical for students' success across many contexts. Listening is a crucial aspect of school and life, but it is often expected of students without ever being taught. As a former teacher, school psychologist and licensed counselor, Donna worked with many students whose learning challenges were rooted in an inability to listen effectively, and with couples and families in distress for the same reason.

The Anatomy and Psychology of Listening

A lesson on listening might begin with how the brain processes the sounds around us. We find that many students and teachers are fascinated by the inner workings of their brains. The process of receiving and decoding spoken words takes place in the auditory cortex, which is the part of the human brain's cerebral cortex that processes auditory input. The auditory cortex is located on both sides of the brain in the upper parts of the temporal lobes. Its job is to receive signals from the ears and to transmit those signals to other parts of the cerebral cortex for decoding sound into meaning. This system is instrumental in both profound and everyday aspects of hearing -- from the language development of infants to the appreciation of a stunning symphony.

The most common obstacle to effective listening is noise. The classroom can be a cacophony of teacher and students talking, chairs scraping across the floor, papers rustling, pencils dropping, doors opening and closing. While the brain's auditory system is capable of blocking out background noises to focus on specific stimuli, nonetheless all these sounds can be distracting.

"Noise" can also arise inside students' minds -- a persistent song stuck in one's head, pleasant daydreams, or unpleasant doubts about one's ability to understand a new concept or complete an assignment. The HEAR strategy described below is designed to help students recognize and block out that noise as they devote their attention to listening.

Teaching Students to Focus and Listen

Explicit instruction on using the HEAR strategy offers concrete steps to focus on and improve listening -- and emphasizes why and how developing this skill is so important. As Michigan teacher Aaron Rohde says, "Just saying that one is going to be a better listener is not enough to make it happen. One must work hard to improve such an essential skill."

The HEAR strategy consists of these four steps:

  • Halt: Stop whatever else you are doing, end your internal dialogue on other thoughts, and free your mind to pay attention to the person speaking.
  • Engage: Focus on the speaker. We suggest a physical component, such as turning your head slightly so that your right ear is toward the speaker as a reminder to be engaged solely in listening.
  • Anticipate: By looking forward to what the speaker has to say, you are acknowledging that you will likely learn something new and interesting, which will enhance your attention.
  • Replay: Think about what the speaker is saying. Analyze and paraphrase it in your mind or in discussion with the speaker and other classmates. Replaying the information will aid in understanding and remembering what you have learned.

Aaron Rohde demonstrating the hard work of HEARing.

Credit: BrainSMART

Initially, teachers may need to lead several demonstrations of using the HEAR strategy and remind students when it is time to HEAR, but over time, listening should become more automatic. When Mr. Rohde taught this strategy to his third and fourth graders last fall, he wore a hardhat to emphasize that learning how to listen well is hard work. But he also tells his students, "Being a 'listening genius' will be beneficial in all areas of life -- in school, in personal relationships, and in professional work situations." We wholeheartedly agree!

A Few Words in Your Ear

We leave you with three questions.

  1. Is teaching cognitive strategies, like effective listening, part of your school's curriculum?
  2. What would happen to learning in your classroom if students became more effective listeners?
  3. How might you use (with modifications, if necessary) the HEAR strategy in your classroom?

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Diane Franklin's picture
Diane Franklin
Parent of high school senior and middle-schooler

Getting children to "halt" what they are doing to listen is definitely an important first step. They can be distracted by their own "self talk" or noises in the classroom. Getting them to set those aside and prepare to focus would work wonders in improving learning.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching

Diane, you are right. Halting is a very important first step to learning to listen and focus. We have found that guiding students to stop their internal dialogue (as you say self talk) allows them to more effectively learn in the classroom.

Tammy's picture
Parent of college-age student

I can think of so many instances in which the H-E-A-R acronym would be useful, not only in the classroom but in everyday life. Thank you for such a well-done article!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching

Tammy, thanks and yes we also think HEAR is useful across many contexts besides education. This is one of many strategies we created many years ago while working with students. HEAR has been used over the past 15 years in our workshops and classes with over 100,000 educators. So, it comes to you tried and true!

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

Thank you for acknowledging that listening is a skill that can be taught. I teach/write study skills (The Middle School Student's Guide to Study Skills) and teach students that hearing and listening are not the same things. An active listener must monitor the quality of their listening. It helps them concentrate on the message, increase awareness of something they didn't understand (which can become a gap in knowledge), and correct external factors interfering with their ability to listen.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Developer of Masters and Ed.S. Degree Programs in Brain-Based Teaching

Susan, I agree that listening can and, in fact, for many must be taught explicitly if students are expected to use the skill. Thank you for the connection to your teaching and book for middle schoolers. Specifically, I appreciate the compelling way you have written directly to the middle school mind and the nice organization of your book. We have recommended it.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Social interaction is very essential to healthy brain development in your child's learning. Interactions with caring adults make a sense of security and safety that prepares your child to deal with stress in life.

Victoria Blakeney's picture

I like the simple and explicit approach to the skill of listening. Is the HEAR method proprietary? I am delivering many trainings in the near future and was wondering if I could use this as an example.

Michele Davis's picture
Michele Davis
1st Grade Teacher in SW Washington

Dear Donna,
I thought your research and theory of HEAR is excellent! You and Marcus Conyers did an excellent job on nailing down the essential components of becoming excellent listeners. The acronym is very "kid-friendly" that will even appeal to younger students!

Likewise, I also enjoyed your definition of noise. Noise in student's minds can adversely affect their performance in the classroom.

I love your statement about, "Learning to listen well is a prime example of a skill that many assume shouldn't need to be taught." Often times, so many teachers believe that students already know how to "listen", which is a common misconception.

My school does not explicitly teach our students how to be good listeners. However, I think active listening is a critical component for all students to be successful. There has been much recent discussion lately about how we can get our students to pay attention more in class and to become more engaged. This article has inspired me to start a discussion with my K-5 team on how we can better prepare our students to become active listeners.

By better preparing our students to become active listeners, student learning will increase and allow our students to use their attentive and listening skills to perform better in school. This will have a positive effect throughout their educational experience that will lead them down to the road of success.


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