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Free Advice: Learning from Others Simply by Listening

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

I had a lesson recently on both the importance of listening to others and how to effectively give advice. Have you received advice that you initially thought you should ignore, but then decided to follow it and were glad you did? Here's what happened to me. Let me know what happened to you.

A few weeks back, I was in Tennessee to work with teachers on the use of technology to differentiate instruction. As always, being an avid amateur geologist, I asked the teachers I was working with where one might go to look for interesting rocks. Knowing there was a lot of limestone in the area, and that limestone means fossils, I wasn't surprised when a fellow told me of a local town park by a river where I might find some interesting pieces.

After the final session of the day, I went back to the hotel, changed into outdoors clothes, and headed for the park. Walking along the river's bank and stopping to look at piles of rocks that had been washed downstream, I found a lot of limestone, but no fossils. Because limestone, unless disrupted, occurs in horizontal layers, it seemed to me this river was working along a layer that was pretty much devoid of fossils. Preparing to head back to my car, I was satisfied to have had an interesting walk and to not have seen any of the snakes that can hang out along overgrown waterways in the South.

I made one last stop by a small boat ramp where folks can put canoes or kayaks in, and I bent down to look at the rocks along the shore. An older woman, wearing large, dark glasses, was sitting on the boat ramp with a small dog. She asked me if I had lost something. I said no and explained that I was looking for fossils, and then we got to talking. It turns out she is a retired teacher who had spent years working in U.S. Department of Defense schools in Okinawa, Japan. She introduced me to her dog, Precious, and told me that I ought to forget about fossils and continue down along the river a piece because the site of the Battle of Stones River was just around a curve or two. I was tempted to politely thank her for the suggestion and head for dinner, but instead, I gave up on my search for fossils and decided to visit the battlefield.

The area was fascinating -- quiet and empty except for me -- and I could only imagine the sounds, sights, and smells of that day in early January 1863 when it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War to be fought in Tennessee. I stood silent for a time before heading back along the path and then along the river.

Almost back to my car, I glanced down toward the river one last time and noticed an area that had obviously been recently flooded. I saw scattered rocks, and I decided to take one last look. And that is where I found, right on the surface, a fossilized bison tooth -- a tooth from Bison antiques, to be specific, which my reading tells me lived in Tennessee during the Pleistocene era, some 130,00 to 150,000 years ago.

What a wonderful result from a chance conversation with a total stranger! Her advice was so open: "You ought to go see this." She made no demand. There had been no insistence. It was just a suggestion.

So, how about you? Who has given you advice that made a difference in your teaching, and how was it given? And how do you go about giving advice to your students so that they may be willing to follow it? Please share. (But only if you want to.)

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jim, I enjoyed your Chance Encounter story. I wasn't able to think of a situation in which I had a similar experience, and so maybe that just illustrates the point that I should listen to the suggestions of others and take action when the opportunity is there. We often hear others, but do we listen to them? "I heard what you said, but do I understand your meaning?"

Karen Tubb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your reading your article about your quest for fossils. (I gave a warm smile as I read the part about not seeing snakes- I have a pretty strong phobia myself). Just this weekend I listened to someone describe a movie that they heartily recommended. I reacted with enthousism and rented it this Saturday night. Sad to say that this movie was not all that the person had led me to believe. Nevertheless, I am glad I watched it so that now I won't wonder with regret if it was really as good as purported. After all sometimes taking risks, or advice can lead to wonderful discoveries, or (sadly) disappointment.

Christina Martinez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so hard sometimes to ignore those hands that are still raised, but time does have a way of determining how much can be shared and by whom. Your comment sounded all too familiar.
One of my personal goals this year is to stop, look, and listen. Though I consider myself a multi-tasker, I realize that in order to really listen to someone, I have to stop what I am doing. Eye contact is so effective, whether with students or adults. I am hopeful that by making these changes that I will become a more effective listener.

Dave Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Listen until the person takes a breath and then you can interupt or just speak louder.(Teachers meetings?)

I teach fourth grade and watch interaction with my students which can turn into a screaming matches. One person will not give in until everyones agrees. I would like to think there is a better way but if they watch TV, what do they see?

heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I really enjoyed reading your "advice." It has brought to mind that as teachers we truly do need to give our students our undivided attention when they solicit our help. Yes, even if we are finishingup grading something or entering grades, or preparing for that next period class that keeps us on our toes!

Thanks so much for hte friendly reminder and "advice!"

lori's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am new to blogging but recently read a chapter on the importance of active listening as a teacher in all areas of our lives. It seems so simplistic but I vowed to make more of an effort and at least be aware of listening and putting more of an emphasis on relating with my students today. We had such a good day! As another person mentionned we are always rushing to get through all of the material. But, really what good is it if we don't really have their attention. By placing a greater priority on communication I believe they "heard" more of the lessons today and were more engaged. I enjoyed it too.

kayeT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i consider myself fortunate. i teach high school social studies at an inner city charter school. an advisee just recently did a graffiti mural on one of my walls that reads "social" and i have couches instead of desks. at points i think it might almost be an unfair advantage i have over these kids and how long they can hold out without really opening up to me. colleagues frequently thank me and ask me how i manage to develop these relationships. i tell them, and the shocked students, the couches are magical....but they are truly only half the story. i firmly believe in the power of an engaged listener. it is the most validating force a teenager receives. there are so many moments in their lives when they are told to do something, be quiet, move along, don't talk back, quit asking name it...we do it, their parents do it, their supposed friends do have even two minutes of the undivided attention of another human being, to watch their eyes mimic back your feelings, to hear them re frame thoughts and concerns, to have them ask questions that are relevant and insightful -- it manages to crack even the hardest exterior because for so many of these kids they never feel heard or seen....the simple act of making space validates their entire existence...and reminds us of the power of the individual.

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

During my first year of teaching, my mentor told me to make sure I laugh with my students. She gave me this piece of advice in a handwritten note. I still have that note to remind me of the importance of having fun and laughing with my students. In addition, when I was faced with numerous challenges during my first year, she told me to keep all of the positive notes and letters I've received from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators in an envelope in my cabinet at school. Whenever I had doubts about teaching or felt overwhelmed, she told me to take out this envelope and read these letters. All of these letters would remind me why I love teaching and why I am still here. Listening to her advice is one of the best things I could have done.

I give advice to my students on a daily basis. I give advice when appropriate regarding personal or academic matters. By ensuring that I listen to my students' concerns and needs carefully and with my full attention, I am able to provide them with appropriate suggestions and advice. Sometimes my students seek advice from me regarding relationships with peers, and I give them suggestions on how solve their problems. I feel my students know I want them to succeed in every facet of life, and they take my suggestions seriously.

Danielle Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. It's so hard to give each student a chance to really share when you have so little time to cover all your material for the day. To save a little time, I sometimes have the students share with a partner. This way each child gets a chance to say something. They really enjoy it and it only takes a minute or two.

abiglin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that I don't think we listen to others as well as we should. We may hear them, but not actually listen to them. I often get frustrated when my students do not listen to me. I often think to myself "Can anyone hear me besides me?" I think they can hear me, but I do not think that they actually listen to me. Listening is just as much a skill as writing is and we as teachers must teach this skill also.

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