I recently attended an educational conference on student-led discussions. Coming from a school that foregrounds Harkness, an educational approach in which students sit around a table and discuss texts, problems, and other content, I was excited to learn new strategies to implement in my high school English classroom. In particular, I hoped to explore the role of listening in student-led conversations. While Harkness prides itself on being equitable because everyone has a seat at the table, it can fall short of this, favoring vocal students over those who are quiet.
On the second day of the conference, I had a jarring experience. During a discussion, I found it difficult to participate because the same three or four people dominated the conversation, interrupting each other. Later, as we reflected on this experience, I explained that I had wanted to contribute but was unable to because of those who drove the discussion, emphasizing that for quieter students (and adults), such situations are challenging because, without natural pauses or with others curbing their participation, they might not know how to join in.
The facilitator responded, “Those students just need to learn how to speak.”
I immediately felt shut down by this reply, as if I, as an adult who still struggles to be heard in lively discussions, had somehow failed because I hadn’t been able to share my comments.
Following the conference, I spent time reflecting on the role of listening in student-led discussions, concluding that listening is essential to the success of these conversations. But first, I had to challenge the assumptions that many people often have about student participation.
Speaking and listening: both have value
At my own school, students (and teachers) assume that the “best” participants in classroom discussions are those who speak the most and that a successful conversation is one in which everyone speaks. But what are the implications of valuing speaking over listening? When we put a higher premium on speaking over listening, these are the results:
- We affirm students who are extroverted, confident, and/or vocal for what they bring to classroom discussions, while we overlook and minimize those who are introverted, thoughtful, and/or quiet.
- We set up student-led discussions as a zero-sum game, where those who speak the most are considered successful and those who listen more are deemed inadequate.
- Many students will focus on saying as much as possible, without considering whether their contributions are productive. They’ll also struggle to build off what others have said, as you have to listen in order to create a successful conversation.
- Students who have valuable contributions may not share them, as they might not feel comfortable having to fight their way into the conversation.
What are the benefits of valuing listening as an essential skill in student-led discussions?
- We affirm all students, emphasizing that each brings something unique and valuable to the conversation.
- There’s room for everyone to succeed because the conversation is no longer a competition with winners and losers.
- Students see the value in taking time to consider whether their contributions are productive before making them. They’re also better equipped to make connections to what others have said because they’re listening to each other.
- Quieter students are able to enter the conversation on their own terms, as they don’t have to fight to be heard.
Be clear about the benefits of listening
With all this in mind, it’s critical that we as teachers reframe our expectations about student-led discussions and be explicit with students about the value of listening. Rather than relying on euphemisms like “share the air” and “step up and step back,” actually use the word “listen” and talk to students about the important role this skill plays in classroom discussions.
In addition, we should set participation goals with all students, including those who are confident and share frequently during discussions. For instance, if you have a student who speaks a lot, talk to them about the importance of being a listener and encourage them to look to their quieter peers as examples of effective listening.
Finally, we need to evaluate students on both their verbal contributions and their ability to actively listen. I developed the following criteria when evaluating my students for active listening:
- Invite others
- Make eye contact with the speaker
- Nod your head
- Turn to the text
- Take notes
- Sit up/forward in a manner that shows engagement
- Don’t engage in side conversations
- Allow for a pause (about 3 seconds) before making a verbal contribution
- Allow for three or more people to speak before making a subsequent verbal contribution
At the beginning of this school year, my students and I did a four corners activity based on assumptions many of us have about student-led discussions. I projected a series of statements such as “Everyone should always speak during a discussion” and “It is just as important to listen as it is to speak during discussions.” Students then went to one of four corners in the room: strongly agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree, and strongly disagree.
Afterward, my students reflected on what they learned from this activity, concluding that the most successful student-led discussions incorporate both speaking and listening. It was powerful to hear them articulate why they thought listening was an essential classroom skill, with many of them emphasizing the importance of making space for others to enter the conversation and being mindful to not dominate the discussion.
Since then, before any student-led discussion, my students choose one speaking and one listening norm that our class commits to upholding, and I’m astounded by the way that valuing listening has transformed the rhythm of our conversations. My students make connections more easily, hold themselves back if they’ve already shared numerous times, and challenge each other’s ideas in productive and respectful ways.
Our conversations are richer because my students are listening to each other. They know that when we value stepping back and listening, we create room for more people to join in the conversation.