George Lucas Educational Foundation

Deep Listening Activities for Academic Discussions

Deep Listening Activities for Academic Discussions

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Students working together

At the risk of ostracizing any colleagues currently struggling with flat-discussion classrooms—trust me, I’ve been there, too—I’d like to admit that my classroom is anything but quiet this year. My advanced seniors, in particular, can fill entire periods with their own excited voices. They discuss the craftsmanship of author style, the implications of context on content, and the ambiguities of our current texts (as well as Harambe, the gorilla—he oddly comes up in conversation often, too). My co-teacher of the course and I work hard—with Socratic seminars, philosopher’s chairs, interpretation circles, and countless back-channels (to name a few approaches)—to create such student-led, discussion-heavy rooms. The students become wonderfully confident and expertly articulate speakers, and I smile proudly when enveloped by their voices during our class- and group- discussions.

Recently, though, these students’ self-reflections after a practice oral exam offered a perspective that reminds me that, especially in education, there is always room for growth. One reflection spoke of the student beginning to respond before realizing what a prompt even asked. Another student noted her “head couldn’t keep up with her mouth” in her recording.  Throughout the reflections, the same voices clamouring for turns to talk in class told me: we can speak well, but we could listen better.

Deep listening is a technique beautifully rooted in American traditions like the Quaker faith and various Native tribes. At its core, deep listening entails listening over hearing and connecting over responding. In relationships, deep listening means acknowledging others’ emotions so they feel heard. In careers, deep listening means developing productive, honest communication by listening to understand, not merely to reply. In my classroom, deep listening can mean students better know each other’s ideas and therefore better know our studies.  It can mean a more inclusive atmosphere where all voices feel respected and where moments of silence are welcome.

Here are five activities I plan to implement in my own classroom—that any teacher of any discipline can use—in order to promote deeper listening in our academic discussions:

1. Follow the Thread Discussion

Add a ball of yarn to a regular classroom discussion. The first person to speak in the conversation holds the end of the yarn and throws/passes the ball to the next speaker. The ball is then moved throughout the room from speaker to speaker, creating a web that follows the path of the discussion.

After some conversation, stop moving the ball/discussion forward. Instead, ask the current holder of the yarn to explain the idea offered before him or her and pass the ball backwards. The process is then repeated with each speaker explaining the idea of the person who spoke before him or her. Sharing this process beforehand and prompting students to listen closely enough to peers’ ideas to be able to repeat them fosters deeper listening.

2. Conversation Circle

Create a circle with student chairs and offer a discussion topic. Each student takes a turn to speak about the selected topic, but must wait until that turn to talk. Ask students to not prepare statements ahead of time; instead encourage them to speak freely, yet concisely when the turn is theirs. Share that students may “pass” if they’d rather not speak. Ask students to focus their whole body’s attention, without judgement, on each speaker. Move the discussion turns from student to student around the circle, using a talking piece as a visual, if preferred.

3. Acknowledgment Transitions

Quite simply, in any discussion: ask students to acknowledge what the speaker before them said before offering their new ideas. For example, “Before me Vicki shared the haunting effect the alliterative b’s have in the poem’s first line. I’d like to say that...”

4. Paused Pair-and-Shares

Familiar to most teachers is the pair-and-share discussion technique in which students turn to a partner and develop oral responses before speaking in a larger group. The “paused” approach follows the same, simple technique with one exception: the listening student must be “paused” when the speaking student is sharing. That is, he or she may not offer affirmatives, tag on ideas, or interrupt with a new thought. The listening student may only offer non-verbal understanding of the speaker. When the speaker acknowledges that the listen can “unpause” -- perhaps with a simply head nod -- the roles can then reverse.

5. Inviting Quietness

Invite quiet moments into any and all discussions. Fight the urge to jump in with a new prompt during a lull. Ask students to pause and contemplate during a surge. Perhaps the strategy that makes us teachers most comfortable, allowing -- and moreover accepting -- quietness will prompt students to better pause and deeply think.

Have experiences like mine with clamouring voices? Have other suggestions on how to encourage students to think more deeply and speak more intentionally? Please comment below or connect with me on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR! I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Wow! A teacher after my own heart. What amazing ways to foster really useful and dynamic discussion. All these points are amazing and imperative to optimize discussion. Thanks so much for sharing!

Amy Heusterberg-Richards's picture
Amy Heusterberg-Richards
ELA Teacher - High School

Thanks, Katie! I hear you saying that you find these approaches useful for discussion... :)

I hope to put these ideas into practice on a more regular basis in my always-developing classroom, too. I'm happy to read you enjoyed the post.

Janell C.'s picture

Thank you for the thoughtful suggestions. I love to use exit cards where I ask students to share one idea they wish they had shared today. Then I begin the next day with those ideas as our discussion starters.

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