Are There Really “Bad Listeners?”

I’ve heard these words many times before, and for that matter, I’ve also said them (in some form) many times: “_______ is a bad listener. He/she doesn’t pay attention. He/she can’t focus. If your child wants to improve, he/she needs to listen more.” As I continue to read Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, and Learning, I’m starting to see “listening” in a different way. Listening and self-regulation definitely coincide. As I sit back and reflect tonight, I can’t help but think of these questions and my answers to them.

  • How have we helped minimize visual distractions in the room?
  • How much time are we talking to students?
  • How can we use “sensory stimulation” to help some students that need it, pay attention more?
  • How are we using visuals during our lessons?
  • How are we minimizing additional noise?

You see, today I spoke to my students about Friday’s Celebration of Learning. I mentioned the idea that I blogged about last night, and students seemed eager to give it a try. In the middle of discussing possible sharing options, one child raised her hand and said, “But nobody’s going to listen during our talking time.” I asked her why she said this, and she mentioned that this was the case during our last Celebration of Learning. I then said that our format this time would be different. Her thought was that this wouldn’t matter.

That’s when I asked, “What can we do to help the visiting students pay attention?” My students mentioned ideas such as,

  • less talk time.
  • more exploring (in teacher speak, “hands-on learning”). 
  • good pictures and charts (a.k.a. visuals). Give them things to look at that will help them learn.
  • quiet voices. This is hard as there will be many students in one class, but we can at least try to spread out the displays and keep our talking voices low.

If we want students to be successful listeners, we need to create an environment in which this can happen. My Grade 5 students realized this today, and they’re eager to put their ideas into place for Friday. As I think more about this listening topic, I can’t help but wonder if “bad listening” is more the fault of the environment than the skills of the child. What do you think? How do you help all children achieve success as “good listeners?” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


2 thoughts on “Are There Really “Bad Listeners?”

  1. Aviva,

    Can we call them “bad listeners”? Sure.
    … but maybe it means that we need to engage them differently than making them “listen” to us.

    I think “good listening” is something that needs to be generated from both sides. It’s an active thing that needs work … and I know that “poor listening” happens at all levels in any presentation / learning environment.

    I think your students got it right (what a great way to help them understand the challenges and the need to engage the audience). The presenter definitely needs to take on much of the responsibility. A disengaged, “poor” presenter can make any topic uninteresting. I distinctly recall particular teachers and instructors who were gifted in the art of killing any subject. Trying to engage the listeners / students is very important, and like your students noted, it needs a variety of techniques including graphics and active, engaged teaching techniques. Since our goal is to reach as many as possible, the presenter (or instructor) needs to think about all styles of “listening” / engagement and how to reach those with different styles of “listening”. What makes those people connect?

    However, it also fall to the audience – and that I think is the biggest challenge. How do we “make” the students good “listeners”. I tell my students that they should always think of questions to ask when sitting in a presentation. Presumably that keeps them engaged and thinking about the topic in a critical manner. When their fellow students are speaking, I give grades to the “listening” students for asking questions and staying engaged in the discussions. How to do that in a classroom setting is the challenge … especially for those who just are not interested in the question.

    … and so it comes full circle. It’s up to those presenters to think about the best way to engage their audience and their way of “listening” … especially if they’re “bad listeners”.


    • Greg, you make a ton of great points here! I think that the engagement piece is key, and knowing your audience is so important. In my mind, timing is crucial as well. We need to keep it short. If we expect people to really listen and engage, we can’t be talking at them forever. The other question for me is always, does everyone need to hear this? If not, should I be talking to a small group of students and letting the others begin?

      I’ll admit that I’m not a good listener. At meetings, I often take the minutes because this helps me pay attention. It keeps me on task and it helps me remember the key details. If I don’t take the minutes, I can sit through an hour long meeting and not tell you one thing that happened. I remember this when I think about my students in the classroom. I know that I have students like me (that struggle with remaining focused with a lack of visuals and too much talking), and I need to consider how I’m going to get them to listen, participate, and learn through my limited talking time each day. Today, my students were considering these same things when doing some initial thinking about Friday. I’m excited to see and hear more of their plans tomorrow.

      Thanks for the comment! I love hearing stories of other experiences!

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