People love stories.

Long before there was recording of any kind – writing, audio or video recording, the only way to know something about the past was to remember it from someone telling you.  The problem with all of these ways of recording we have available to us today is that, as Julian Treasure says in his TED talk on listening, “The premium on accurate and careful listening has simply disappeared.”  Also, in today’s media-rich and densely populated world there are so many things competing for our attention.   Julian Treasure points out, “ the world is now so noisy, with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen; it’s tiring to listen.”  However, much of the value and purpose in a story comes from the listener.  Being an active and effective listener is an art and is such a key component to not only our learning but our humanity.  Is it becoming a lost art and can we as educators do anything about it?

Isay’s Story

Recently, I was driving in my car listening to NPR and there was a segment on David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps.  It’s an incredible project he started over 10 years ago where people step into the StoryCorps mobile recording studio to conduct interviews with people in their lives, record their stories and have them housed at the Library of Congress if they so choose.  The latest development of this project is the StoryCorps app that allows you to make these recordings on mobile devices to open the project to even more people and further enrich this collection of oral history.  Isay shared a story that got me thinking.  He was interviewing some people in New York who lived in flophouses and put those interviews into a book.

Here’s a piece of the transcript of the interview with Isay. “I remember bringing the galley of the book up into the flophouse, and I handed it to one of the guys and he opened it up to his page and he took the book out of my hand and he held it over his head and he ran down the hall and he started shouting, ‘I exist! I exist!’ And that was kind of a clarion call for StoryCorps. That’s what it’s all about.”  Isay has stated that he looks to interview people who are not often given the opportunity to be heard, like the homeless living in those flophouses.

Listening in Schools

All of this got me thinking about how we teach listening in school.  There is much discussion about productive talk but less attention paid, I think, to the listener.  If someone is talking but no one is really listening, how productive is that?  When Isay talked about people who are not often given a voice, it made me think of children.  Many children have people in their lives who do listen to them, but many do not.  As we teach our children to listen for information for academic gain, we could also teach about the humanizing effect of listening with empathy and of feeling heard.

As you reflect on the past academic year and make plans for the next, you may want to consider starting next year with an in-depth look at listening.  Have students really think about the many different purposes for listening like entertainment – to laugh, be moved, relax; learning – to learn new things, satisfy curiosity or help them solve a problem; humanity – to be a friend, to honor others or be a witness to someone’s experience.  Then give them ample opportunity to experience lots of different listening purposes.

Perhaps you could have the students interview one another and/or have them think about people they feel don’t often have people listen to them.  Perhaps they could conduct interviews at a local nursing home with residents who don’t have many visitors.  You may even want to try the StoryCorps app!  In order to help your students become more discriminant listeners you could try some of the exercises Julian Treasure explains in his TED talk.

If we educators want to make sure the the art of listening does not become a lost art, which could lead to the demise of the arts like music and theatre as well, we can be sure to spend more time teaching listening.  This may not only preserve the art of listening and help the children become better students but it might help them be better people as well.