The Art of Teaching Active Listening

In the previous article in this series, we investigated how to listen better as a teacher. We discovered that the major cause of hearing over listening was our own internal blocks, usually caused by the ego. Our own internal dialogue and distractions often serve to distract us through a series of anxiety-inducing social comparisons. This has become even more pronounced in younger generations with the constant social validation required for popularity through the influence of social media. Yet the promotion of the internet and technology has become almost a necessity in classroom delivery, especially within the TEFL classroom. While technology evolves on an almost daily basis, humans are becoming increasingly reliant on it for every aspect of their lives. The purpose of this article is to explore how we, as teachers, can support our students to develop their active listening skills.

Times are a-changing and kids these days have shorter and shorter attention spans. During my research for this article I came across several disheartening facts about the psychological and neurological changes happening in the human brain. In 2015, Times Magazine reported that the average human has the attention span of just 8 seconds! In last week's blog on Active Listening for Teachers, we touched briefly on the rise of the internet. That was largely to gain an understanding of the Gen Xer’s and the Millennials who are largely involved in the TEFL scene. In my research for this week's article, I wanted to dive deeper into the Internet Addiction affecting many more of our students.  

Now, we have a choice. We can sit and stew for hours poring over facts and statistics that all lead us to the same conclusion; teaching is becoming more challenging as time progresses. Especially in 2020. Or we can make a choice to seize control over what we can control, our classrooms. Before we begin, grab a pen and paper and do yourself a favour. Brainstorm and ask yourself- what IS in my control? What follows is my list of suggestions from my own brainstorm and why I think these tips are valuable.


#1 Model the behaviour you want to implement. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But how often do we actually reflect on our own active listening skills in the classroom? Do you interrupt your TA? Do you finish your students sentences? Do you make judgements about how slowly they speak, read or write? When your already anxious students see your patience in listening to them, it naturally encourages them to practice that same patience with themselves in learning. This develops a stronger rapport and trust within the teacher/ student relationship and helps them to open up to trying and experimenting with greater language learning risks. This is also a great opportunity to ask them to evaluate their own learning, and give themselves or their peers opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback. 

#2 Be careful with your comparisons. Whether you have a new group of students this year, or memories of their negative behaviour from last semester; be careful in your comparisons. Reminding them of their past teacher and comparing how much better you are, only serves to create competition or a pedestal. Instead, try asking them for feedback about any games or activities they liked or disliked. This keeps their focus on the learning, and you might even pick up a game or two to implement in your own classes! On negative behaviour, remind yourself first and foremost that all humans have the power to change. Reminding them of why you “dislike” them only reinforces the negative behaviour while giving them the attention they want. A student who is acting out is likely doing so for the attention, try giving them extra tasks or responsibilities to complete to keep them engaged, and don’t forget to reward them with additional praise.


#3 Set expectations and boundaries early. This one seems like common sense, but it can be surprising how often these are not defined or understood. Some of the most successful classes I have taught began with creating class rules and consequences together. Engaging students in this as an activity generates greater respect as rules are being developed, and gives students a greater understanding of why. Understand that “students must do their homework so they can pass their tests so they get good grades so their parents are happy so they can grow up and get a good job” is so far disconnected from where they are at now. Finding out what motivates them today, whether that’s a particular card game, a movie or a comic book series and offer those as rewards. Also, letting students decide their own punishments whether that’s singing a horribly retro Spice Girls song to the class because they didn’t do their homework or staying after class to tidy up every day for a week empowers their decision-making skills. 

#4 Empower students as little human beings. Because that’s what they are and one day they will grow up and rule the world. It’s our responsibility to show the very best of humanity to our students, so that they will be inspired to become lifelong learners. And not just in any one particular subject, but opening up to curiosity and possibilities across the board. By listening to their dream of becoming an inventor and teaching them to ask questions like “how can I find my own solution?”, we can share with them that they are already inventing their own solutions. In turn, we can ask them what other words or ideas they might need, and how participating in our classes and doing the homework we set will help them learn to learn better. 

#5 Teach them how to ask better questions. By creating safe learning environments in our classrooms and empowering them as little humans, we begin to instil a stronger sense of self-confidence in the developing identities of our students. So often we teach students to parrot the phrases of those older and wiser. However, without learning to ask good questions they are missing out on valuable information. Almost every child has a natural inclination to ask why, so why not start the year by creating an Icebreaker game which has your students interviewing their peers? For younger students, they could bring a photo and have their partner ask questions about it. Older students could put together a class profile book and ask questions related to values or interests.  

These were the top 5 ideas I had in my brainstorm on ways to encourage active listening in the classroom. Obviously they won't all work for every situation; one of the joys of teaching is the flexibility and creativity to create activities that are tailored to your unique group/s of students. I hope that they’ve inspired you and you can add them to your own list. I would love you to share your ideas with me by reaching out on social media everywhere @pamcoacheshumans.