July 27th, 2010

Talking and Listening


One of the things about blogging that I really like is how blogs feed off each other. Here’s a great example: several entries back I shared some of the principles of effective instruction offered by Ronald J. Markert, a medical educator. One of those principles, “Good teachers do not talk as much as their less effective colleagues do—Good teachers talk less because their students are talking more,” reminded my friend and colleague Ricky Cox of a favorite quote by Deborah Meier, Teaching is listening, learning is talking.” Ricky posted both quotes on a blog he hosts for faculty at Murray State University: http://msuctlt.blogspot.com/.

The Meier quote is an interesting one. Ricky commented that he once used it in a faculty workshop, and it generated some push back—some faculty thought it was too simplistic. It is a very short quote but powerful, I think, because it so starkly contrasts with the teaching as telling paradigm.

What might the “teaching is listening” part of the quote mean? Could it be about listening as students talk or write through to understanding? Could it mean asking the kind of questions that allow students to figure things out for themselves? (Yes, that was a point made in the last blog entry). Could it mean listening to ascertain what students do and do not yet know or listening so that feedback can be in response to their understanding? I had a surly exchange with my hubby yesterday. I was complaining that one of the burners on the gas stove is slow to light. He immediately launched into an explanation about how to light the burners, which I already know how to do and do successfully on a daily basis. It seemed to me a perfect example of where there should have been more listening and less teaching.

The “learning is talking” part of the quote is easier. It rounds back to teaching in a nice sort of way. How often have we discovered that our own understanding of something is deepened and enriched when we try to explain it to someone else? So, students need opportunities to talk (and write) because articulating understandings clarifies them both in terms of what does and does not make sense to the learner.

I don’t think the Meier quote should be interpreted literally. Isn’t the author just trying to make a point? And some points do finally penetrate when they are stated starkly. Of course, teaching is not exclusively listening. By its very nature it involves talking, but as Ricky points out in his blog and as the Markert principle asserts, most teachers (I am tempted to write “all”) talk too much. More learning would occur if we talked less, listened more, and let learning be about students talking.