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.

  • It is amazing how much teachers learn from listening to their students. I even learn from my early childhood students! We learn from each other.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I'm going to share them.

  • Two thoughts.

    1. "Learning is doing" might be more accurate that "learning is talking." In math, for example, the doing of exercises leads to knowledge change. Talking helps math learning, of course, leading to the second thought.

    2. One way to illustrate the importance of a teacher's listening. In Dr Weimer's 2002 book, there's a chemistry prof whose classes consist of walking around and helping students solve problems. I do the same. An important part of doing this is diagnosing students' misconceptions. Accurate diagnosis often requires listening to a student explain why s/he did something. There is teacher-to-student communication during diagnosis, when teachers ask questions to help diagnose. But the primary communication in diagnosis is student-to-teacher.

  • Larry Spence

    I’m sorry to get into the discussion late, but I think Meier’s statement should be taken literally. David Premack points out that human beings are the only teaching animal. Other animals imitate, but only human beings reverse the flow of information of students observing teachers to teachers who observe – and can therefore correct students.
    For example, chimpanzee mothers never look at their offspring as the youngsters try to imitate them. Human mothers do. Consequently it takes about 10 years for a chimp to learn to crack nuts with rocks. The key then to teaching is the teacher’s observation of, or listening to, the student. Without that step all that is possible is mimicry. Thus teaching is listening or as any good coach will tell you, observing. As Premack notes imitation only supplies a rough copy; teaching smoothes and polishes.
    Maryellen is right that teachers listen and observe to find out what students do or do not know and can or cannot do. That guides intervention. But learning is talking refers, I think, to student generated questions. Since we know students must reorganize their representations of reality in order to learn (doubt and then re-form prior knowledge); then student questions are indicators of learning. Student discussions are valuable but they won’t substitute for the questions.
    Once students enter school, where their questions are suppressed, teacher questions merely cue them to supply what the teacher wants to hear. We waste way too much time trying to come up with good questions to get students to think and learn when the context determines that questions must satisfy teachers’ standards for a right answer. If we say there are no right answers, students hear, “this will be a bull session”.
    So more learning will occur if we pay attention to students and let their questions drive the discourse.