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The Need to Teach Students How to Practice Active Listening

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The simple act of nodding your head in acknowledgement while someone is explaining an idea to you is something practiced by humans from a relatively early age. Perhaps saying "yes" in agreement or repeating what was stated to exhibit your understanding is somewhat simplistic, yet significantly powerful in human interaction. We at times forget how unsuccessful communication between adults would be if we did not fulfill our roles in active listening. However, what about young adults--do they practice this? Yes, absolutely. Although, not necessarily while in the classroom.

The Explanation

In my daily discussions I consistently use the phrase "bounce off each other".   I try to impress upon my students that classroom discussions should take on the form of an extremely sensitive ball that just keeps bouncing off the walls no matter where it hits. Much like the ball, when one individual makes a comment, one of my other students will preferably paraphrase the previous student's point, leaving the other students time to possibly infer a different meaning on the topic or add another element to the conversation that branches us into a new direction. The larger goal is to keep the discussion rolling, but not for the purpose of just simply talking. Rather to use each other's analysis of the information to come to a more in-depth conclusion about the topic. In its essence, we are building a house of ideas, if you will. Where the slab on the very bottom is not only essential, but just as important as the roof.

Why We Don't Speak

Despite the fact that this sounds simplistic, which in theory it is to some degree, the actual practice within the context of a classroom is not. Why would it not be? If we take two students speaking with one another outside of the class, the subject matter being discussed is presumably at a level at which both are comfortable. There is little to no fear of rejection and they possibly have a familiarity with the knowledge being spoken about. To add to the comfort of this scenario, one does not have 30 others present to agree or potentially disagree. Discussions within a classroom put students in a state of mind that leaves them cautious and reserved. The natural tendencies that are practiced in regards to active listening between two or three individuals are dismissed, due to the unfamiliarity of the topic and fear of being ridiculed for one's response. Of course, this being aspect in life in which we can all relate, although it is magnified in young adults.

The Solution

The very first day walking into the classroom, I explain that there are no wrong comments. (Well, that is unless someone wants to talk about SpongeBob, but that's fairly close to where the exception ends.) Continuing the description of the classes' design, the point of disagreements being inevitable is highlighted. More importantly, disagreements being desirable! Of course this goes against the classroom structure in which most students are familiar. The professor is all-knowing, therefore should be giving us the correct and accurate information, is the prevailing belief among the majority of students. We are all guilty of believing this fallacy at one point or another. That being said, as historian I freely promote that I do not know every detail in history. My training is on how to study and interpret history; consequently I am endlessly learning various and substantial new perspectives of how to look at historical events. In emphasizing this, my hope is to show that success in the class is not the amount of prior knowledge brought to the course, but the consistent effort to acquire it.

Incorrect May Be Correct

The use of corroboration is what assists in solidifying this argument I give to the students. Physically, showing them journals of the discipline being studied is the strongest evidence to support the fact that "all-knowing professors" in any field are myths. Why would we have journals if this were true, I explain. If we, including myself, knew everything then we should all, frankly, go home. The numbers of academics that have new findings or perspectives on topics, which in turn are rejected by publishers, are countless. Yet, that is ok. This being the most significant lesson any educator could prove to their students. That wrong arguments are just fine. In a collaborative setting, not only are incorrect arguments inevitable, but they are a vital element needed achieve the correct answer.

I use an example one of my past professors gave to me. He gave us an assignment to read a lengthy article out of a peer-reviewed journal. Although I will not reveal the name of either the author or journal, both were well respected. The next day coming into class, he asks what we thought of the work read the previous evening. Of course, we all gave it plenty of praise, the ever-loyal group of students. His response, "I'm glad you enjoyed it. The argument is completely wrong." 

Now years later, as a historian, I can tell you that my professor was right in his analysis. The argument was unsubstantiated and has been proven incorrect since, despite the good research the author used to back the theory. Nevertheless, the greater meaning of that lesson was to show that the incorrect research did two things. First and foremost, it taught us to be critical of even the most respected work. That corroboration between scholars is not an absolute answer, but merely what they believe to be the most probable. Yet, most importantly is it showed that incorrect arguments enhance learning. In other words, if we had never thought about the radical argument published in that journal, we would have never really considered the contrasting side of the work, which in turn had a rather large bearing on the outcome of the historical event.


My father used to tell me a quote by an insurance salesman he once met. You have to be bad, before you can be good; you have to be good, before you can be great. With a nurturing classroom environment, where there is freedom for students to share thoughts and perspectives without ridicule, even the most difficult material can be attained through collaboration. Yet for this student-centered learning to succeed, active listening is an indispensable ingredient.   Let us show our students that there is no shame in starting somewhere, being correct or not. Regardless, of our level of expertise, one never learns if we do not begin the discussion.

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Dale Schlundt holds a Master's Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College. Dale's new book Education Decoded (A (more...)
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