Are We Listening?

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Photograph by Olivia Mulcahy

…The many sounds that meet our ears
the sights our eyes behold,
Will open up our merging hearts,
And feed our empty souls…

From I Believe by Stevie Wonder & Yvonne Wright, 1972

The other day, in the middle of scrambling breakfasts, brewing coffee, and singing along loudly to the album Talking Book, this thought wandered across my mind: If everyone started each day listening to Stevie Wonder, it might just fix the world.

And I asked my kids, if you had to pick only one musical artist to listen to for the rest of your life, who would it be? We play this game all the time–posing impossible decisions to each other–but this time I really contemplated it and announced my answer: Stevie. After a brief panic (Wait! What about Tinariwen?! Lila Downs?! Manu Chao?! ALL the Playing for Change artists?! The Melodians?! Special Beat?! Vivaldi?! Steve Goodman?! Janis?!…) I felt clear about my original instinct. Not only was I feeling the potential of Stevie’s music to help everyone start their day with a kinder, more human, more exuberant vibe, but it also struck me that Stevie’s songs, no matter how often I hear them, always offer something new. There is such a bounty of delectable auditory treats, so much layering and detail and nuance in his music that I seem to notice something I hadn’t before, every time I listen.

It occurred to me that Stevie Wonder’s ability to produce music that truly demands to be listened to deeply must mean that he must be deeply and extraordinarily skilled at listening. So this made me recall a question that lately keeps surfacing in my consciousness. It comes at me from different points of origin, for different reasons, at different angles, but it keeps arriving in my mind as an idea that is essential, and perhaps urgent, to address:

Are we listening? 

I mean–really listening?

And a whole string of additional questions follow, like…

What does it mean to be a good listener? Are we raising good listeners and how do we know? Do we fully appreciate the influence listening skills can have on how we communicate and know the world? Are adults modeling good listening for kids? Are adults listening TO kids?

Whether we interpret these questions at the individual or classroom level or zoom out to consider them with regard to our larger society, I have an inkling that our answers will not be satisfying. If listening is as important as I suspect it is, why don’t we give it more of our attention? Why don’t we seem more concerned?

Teachers will likely agree that Listening gets notoriously short shrift in lesson planning. And it’s not hard to see why it’s not winning any curricular popularity contests.

Of the four domains, Reading is definitely the darling. Reading, with Writing on their arm, is what creates the distinction between the concepts of literate and illiterate, which shape traditional definitions of what it means to be educated. Reading is seen as the key to nearly every traditional gateway to success, and while there is no clamor for high-stakes testing of Writing, it is clear that Writing and Reading go hand in hand—that this is the royal pair at the Literacy Prom.

Speaking can be a bit of a curricular wall flower. It’s no wonder why—the Royals, as “high-stakes” domains, demand a lot of attention and since a low speaking grade is not likely sending anyone to summer school, Speaking isn’t getting asked to cut too many rugs. But, as a productive (thus easier to observe and thus easier to assess) domain, they won’t spend all their time at the edges. A debate-centered unit or a final project presentation will invite Speaking to take the floor for an occasional spotlight dance.

Meanwhile, Listening, low-stakes and unnoticed, hard to assess and misunderstood, is probably helping out at the refreshment table or working A/V duties making sure the tunes keep coming and the disco ball keeps twinkling.

The listening domain is arguably the hardest to understand and easiest to misunderstand. Because it is “invisible” we rely on productive means of communication to detect whether and how well a person is listening. This creates a high risk of incorrectly perceiving a child’s skill in listening; there is great potential to conflate their ability to listen with their ability to write or speak about their listening.

Just as we may tangle up listening skills with skills in the other domains, we seem to regularly tangle up our attentiveness to listening with our discipline practices. For a long time we have sent the message to children: You must listen to us but we are not necessarily willing to listen to you, a.k.a. children should be seen and not heard. We may not utter this wildly old-fashioned phrase anymore but we often uphold it through our policies and actions, making it a mainstay of many a school’s implicit curriculum. How often does some version of “No Talking” still make it on to lists of classroom rules? How much do we perpetuate a culture that reveres a quiet classroom as an ideal learning environment? How often do we assume that silent, obedient children are listening to us or that “ill-behaved” children just don’t know how to listen? How often is the default listening grade an A, under threat of being lowered if the child doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) follow, conform to, comply with, obey the instructions and rules.

So it’s complex and there are so many facets to examine and consider but I hope we are willing to really figure out the listening thing in schools and feature it in our vision for success. I find the idea of a world full of skilled, careful, thoughtful listeners quite compelling. A world like a glittering gymnasium, Wonder tunes spinning, everyone feeling included, vibing with the music and each other…

So I think I’ll pause for now on that hopeful, if corny, note, but here are some links representing a whole bunch of tangents to this theme that may be of interest…

NPR’s Here and Now Piece: An Acoustic Ecologist Who’s Losing His Hearing Wants to Help Us All Be Better Listeners

Evelyn Glennie’s Ted Talk: How To Truly Listen

Starkey’s Hearing Loss Simulator

Sean Forbe’s Deaf and Loud

Meriah Nichols’ post: Why Nyle Di Marco Needs a Wheelchair

American Speech-Language Hearing Association’s article: Understanding Auditory Processing Disorders in Children

Carla Shalaby’s: Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

WIDA’s: Performance Definitions – Listening and Reading Grades K–12

Ethnologue’s: How Many Languages in the World Are Unwritten?

Kristin Lems’: New Ideas for Teaching English Using Songs and Music

Psychology Today’s article: Why Does This Baby Cry When Her Mother Sings? Communicating emotion through face and melody

Patricia Kuhl’s TED Talk: The Linguistic Genius of Babies

Listening What it is
Listening, What it is.

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