My voice has been quiet for the last two weeks or so, but my mind certainly has not been. It’s funny. Writer’s block is usually trying to tell you something, and I used to think that it was trying to get me to be more vulnerable, that it was trying to get me to open up, but it turns out that this time, that wasn’t quite the case. In fact, this time, it was radically different.
It was trying to get me to listen. And listen is what I did.
Anyone who knows me well understands that I am a pretty vocal person, and they’d actually probably tell you that’s a drastic understatement. I like to share my opinions, I like to be the dissonant voice, and I like to make others think critically about their decisions, but the bad side of that can sometimes be that it impairs my ability to truly listen. I think this shortcoming of mine can even go so far as to affect my ability to teach.
We’ve been trained to believe that teaching is a prescriptive process — one where the teacher must be the all-knowing being in the classroom. We’ve been trained to believe that if we know all of the best practices and the latest tools, that it will be simple to teach any child anything — that it will be easy to help them learn. But what we don’t always realize, or maybe what sometimes gets pushed into the back of our minds, is that children are hardwired to learn. They’re hardwired to be curious, and by only telling — and meanwhile, rarely listening — we lose the ability to truly get to know our students, and we rob them of the ability to truly be empowered by their own thoughts and ways of being.
And so the past couple weeks, I’ve taken time to listen.
Sure, I’ve always believed that students want to feel seen and heard, and I’ve made sure to make listening and hearing my students a priority. However, I’ve never done it to this level before. I’ve never taken it so far as to sit back and merely document interactions and learning.
My first opportunity for this was with the “archaeological dig” that took place in my classroom, intending to give students the ability to observe, infer, and ask questions about artifacts they “found” in this dig. Buried in plastic containers of moonsand, my teaching partner placed artifacts such as fake tools and animal bones to help give students clues and write a story for an ancient civilization. It trained their brains to assimilate these artifacts into the context of their respective knowledge bases and into the context of their imaginations.
“I found wood!” one student said.
“No, it’s a bone,” another replied.
“I found another thing!” the exchange continued.
As I watched these moments unfold, I learned not only about student misconceptions, but also about the depth of my students’ background knowledge and the way in which they perceive the world’s workings. This pair, in particular, was convinced that wood, sunflower seeds, shells, and a cloth were representative of African civilizations.
“Wait, but there’s ashes,” the first student said again. “I think it might be Pompeii.”
And just like that, my teaching partner and I were able to watch as this student’s thinking rapidly changed. We were both fascinated by the fact that only one object could change the entire landscape of his conclusions, shifting him across continents and changing his perception. But that was the magic of the lesson: There were no rules, no consequences for right or wrong answers, and the only learning outcomes were curiosity, inquiry, and drawing conclusions. But most of all, the time I designated to simply sit back and listen taught me something about teaching.
Sometimes, it isn’t our job to prescribe objectives, and really it is never our job to do our students’ thinking for them. We need not tell, and we need not preach. Instead, we can truly “teach” by sitting back, provoking learning, and simply listening.
And with that time, our students can tell us more about themselves than we could ever manage to figure out on our own.