Training the Brain to Listen: A Practical Strategy for Student Learning and Classroom Management
Students are expected to pay attention to and retain a significant amount of information throughout the academic year. But how much time has been invested in providing students with strategies that will allow them to detach themselves from their own internal dialogue (self-talk) and direct their full attention to the academic material that is being presented? Even for adults, listening can be a challenging activity. There are difficulties in maintaining order in the classroom when the students are unable to listen attentively.
Because it emphasises that students are in charge of their own behaviour and learning, explicit instruction on cognitive strategies that can help students learn how to learn may have a positive impact on both academic performance and classroom management. This is because cognitive strategies can help students learn how to learn. Teachers with whom we’ve collaborated report that students gradually become more adept at thinking skills that enable them to become more self-directed learners, which in turn leads to a gradual decline in the number of classroom management issues.
Many people are under the impression that it is unnecessary to instruct them in order to acquire certain skills; a prime example of this is the ability to listen carefully. The Common Core State Standards for Language Arts acknowledge the significance of listening as a skill that students need to perfect in order to be prepared for college and a career:
Students are required to learn how to cooperate with one another, articulate their thoughts clearly while also paying close attention to what others have to say, integrate information obtained from verbal, visual, quantitative, and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically in order to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt their speech to fit the specifics of the situation and the activity at hand.
This Common Core standard is intertwined with the acquisition of verbal and social skills that are essential for students’ success in a variety of contexts. This interweaving can be viewed from the perspective of developmental learning. Listening is an essential skill, both in and outside of the classroom, yet it is frequently expected of students without ever being explicitly taught. Donna’s experience as a former classroom educator, school psychologist, and licenced counsellor allowed her to work with a large number of students whose academic difficulties stemmed from an inability to listen attentively, as well as with couples and families who were struggling for the same reason.
The Anatomy and Psychology of Listening
The way in which the brain processes the sounds that are all around us could be the starting point for a lesson on listening. We find that a lot of students and teachers are interested in learning about how their brains function on the inside. The auditory cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex in the human brain that is responsible for processing auditory input. It is in this region that the process of receiving and decoding spoken words takes place. The auditory cortex can be found in the superior portions of the temporal lobes on both the left and right sides of the brain. It is responsible for receiving signals from the ears and then relaying those signals to other regions of the cerebral cortex so that sound can be translated into meaning. This system is essential to the more profound and day-to-day aspects of hearing, such as the language development of infants and the enjoyment of a breathtaking symphony.
The presence of background noise is the most typical barrier to attentive listening. A classroom might sound like a cacophony with the teacher and students talking at the same time, chairs moving across the floor, papers and pencils rustling, students dropping papers, and doors opening and closing. Even though the auditory system in the brain is able to tune out irrelevant sounds so that it can concentrate on particular triggers, it is still possible for all of these sounds to be distracting.
The minds of students can also generate “noise” in the form of a song that won’t leave them alone, pleasant daydreams, or unsettling doubts about their capacity to comprehend a new idea or finish an assignment. The HEAR strategy, which will be described further down, is intended to assist students in recognising distracting noise and blocking it out while they focus their attention on listening.
Teaching Students to Focus and Listen
Providing direct instruction on how to use the HEAR strategy provides concrete steps to improve listening, as well as a focus on why and how developing this skill is so important. According to the words of Michigan educator Aaron Rohde, “It is not enough to simply declare that one will become a better listener; one must actually put in the effort to improve their listening skills. To get better at such an important skill, one needs to put in a lot of effort.”
The HEAR strategy is broken down into the following four steps:
Stop whatever else you are doing, put an end to the conversation you are having with yourself about other things, and clear your mind so that you can pay attention to the person who is speaking.
Engage: Pay attention to the person speaking. As a physical reminder to focus entirely on the person speaking, we recommend that you turn your head ever-so-slightly to the right so that your right ear is facing in that direction. This will help you concentrate on what is being said.
Anticipate: When you show that you are looking forward to hearing what the speaker has to say, you are acknowledging that it is likely that you will learn something new and interesting, which will increase the amount of attention you pay to what is being said.
Reconsider: Give some thought to what it is that the speaker is saying. Consider providing your own analysis and paraphrasing of what was said, either to the presenter or to your fellow students, or both. Hearing the information again will make it easier to comprehend and retain the new information you have acquired.
image provided courtesy of BrainSMART
Aaron Rohde giving a demonstration of the difficult work involved in HEARing.
In the beginning, teachers may need to demonstrate the HEAR strategy several times and remind students when it is time to HEAR, but as time goes on, listening should become more natural to them. In the fall of 2016, when Mr. Rohde instructed his third and fourth grade students in this method, he did so while wearing a hardhat to emphasise the difficulty of mastering good listening skills. However, he also tells his students that “Becoming a ‘listening genius’ will be beneficial in all areas of life — in school, in personal relationships, and in professional work situations.” We wholeheartedly support this viewpoint!
A Few Words in Your Ear
Some Words to Whisper in Your Ear
Here are three questions for you to consider.
Is it a part of the curriculum at your school to teach cognitive strategies, such as how to be an effective listener?
If students in your class became better listeners, what do you think would happen to the learning that takes place there?
How might you implement the HEAR strategy in your own classroom, making any necessary adjustments along the way?