Poor proxies for listening
How many of these do you recognise?
This newsletter is made possible because of Eedi. Check out our brand-new set of diagnostic quizzes, videos, and practice questions for every single maths topic, ready to use in the classroom, and all for free, here.
Last week we looked at some poor proxies for understanding. This week, I want to focus on poor proxies for listening.
Why checks for listening are important
Here is the kind of profound insight you tune in each week for: it is really important students are listening. Mind-blowing, hey? To delve into this a bit more, it is important students are listening for two reasons:
If students are not listening, they will not understand
If we don’t check students are listening, we do not know why they don’t understand
The second point is important: if we have not checked for listening but then subsequently check for understanding and find out that a student does not know the answer, we are left to guess as to why. Do they have a fundamental misconception? Or have they simply not been paying attention? Our response would be different in each case, so checking for listening provides a useful diagnostic tool.
Again, this is all pretty obvious stuff. But here’s the thing: in most of the lessons I visit (and I visit over 100 lessons each month), time and time again I see examples of students not listening to the teacher’s instructions, the teacher’s explanations, or each other. And just to make this crystal clear, I am not talking about students not understanding instructions, explanations or a response from their peers, I am talking about literally not listening.
Three examples of students not listening from recent classroom visits
Students not listening to explanations:
Teacher: The reason we multiply by 0.85 is because we need to reduce the price by 15%. 100% - 15% = 85%, and 85% as a decimal is 0.85
When copying down the worked example 30 seconds later, one girl put her hand up and asked where the 0.85 came from.
Students not listening to instructions:
Teacher: Write your answers in your book, not on your mini-whiteboards
Four minutes later, the teacher discovered seven students who were writing their answers on their mini-whiteboards, who then had to copy everything into their books.
Students not listening to each other:
Teacher: How many metres in a kilometre?
One minute later, two students were stuck on the first question because they did not know how many metres in a kilometre.
Could any of these scenarios happen in your classroom?
Why does this happen?
In each of these cases, the teacher had not checked whether students were listening. They made the mistake that I made for about 15 years of relying on poor proxies for listening. Here are six such poor proxies:
What are your initial thoughts on this list?
Let’s take a look at each one in turn:
Students are quiet
You can make a good case that students being quiet is a necessary condition for listening, but it is certainly not a sufficient one. Students could be quiet but paying attention to a million other things besides the instructions, explanations or answers of their classmates we hope they are listening to.
Students are looking at you
A roomful of students looking at us perhaps increases the chance of them listening, but again it does not guarantee it. Their eyes may be with us, but where is their mind?
Students nodding & smiling
Have you ever nodded and smiled your way through a meeting or a CPD session as your mind drifted off to a better place? Exactly.
Students telling you they are listening
I often hear teachers say things like: Tom, are you listening? Of course Tom is going to say yes. But that doesn’t tell us anything useful.
You are listening
This is particularly important when it comes to listening to the response of a classmate. We are listening intently, we have heard every word, but what about everyone else?
This is perhaps the hardest one to accept. We have planned an explanation that is simply captivating. Bells, whistles, and thrills aplenty. How could anyone not be listening?
What could we do instead?
There are two reasons why students may not be listening.
First, they may not be able to listen. Considering the geography of the classroom, and ensuring we don’t do anything else like give out books at the same time we are giving instructions or explanations can help.
Second, students must have an incentive to listen. To solve this, there is nothing better than Pritesh Raichara’s concept of high-frequency checks for listening.
Click here for the audio version of our conversation
These high-frequency checks for listening could be in the form of Cold Call:
The formula to work out the area of a triangle is base multiplied by height divided by two
What is the formula to work out the area of a triangle… Emma?
What is the formula to work out the area of a triangle… Ollie?
Or Call and Respond:
The formula to work out the area of a triangle is base multiplied by height divided by two.
Everyone, the formula to work out the area of a triangle is…
Base multiplied by height divided by two is the formula to work out…
Or a combination of the two:
This is an isosceles triangle…
What type of triangle is it… Ben?
What type of triangle is it… Sophie?
In an isosceles triangle, two of the angles are equal
How many of the angles are equal… Tom?
In an isosceles triangle, two of the angles are equal.
All of you, in an isosceles triangle…
Why, why, why?
These high-frequency checks for listening do three things:
They give us valuable data as to whether students are listening or not.
They help sustain students’ attention (or, in Pritseh’s terms, each check for listening interrupts the loss of attention), especially if we hold students to account if they cannot answer a check for listening question correctly.
They give students lots of feelings of success. Instead of listening to an explanation and then answering one checking for understanding question at the end that they may, or may not, get correct, students have several opportunities to answer much easier checks for listening questions in the middle and feel good about themselves.
So, here is my challenge. Choose one class you are teaching soon. Got one? Okay, next plan some high-frequency checks for listening for when you are giving instructions and explanations, and for when other students are speaking. The results might scare you, but they will provide much more reliable evidence of the attention of your students than any of the poor proxies give us.
How closely does the idea of checking for listening fit into your current practice?
What do you agree with, and what have I got wrong?
Let me know in the comments below!
🏃🏻♂️ Before you go, have you…🏃🏻♂️
… checked out our incredible, brand-new, free resources from Eedi?
… read my latest Tips for Teachers newsletter about asking the easiest question first?
… listened to my most recent podcast about helping students remember things?
… considered booking some CPD, coaching, or maths departmental support?
… read my Tips for Teachers book?
Thanks so much for reading and have a great week!