Interactive 7.1 Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion

Layered and Generous Listening

As pointed out in “this is Water” (Interactive 7.1), we have choice in the way we think about each other. We can choose responsibility for our relationships, or we can choose to ignore what might be true of another.

Our data indicate that the way we listen is of critical importance. In her book, Listening: a framework for teaching across difference, Katherine Schultz (2003) describes the pedagogical usefulness of teachers incorporating a listening stance. “Rather than teaching prospective and experienced teachers how to follow prescriptions or blueprints,” she suggests “that teachers learn how to attend and to respond with deep understanding to the students they teach” (p. 2). Schultz lays out a framework that locates listening at the centre of teaching and suggests that teachers must listen to the layers of experience in their classroom to know how to proceed. This includes being able to listen to the rhythm and balance of specific classrooms; to the social, cultural and community contexts of students’ lives; and to silence and acts of silencing.

Barbara Thayer-Bacon (2003) describes the act of generous listening, as being important when our aim is to understand another and where they are coming from. Here, the intent in a conversation is not simply for our own view to be heard, but to listen to the other in a way that is relationally accountable. For example, I might believe that students should be physically active and aware of nutrition in a particular pragmatic way that will improve their health and wellness. If I deduce by the student’s behaviours that they didn’t understand my lesson, I might decide to repeat the chapter on nutrition. My student however, despite having an intellectual understanding, might also have emotional issues around eating that give them a markedly different perspective.
Rather than drive my factual knowledge into this student’s experience, another approach might hold more tact and usefulness. What could happen if I drop my assumptions and listen to what might be true for them? To listen generously is to give of oneself to another, to let go of assumptions conceived outside of this particular evolving relationship. It means to be aware of different worldviews and meet another in a safe-enough space where true listening occurs. Generous listening allows us to move away from the positivist tendency towards criticism and into a space where we allow other's questions to help guide our own journeys. What is this student wondering? How do I begin from there to assist their learning process? Listening is an integral aspect of teaching because all quality teaching is built upon meaningful relationships.

We listen “generously” when our primary intent is to truly understand another person. Generous listening shows that we are committed to employing caring reasoning. Caring reasoning is what we use to recognize and select what interests us about our qualitative experiences and helps us to also understand the other by attending to the other in a generous manner. Caring reasoning acknowledges that thought and emotion co-exist in a whole relation. “The first step in understanding another is noticing the other. All interest is selected interest – we have to choose what to attend to. …Reason is not in opposition to emotion. Our emotions stir us and move us to act; they are expressions of doubt, concern, love, hate, fear, surprise, etc.” (Thayer-Bacon, 2003, p. 120). Generous listening asks that we listen carefully and permit the necessary time it takes to understand another person before we consider offering critique.

Unfortunately, much of our past experiences, including educational experiences have taught us to focus on being heard rather than listening for understanding. We have also learned to believe that emotions somehow interfere with thinking, rather than always being part of what helps us to think. Caring reasoning and generous listening reflect a relational theory of knowledge.

A relational (e)pistemology is a humble approach to knowing. We remind ourselves and our students that we need to first attempt to generously understand various perspectives before moving to critiquing them, but critique is important because some ideas are worth rejecting. …Our theories of knowledge are qualified by as much evidence as we can socially muster so that it is not the case that we must accept anything as good, and yet, at the same time, we cannot accept anything as certain, fixed, and final. (Thayer-Bacon, 2003, p. 255).

Too often, school culture is dominated by teacher-centered practices and prescribed curriculum with little attention placed on the unique and varied needs of students. How do we create a humanizing pedagogy (Bartolomé, 1994) where we recognize, honour and attend to the learning spirit of each child? If, as a teacher, you are be~coming a positive change agent in the lives of your students you must practice intentional and generous listening. What can you learn from students’ body language? What is not being said? How do home and community environments affect what happens in your classroom? How does your own body language influence each learner? Are you anxiously waiting for your turn to talk or to return to your own agenda? How are you paying attention to the rhythm and balance of your classroom? What do your hunches tell you about a given situation? How do you respond to the stories that interrupt your day? Listen to educator Rita Pierson talk about the importance of meeting a child where they are, the value of developing relationships, and ways of championing even the least successful kids in a class.
The process of TI is built on attentive, open listening where you recognize yet suspend your beliefs, while at the same time you try to hear what might be true of another. We build meaningful relationships when we take the time to honour the stories of our students. Be sure to use intentional and generous listening when you do your classroom observations for your practicum!
Generous listening is a way to remain relationally accountable to those we interact with. This means attending to the subtlety of our interactions. Often we focus on what the person is saying and how we are going to respond when they are done. Generous listening has us focus on our listening. What does it mean to be fully present when someone speaks without thoughts of response? Much is gained when we can simply be present as we listen. By listening generously to another, we are acknowledging and respecting the knowledge of this person.

As teachers, we are often in the habit of being the one who talks. Watch your talk to listening ratio and experiment with silence! Generous listening is important during the TI process, and imperative as a teacher when responding to inquirers. As Karen Meyer (2010) says, "My role as a teacher is to create an environment that nurtures students’ capacities to explore the world as it is and to reimagine the world otherwise.” This approach may require letting go of old patterns around the role of learners and teachers.

Listening generously across difference is a nuanced and complex process that takes time to embody and so in the TI course we practice our listening skills.

When listening to another person, don’t just listen with your mind, listen with your whole body. Feel the energy field of your inner body as you listen. That takes attention away from thinking and creates a still space that enables you to truly listen without the mind interfering. You are giving the other person space – space to be. It is the most precious gift you can give. Most people don’t know how to listen because the major part of their attention is taken up by thinking. They pay more attention to that than to what the other person is saying, and none at all to what really matters: the Being of the other person underneath the words and the mind (Tolle, 1999, p. 105).

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How do you listen? What are you listening for? How might your listening practice be expanding within a framework of relational accountability? Cajete says that we, as teachers, must ask ourselves how to take care of our souls, each other, and the earth, and in TI our questions of inquiry are rooted in these three areas. Participants are encouraged to know where they stand in relation to these questions and to look to movement towards responsibility in all areas.