The importance of listening

The importance of listening
Date8th Mar 2021AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesTeaching

In the English department at Newham Sixth Form College, the OLEVI programme continues to spread its positive influence with its focused approach on developing teaching and learning through collaboration, sustaining reflective practice, providing practical ideas for stimulating and engaging lessons and of course exploring the benefits of coaching. In a nutshell, the key aspects of the programme are developing best practice through the sharing of ideas in a supportive, non-hierarchical environment to improve students’ academic performance. And it really works, too. 

The OLEVI programme, which was initially provided to staff at the college by external trainers, was chosen to give the teaching and learning community a fresh way of working, inspiring and activating existing expertise and gathering ideas to share with the rest of the teaching and support staff. The first group of teachers who began to be trained by OLEVI went on to train and support other members of the team; the idea is that eventually, all members of staff will have benefitted from training. 

An important aspect of the training involved exploring theoretical ideas around reflective practice. One such area is metacognition: making students aware of their own internal cognitive processes and how this can aid or hinder their learning, or ‘thinking about thinking’. This self-awareness can be developed, for both student and teacher, through coaching. Coaching can be defined as a collaborative discussion that prompts the coachee to reflect and produce solutions to their own problems. There are many links between coaching and teaching, but for now, we’ll just explore one and see how this might work in the classroom. Having already received OLEVI’s ‘Power of Coaching’ training, with its many options to integrate coaching with peers (for example, colleagues are able to access coaching from a dedicated team of ‘learning coaches’ to discuss any professional issues) and, of course, practicing via teaching (see below), many teachers at NewVIc feel increasingly confident in experimenting with methods that aid students’ concentration and maximise the ‘input’ stages of learning. 

A fundamental aspect of coaching, and learning, is the ability to listen effectively. This might seem obvious, but it is often the so-called ‘obvious’ that is left unexplored, taken as a given and consequently not refined. An activity that works well in the classroom is getting students to explore ‘listening levels’. In pairs, students take on roles of ‘listener’ and ‘speaker’. At level 1, the ‘listener’ shows interest, clearly displaying all the signs of listening, although in a passive way. This is surface listening, and is not particularly conducive to ‘deep’ learning.  At this level, the listener is still aware of themselves as a listener.  At level 2, the listener becomes more ‘active’ in their approach; for instance, by repeating back, summarising and commenting on what the ‘speaker’ has said. This is ‘deep’ listening - it makes the ‘speaker’ feel more valued as well! The listener has less awareness of themselves as they become more aware of what the speaker is saying. Finally, at level 3, the listener goes beyond the ‘active’ approach and moves towards becoming fully immersed in what the ‘speaker’ is saying. Level 3 is particularly challenging for students, as well as teachers, but the benefits to learning are clear. Listening at level 2, and moving to Level 3, enables a heightened receptivity, leading to deep learning. If students can adopt ‘deep’ receptivity at the ‘input’ stage, the knowledge learnt will be retained more effectively. 

One concrete benefit of this ‘listening’ activity is to ensure that students are explicitly made aware of the importance of focused, active engagement with learning. If we simplify ‘learning’ to an ‘input’ (information being received) and ‘output’ stage (recall, writing, exams, etc), more explicit work is needed on the input stage. Merely focusing on the ‘output’ stage of learning would be ineffective if students were not even aware that their listening strategies were preventing their progress. 

No matter how skilled your teaching team, our experience shows that embarking on a structured programme of pedagogical professional development can be transformative. It’s particularly important to choose an approach which allows for peer coaching and support, such that we can improve one another’s practice over time, even after the initial training has long ended.


Simon Birchall and Martin Lynch teach in the English department at NewVIc.

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