Tuesday 07 Mar 2023

Share this article

Transforming Teaching by Listening

By Karen Taylor, PhD., Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecole Internationale de Genève

Have you ever heard the term “unvarnished listening”? I can’t stop thinking about it since our recent session of Emerging Ethical Minds. This module, offered through Ecolint’s Institute of Learning and Teaching, is led by our renowned P4C facilitator, Natalie Fletcher, founder of Brila.org. Our purpose is to think deeply and collectively about how conceptions of childhood might be affecting teaching and child-adult relations. Each time I come away from these sessions with my mind buzzing and it goes on for days. What a great gift! 

One of the very special elements of this course is that Natalie has interviewed a whole range of experts on philosophising with children so our prep work involves listening to a podcast. The last was a conversation between Natalie and Jane Mohr Lone of the University of Washington. Inspired by the work of Gareth Matthews, Professor Mohr Lone emphasises the notion of children as knowers and urges us to listen to and for children’s questions. We hear often about how as educators we should work on our questioning skills - asking children open-ended questions that will provoke deep and critical thinking rather than closed questions. What we hear about less is how to listen to children. Something that particularly struck me in the interview was a comment about how children often raise big conceptual questions in class but these are overlooked or ignored because we don’t (think we) have time, or it’s not on the lesson plan, or we simply don’t know how to respond. 

This leads me to a couple of thoughts. One is that in schools that focus on concept-based learning, the context of learning might be deepened if based on questions that arise from the children themselves. Think, for example, about the ways in which primary school teachers may introduce new units of inquiry. In other words, universal concepts could be child-driven in conception. Allowing for this to happen is likely to develop children’s autonomy and agency, both within and outside of the classroom. 

Another thought has to do with hierarchies of and legitimisation of knowledge. Although classroom dynamics have altered considerably in recent decades, often there is still an underlying assumption that legitimate knowledge is the purview of adults. What Mohr Lone and Matthews prompt us to consider is the way in which children’s ways of knowing are not only equally legitimate but may also enrich our adult minds! 

Transforming teaching by listening to and for children’s questions is “unvarnished listening”. It means not anticipating what you think a child will say but taking the time to listen to what they actually say and the way they say it. As Mohr Lone points out, children are often told that they need to listen to each other but they are not often told that they have the right to be listened to. 

It may be equally transformative for adults to recall what they once knew as children. Children are remarkably creative thinkers and problem-solvers with “epistemological modesty”, an awareness that their knowledge is limited, that it might behove us adults to adopt.