How We Listen Matters

Adding the “barking dogs who bite” parent, mentioned in the previous post, to the design team taught us something else about dealing with controversy. The way critical community members deliver their message, especially when they are forceful or angry, can keep us from listening productively to their message

For example, we certainly intended to use iPad apps to reinforce letter formation and spelling. The way angry parents were telling us we shouldn’t use tablets to teach young learners had us dismissing them (and their message) as extremist. 

But then a small statement in an otherwise enflamed tirade made me realize that they thought we were going to teach students to handwrite only using the devices! 

It had never occurred to us that we should be directly stating that the correct way (the only way) to properly teach handwriting was with pencil and paper. Once we made that statement, they cooled quite a bit. We were debating the benefits of using apps to reinforce letter formation when what no one had said (and needed to be said) was that handwriting needed to be taught with pencil and paper. It was so obvious to us, we never thought to say it. 

But listening productively to the critics (even when it’s hard) told us the message we should be sharing.

Similarly, when working with a middle school to implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning, our group talked a lot about problem-solving, connecting learning to the students’ world, and active learning. Critics were angry because they saw us throwing out the curriculum and dismissing Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. It was a lesson in how listening productively to your critics can also tell you when you’re using the wrong words or wording.

Of course we were teaching Math, English, Science, and Social Studies! 

But in our excitement about the learning power of connecting subjects and using projects and active learning, we had said nothing about the content students would be learning. Our critics quieted and were less frequent when we started talking about how we could make Math more meaningful by using it to address issues in Science and Social Studies, and how applying reading and writing to solving real world problems makes learning the reading and writing skills more meaningful to students, and how active, hands on learning strategies, help students better learn Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. 

Our critics helped us know what we were not saying that would be helpful and what terms we were using that were generating less buy-in, than other terms that helped promote buy-in.

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