The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.)

Silence in the classroom has been addressed by a number of scholars. Donald L. Finkel, for example, in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), suggests ways that instructors can teach by removing themselves as the center of the students’ attention. At this time, however, I’m particularly concerned with whether silence can encourage what I would call “other-oriented” listening, which I used to think of as “real” listening, and therefore add to productive engagement in the classroom.  Because, beyond a doubt, in the world at large there’s way too much talking and not enough listening.

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John C. Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, argued that we need to be teaching our students how to listen, or, more precisely, what he termed the skill of “contemplative listening.” Contemplative listening, Cavanaugh writes, “is not the same as ‘listening’ in the colloquial sense. The latter, which tends to be the default way listening is practiced, is rooted in how listeners are consumed with how a conversation affects them.”

That last part really resonated: consumed with how a conversation affects them. Anyone who has led a classroom discussion knows exactly what this looks like. You ask your students a question. Hands go up. As the first to be called on offers a response, the others who had their hands up don’t appear to be listening to the speaker. Their faces tell you that they are thinking of something else, probably how they will answer when eventually called on. They’re thinking of how the conversation will affect them. This is pretty much the same if you “stack” those who want to answer in a queue or if you have the current speaker determine the next speaker. Both techniques can help remove you as the central hub of classroom discussions (allowing you to teach “with your mouth shut”), but they don’t address the challenge of getting students to listen to each other in order to actually develop the discussion. Students often remain focused on what they had planned to say rather than moving with the conversational flow. And, as a result, class discussions don’t develop into truly dialogic spaces capable of generating new understandings or fresh insights. Don’t get me wrong: discussions aren’t a waste of time; but they could be more productive if students actually listened to their peers.

Image taken from "Lilliput Lyrics," R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

It’s not a great surprise that students aren’t better at other-oriented listening. Truth be told, we’re not particularly good at it either. Perhaps it’s our training to be critics, but we, too, are often busy planning how we’ll respond rather than listening to what a colleague has to say. (Think back to your last faculty, department, or committee meeting. OK, don’t.)

Cavanaugh argues that traditional-aged students often haven’t developed an ability to “separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker.” (And once again I’d say, it’s not just late adolescents: Physician, heal thyself!) He cites the neuroscience research pointing to the late development of the integration of emotion and logic which is central to contemplative listening. I’m not familiar with that research, but I do know that there is a growing tendency to remain in our own “echo-chambers.” And in this aspect research has clearly shown that our conversations/reading/viewing – whether virtual or face-to-face – are increasingly with people who share our perspectives. To the extent that we only listen to what we want to hear, we are self-oriented thinkers, unable or unwilling to hear the unexpected, the uncomfortable.

Impediments to Other-Oriented Listening in the Classroom

Still, there are structural reasons that make other-oriented listening in the classroom harder for our students. Classroom interactions obviously don’t follow the same rules as one-on-one or small group exchanges, with a relatively “natural” flow of talk among conversational partners. Although, as Blyth worries, it is possible that conversation itself, “especially face-to-face [conversation] – for thousands of years the core of human interaction – is being pushed to the sidelines.”  Even given that, or perhaps because we are becoming less adept at the “art of conversation,” good classroom discussions, unlike other social interactions, require that the participants’ have prepared for them. And we all know what that can mean. But there are circumstances we impose that also lessen the likelihood of effective listening.

  • When students know they are expected to participate in class discussions, particularly if participation makes up a part of their grade, they can become more focused on the act of participating, on intervening in the conversation, than on whether what they have to say helps the discussion advance. Their interventions don’t depend on having listened to previous speakers, and they will largely focus on what they have been planning to say even as the discussion has moved on.
  • Students often recognize that they are being evaluated by the instructor (and their peers) more for what they say than for their ability to foster a discussion. They have received a message, often accurately, that it is more important to impress us than to contribute to generative discussions.

So, what practices can we employ to help our students build their capacity as other-oriented and contemplative listeners? How can we circumvent the barriers that make classroom discussions less about individual speakers and more about collaborative engagement?

Some Quick Fixes:

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

There are some quick fixes that we can use to help students become better listeners. In general, these involve explicitly raising for class members the challenge of taking responsibility for the generation of a productive discussion by closely listening to, and then addressing, the arguments and themes raised by the previous speakers. For example, think about:

  • Having each speaker sum up her comments at the end of her intervention and, if possible, raise a new question to be answered.
  • Encouraging the next person in the queue to begin his comments by focusing on the question raised by the previous speaker.
  • Adopting a modified Socratic approach. As you know, the Socratic method involves teacher-student interactions based on a shared dialogue in which both are responsible for pushing the conversation forward through questioning as a means of finding foundational beliefs, values, or principles. Socratic approaches often allow us to find new meanings through  persistent questioning. In a modified approach, students, more than the instructor, would be responsible for advancing the process of continual questioning of assumptions, and they could only do this by paying particular attention to what the previous speaker has said and thinking more deeply about its values and understandings.

But here is where silence can help. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage contemplative listening in the midst of a conversation is to employ silence. Think of John Cage. Use enforced silence to help students focus before answering, not just after you ask a question, but after the first student offers an answer and before you call on others, with the explicit instruction that no one will talk for a minute (it will seem very long) after the previous speaker to allow everyone to think of what was said, to write comments, and to respond explicitly to what was said. I can guarantee you that this won’t be easy, but don’t be faint of heart and give up after what will undoubtedly be your first disastrous attempts at it. Stay with it.

The Longer-Term: Classrooms as Learning Communities

You probably have more ideas than I do about helping students develop more other-oriented listening approaches in a classroom, and I’d be eager to hear them. But to address this issue on a profound level we have to consider some of the structural factors mentioned that inhibit deep listening. These are not just, or even, about the number of students you have and whether only small seminars are capable of generating other-oriented thinking skills. What we need to take on board is whether we are structuring our classes in ways that encourage deep listening. To return to a point I made above, except in large lecture classes, most of us, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, include a “class participation” component as part of the final grade. I did that for years without providing students with helpful – OK, any! – feedback on how their participation would be evaluated. And, when I finally did provide some feedback in the form of a rubric, I mostly stressed quantity (were they active participants?), their ability to stay on topic, and whether their interventions were informed by the readings or other assigned work. I never commented on whether they helped the class generate a productive discussion or if they raised further questions for their peers to address. In my approach, I probably convinced students either that quantity was more important than quality, or that the “quality” of their interventions was an individual feature, disconnected from the whole group’s ability to reach new understandings. I find my own practices even more curious since the very quality which I didn’t explicitly raise with students — the ability to advance a discussion — would always be at the top of my list when writing student recommendations.

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

If we are interested in supporting other-oriented listening, a listening that moves students away from thinking only about how the conversation affects them, a practice of hearing that opens them to other perspectives, we need to structure classrooms as learning communities where all participants are held responsible for producing knowledge, deepening understandings, and solving problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, “When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility.”

At one level,  this involves moving from what Paulo Freire called the “banking,” or information-transformation model of teaching to a more learning-centered, inquiry-centered model where, as Jeffrey Wilhem writes, teachers and students “work together to co-construct knowledge according to disciplinary standards as they learn and use disciplinary concepts and procedures.” To the extent that students become co-responsible for classroom learning, and to the extent that the different experiences and knowledges that they bring with them are valued, we can create a space where listening becomes an essential foundation for talking.

John Cage used silence in his compositions to help us hear what we weren’t listening to. Other-oriented listening in a collaborative classroom can also be based on the promotion of silence, both the absence of talking that allows students to think about what others are saying before speaking themselves, as well as the silence that involves stilling one’s inner voice to a sufficient degree so that they (and we!) can actually listen to what others are saying. If the work of the classroom is the work of the all its participants, then let’s cultivate a silence that helps students tune out “how a conversation affects them” and focus instead on how they can further a discussion that will support everyone’s learning.

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