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Connecting with your students: Slow Listening (Part 2)

 Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

In Part 1 I defined Slow Listening as channeling all of your attention to the communication (verbal or non-verbal) from one person or group, and focusing your energy to understand the emotional or educational needs of that person, without glancing at the monkey mind.

We talked about the monkey mind as the voice that distracts you from focused listening.  The goal in the classroom should be to silence the monkey mind in order to listen to your students.  Silencing the monkey mind is no easy feat.  For a good resource on how to do this, check out THIS video with Tim Ferriss (or the transcript HERE).

Having understood that emotional comfort and desire for engagement are two prerequisites for academic improvement, it is important to develop two skills in order to improve your slow listening ability: humility (or the reduction of Ego) and observation.

Humility – the freedom to be wrong

Humility works to your advantage in many different ways.  First it allows you the freedom to be wrong.  One professor from my graduate school days used to say: “20% of everything I say will be wrong.  It’s your job to find that 20%.”  In the classroom (especially EFL classrooms) it can be easy to slip into the role of master-information-dispenser.  The students come trekking up the mountain seeking wisdom, you dispense the blessings of enlightenment and send them on their way back down the mountain having gleaned a taste of heaven. 

Okay, so maybe you don’t see yourself as the Buddha, but it’s crucial to realize and internalize the fact that the daily repetition of giving information will inevitably inflate your ego. The ability to communicate effectively is one of (if not THE) benchmark(s) of intelligence in society.  Thus, as you are continually interacting with people who lack this ability (it’s a foreign language after all), you may quickly find yourself inflating your own intelligence, or deflating theirs.[1]  A quick remedy to this problem is to have conversations from time to time in the students’ native language.  You will realize quite quickly that A) they are probably quite intelligent and B) you aren’t as intelligent as you thought when speaking in a foreign language.

But why is this humility so important?  Or to put it another way – why is Ego detrimental?

Ego is like a mammoth sized program you install on your hard drive.  It’s always running in the background, using up all of your processing speed and memory, and everything else slows down.  It’s constantly hungry and needy, requiring so much attention that other important tasks become neglected.  Once you learn how to eliminate or reduce Ego, you will begin to find freedom: mental space and renewed energy that allow you to choose which tasks to focus on effectively. 

Reducing Ego means you have the freedom to be wrong.  When a student asks a question that you don’t know, or points out a mistake, Ego is often quick to act by hiding the truth.  This is harmful to the education process on many fronts.  First, the student’s confidence takes a hit.  Next time instead of confidently challenging the teacher, they are more likely to sit quietly and not say anything.  This means that future mistakes will go unchallenged and your whole class will be disadvantaged.  It also means that student may lose trust in you as a teacher.  One tiny moment of Ego can sour an entire semester or worse.

Beyond the damage, Ego also prevents a moment of opportunity.  When a person readily accepts a mistake or owns a failure, the authenticity of their character is on full display; and this can boost the confidence of a class, and open the door for deeper learning to occur. 

Humility – the Freedom to Follow

In the first post I talked about the monkey mind (Ego) taking control and preventing Slow Listening.  Ego is the one responsible for that feeling of expectation, that focus on teaching as a performance, or worse teaching as an expression of power or control.  Unfortunately, many people go into teaching for motives that do not align with learning.  And many times those motives have something to do with control.  Perhaps lacking self control, or suffering from neglect, a controlling teacher uses his/her classroom to create a domain – a little kingdom where he/she can assert dominance and create a league of followers.  Obviously, this scenario ends badly for everyone involved.

One way to eliminate Ego is carefully think through the objectives of education.  Ultimately, we are not teaching for the benefit of the teacher.  And hopefully, we are not teaching to produce good test scores.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Martin Luther King Jr.:

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”

Critical and intensive thinking, intelligence and character.  These are skill sets.  These are changes in brain matter.  If these types of changes are the ultimate goal – it’s important to realize that students are the drivers in the educational process.

This is a hard pill for some teachers to swallow.  But the reality is that critical thinking and character formation do not occur from listening.  They occur from doing.  And each student will find the path to these skills differently.  This means that as an educator you must be more concerned with a student’s path to learning, than with: a)your lesson plan b)your performance c)any other Ego driven aspect that may interfere with true learning.

In the next post we will discuss the importance of observation and some practical tips for encouraging more student expression and initiative.


[1] I’m not saying this is a conscious thought or choice.  Subconsciously the Ego is building every time you ‘teach’ something.