Mutual Listening

Creating miracles in the classroom

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
<< Teaching & Learning Techniques Index


Way back in Winsights Part 33, we reported a very nice transformation of teachers which had taken place in this writer’s training of teachers in a masters-degree program (the National Institute of Teaching Excellence — NITE — at Cambridge College), in the summer of 1999.

Some transformations of classrooms have apparently begun happening since then, and this writer had the exquisite pleasure of teaching that “Mutual Lives” listening unit again several times since, including the summer of 2000, to a fresh 150 teachers in that NITE program.

We hereby invite any teacher to print out and study:

With these three resources together and completely free for you, you can create a hugely positive transformation in your own classroom.

Please do not call this a unit in listening skills, at least until after the fact is experienced. (Premise: no group wants to be taught “listening skills” and would tend to balk if that were the announced intended objective, chafing at the seeming criticism. They need to discover the dimensions of better listening for themselves, coming from a different and unexpected direction.)

Steps for “Back Door Entry” Listening Skills Unit

(as described in the “Mutual Lives” paper, Winsights Part 33)

(Before beginning, prepare slide or poster sign:  “What else can you ask your partner that will draw him/her out even further?” Don’t let slide or poster be seen until you display it in Step #8 below.)

  1. Establish “Law of Effect” (“you get more of what you reinforce”) as the best-known natural law of behavior and psychology. Once it is established and appreciated, ask participants to “hang that one on the back walls of their mind,” for its major importance and significance to be gone into in awhile. Optional subsidiary questions for those “back walls”:   In any given situation (or in their respective classrooms, if teachers), specifically what is getting reinforced and what is not? What do we want to reinforce in one another? What’s getting reinforced in ourselves, and what isn’t? What traits and behaviors do we want reinforced in ourselves?
  2. Ask participants to write down the three most important reasons they became teachers — or whatever professionals there are in this workshop — or whatever other question you deem is appropriate for this group and setting).
  3. Ask participants to put a star or asterisk by their one most important reason.
  4. Ask participants to form pairs. Go to some lengths to ensure everyone has one partner. Ask each pair to decide which member is “A” and which member is “B.”
  5. Choose “A” or “B,” avoid being predictable on that. The following steps are written on the presumption you chose “B”; reverse them for the occasions when you’ve instead chosen “A.”  Call all “B’s” to the front corner of the room for “a football huddle.”
  6. Instruct all “B’s” in that huddle so that “A’s” can’t overhear: “For the next few minutes — no matter what your partner says to you — respond to your partner, ‘Why is THAT important to you?’ (Repeat.) Got it?”
  7. Go 5 minutes or longer, depending upon how your participants appear to be responding. It might be appropriate to walk among the pairs, listening in, and to ensure all are “on task,” though with this one they probably will be. At the next lull in the buzz-murmur, sound your chime or waterglass three “bings,” then say,
  8. “Now dig even deeper, further, harder! Go beyond that stock question now, beyond just asking, ‘Why is that important to you?’ Use every tool at your disposal to draw your partner out further. And further still!” {Display sign: “What else can you ask your partner that will draw him/her out even further?“}
  9. Go another 4-5 minutes or longer, depending upon response.
  10. Next lull, sound chime or waterglass three “bings” and say, “O.K. — how many of you A’s would like retaliation on your partner, B? ….. OK, it’s your turn to draw B out on his or her most important reason. Start out with that question for a few minutes, ‘Why is THAT important to you?’ — then broaden out to use every tool you have and then some, to relentlessly draw your partner out further and yet further…..” Allow 5-10 minutes, depending on response.
  11. (Show of hands:) “How many of you felt your partner was really listening to you?” — then ask, “How did it feel, having someone really listening to you?” (Elicit 2-3 responses. If positive as it likely will be, then have the pairs pull together into groups of 4 to 6.
  12. “Two questions I’d like you to process in your group. First question, please share in detail with one another how it felt being really listened to, how that felt to you. Second question:  with one of you recording, between you list all the things your partners were doing that made you feel you were really being listened to. What are all the things that made you feel your partner was listening?” (5-8 minutes.)
  13. “Now please take your list of things one does to make someone feel listened to — and please turn that list into a prescription. A statement like, ‘In order to make someone feel listened to, ta da ta da ta da ta da……’ From all you’ve listed, please prepare a ‘prescription-for-listening.’” (3-8 minutes.)
  14. (Optional concluding step, if you have enough participants for 3 or more such groups:) “Decide a name for your group. A little friendly competition — let’s see which group makes the best presentation on its prescription? You have 4 minutes to prepare your presentation…..” (Allow 5-8 minutes, then go to presentations, which usually will be very good and allow the participants to experience “being brilliant.”)

Draw out the observation, in keeping with the Law of Effect, that the role of “listener” is one of the most powerful possible roles. How, with practiced skill, one can subtly reinforce some things and not other things in what his talker is saying and so reshape that speaker. With teachers, of course, relate back to what students experience in their classrooms.

As soon after as possible, get participants into pairs or triads buzzing some major issue or question, with the instruction to use their own prescriptions for drawing one another out as far as possible into new depths of exploration.

I’ve done this in context of teaching Dynamic Format, Socratic Method, and the Principle of Description, having participants brainstorm out as many relations between these as they can think of and in context of those listening skills and principles, and then condensing down to a single elegant statement most informatively saying the most from that context in just a few words.

Law of Effect:   “You get more of what you reinforce.” Not only positive reinforcement. Even punishment is at least reinforcement and tends, despite temporary deterrence, to strengthen the trait or behavior being punished. Systems people, please note:   All feedback, by definition, is reinforcement, including that of “strange attractors.” All complex systems, living or otherwise, not just animals and humans, in a changing world have to be susceptible to the Law of Effect in order to survive. Only those complex systems are “here” which obey this law. By definition, this law of behavior has thus become also a law of physics.

Principle of Description:   Anything you describe in detail to someone while examining it, you discover more and more and more about. By the Law of Effect, you in so doing reinforce not only those particular perceptions but also the behavior of being perceptive.

Socratic Method:   Mainly to cause someone to examine his or her own awarenesses and to attempt to respond from what is discovered in those awarenesses. Old form was by argument, confrontation, leading question in one-on-one process. New forms center on that examination of and reporting from awarenesses. By psychology’s Law of Effect, you reinforce not only those particular awarenesses but also the behavior of being aware.

Historically, Socratic Method has produced world-class geniuses at a ten million times higher rate during the times it was used — late classical Greece and again in Renaissance Europe — than today’s instructional methods are producing, even with all our information resources so to hand. That’s because that genius truly is there in nearly all of us and needs but opportunity to be expressed, to be drawn forth (as in the classic Socratic tradition after which “education” itself is named).

The Socratic Miracle

The problem has been: how much Socratic miracle effect can be engendered for how many people at a time? Schools stopped educating in the 19th century when classes grew large. While you Socratized one student, the other forty-nine got restless. How can you give each person in a large class enough time at describing from his own awarenesses to build Socratic Miracle Effect?

  • Solution:   buzz-grouping — each person has ample opportunity within small groups to meaningfully detail his perceptions to a meaningful audience. But a new problem:  how do you keep everyone on track, in focus, on task, when everyone is talking at the same time?
  • Solution:   “Dynamic Format,” in the article by that name under the CPS Techniques section.

<< Teaching & Learning Techniques Index