Home Winsights
No. 33 (September 1999)

Add Depth and Richness to
Every Facet of Our Mutual Lives

The Power of Listening
by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

The following was originally written for fellow educators, but it now appears to bear as well immediately and strongly upon every area of our lives, far beyond the classroom. I'll begin by talking first to the several teachers among the readers of this article, knowing, however, that most of its readership will be non-teachers.


Those of us who teach interactively:
How to power the whole process by teaching listening

Interactive learning focuses on what comes from the learner as a main means of learning or training or skills-building, rather than on what is imparted to the learner.

Education itself was named after the concept of "drawing forth" ("educare") from the learner. The two times in history where this was, indeed, the main means of schooling—classical Greece and Renaissance Europe—in relation to population base the rate of production of world-class geniuses was more than ten million times greater than at present, where instruction is mainly didactic, despite all the modern tools of instruction and communications.

Schools stopped using interactive, Socratic, learning in the 19th Century and until recently had gone over almost exclusively to didactic methods. This is interesting from a standpoint of law, since virtually every public school and school system in the country was chartered to "provide the public an education," and almost none of them are educating, only teaching!

Interactive learning was flirted with in the 1960s, but no one knew how to focus or control it, and its attempts nearly always ended in chaos. Nowadays, many systems exist for effectively controlling and focusing it:  a teacher can, once he or she knows some of these methods, easily move into, direct and focus, and (equally important!) move out of interactive modes.

The world-wide creativity movement has been working with some of these methods for a long time, because nothing less will evoke creative performance from most training groups of businessmen and "ordinary" people.

From the huge diversity of creativity programs and methods which now exist, this writer some years back derived a simple set of ways to manage groups, named "Dynamic Format." [The full step-by-step procedure is given on this Website.] But unbeknownst to this writer, something was still missing, something which bears very strongly upon every aspect of the lives of every one of us, not only in classrooms. That something is the basis of this article.

I experienced some extraordinary results this summer (1999) with one class of teachers, and with remarkably little effort. I was one of several professors in a program who taught by interactive methods and with some content of interactive method techniques (this is the excellent Masters-degree program taught in the National Institute for Teaching Excellence, Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass.).

What made the whole thing take off in this one course was that I taught listening skills first. From that point on, everyone in that course was drawing out everyone else in that course (move over, Socrates!) as they had opportunity, and practically all I had to do was watch and enjoy the process. Every participant discovered thereby, within herself or himself, depths of awareness and context in what the course was "teaching" that she or he had never even suspected.

What I saw convinced me that this approach will work in every venue, in every course, wherever interactive learning is used as at least one of the vehicles for instruction. Anyone who transcends teaching with a little true facilitating or educating, at least at times...anyone who seeks literally to educate instead of merely to didactically impart information and a few skills or, Mensan-like, merely to score points in argument and by making statements ... I believe will find this approach helpful.

To help the whole accelerated-learning movement and the whole creativity movement, I am not clutching this key to myself as my secret edge, a proprietary or trade secret, as would a few unnamed others in the creativity movement and in the commercial training field. We will all prosper as these movements prosper. I hereby publish the procedure openly right here.


Preceding contexts
All my life I've experienced, and wondered at, the lack of listening skills in most teachers. Almost never do they seem to actually hear what their student is saying, in a question or in response to a teacher-asked question. Almost always it's, "Very good, John," or "Not quite, Johnny, what do you say, Peter?" as if the student's statement either matches a pre-existing stencil or is rejected and search mode resumed until something comes along which superficially resembles the pre-existing stencil enough to go on with.

I've always felt that if learning had anything to do with what goes on in the learner, good listening would be the most critical key to good educating or even, more generally, to teaching. But seldom did I ever see it in action. I've tried to put it into practice myself, and think such listening as I manage to do is as much a key to what's achieved in my courses as is any content or any body of methods, including my array of interactive methods. But it simply had not occurred to me before this summer to focus in on teaching good listening to teachers or to teach it as a way to enhance by many times the effectiveness of everything else.

In two previous courses this summer I had done a little reality checking and was quite struck by the fact that here was a Masters-level education program for teachers where, uniquely in this country if not in the world, over half of the courses were being taught by interactive methods, and I think that's wonderful!

Nearly all the teachers in my classes, delighted by their own experience from throughout such a program, wanted to use such methods to teach with when they went back to their own classrooms. But:... almost none had a concrete feel for how to do it or any specific step in mind for how to get started doing it—despite the fact that interactive methods are so very much easier to teach with than didactic lecture instruction, and so very much more effective. This would mean that, as in previous years of this otherwise excellent program, relatively few would actually transfer the benefits of this program back to the kids in their own classrooms.

That was part of the reason why I was so delighted to have the specific steps of Dynamic Format to teach and practice. I came away from my first two courses of this summer convinced and satisfied that most or all of the teachers in those first two courses actually would transfer much of what they had learned at Cambridge College, from all their interactive courses, into their own classrooms. But I still felt something else was missing, something else still needed, to make all those teachers into being all that they can be.

In my final course of the summer, I appear to have found it. I found a back door through which to teach listening skills, taught it, and then got out of the way and let those newly developed listening skills and traits do the work of making every subsequent interactive process into an extraordinarily rich and meaningful learning experience.

Why a "back door"? I think if I had made that the front door, it would have put up walls. No one wants to be told or have it implied that he doesn't listen all that well. "Now, class, we are going to learn and practice some listening skills today...." Ugh! This article may already have lost some readers for much the same reason, convinced that this certainly doesn't apply to them! But for those of you who remain, goodly gentlepersons one and all, here are the specifics of the steps which gave me such happy results:


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