Please Don’t Ask Children to Listen


“Listening” is a very special word to me. When I think about “listening,” I think about being transported by music, by the soft crash of ocean waves, by leaves rustling in the wind.

“Listening” also makes me think of caring and concern: people accepting and understanding others, parents listening to their child’s hopes and fears, a doctor listening to a beating heart.

“Listening” is meaningful, too, when we’re using our sense of hearing to make a close observation in scientific practice. Sensitive listening is an important skill in studying the environment, animal behavior, acoustics, pitch, and all the fascinating sounds in our world.

Listening connects us to beauty, to empathy, to discovery.

So it’s always felt wrong to me when this special word is used to mean something very different.

Too often, when we teachers say “Listen,” what we mean is: obey.

I need everyone to listen!
Let’s be good listeners!
Show me your listening ears!

Now, it’s perfectly valid and necessary to ask students to follow directions at times. But we can say “Please follow these directions.” “This is what you need to do.” “Here’s what we’ll do when we go out to the hall.” We don’t need to say “listen.”

Because here’s the thing: The word “listen,” used too often in the “obey” sense, loses its true meaning. Children tune it out. It’s background noise.

Using the word “listen” to mean “do what I say” is also a veiled way to establish power and control. And children know that “listen” in that context has a subtext of “Listen to me because I’m the teacher and you’re the student.” We teachers need to earn real authority and respect by helping children learn and succeed – and by respecting their needs, their ideas, their learning processes. If we need to ask (or tell) children to listen to us, we haven’t yet earned that respect.

For myself, when I hear myself asking children to listen, it’s a signal that something isn’t working. Usually it’s that my lesson is not engaging, that it’s too simple or too far over their heads. Sometimes it means something as basic as rearranging the classroom layout to make communication easier. It could mean that I’m just having a bad day and I’m getting too tense – I need to lighten up and give more control of the lesson and our procedures to the students – I don’t need a tight hold on the reins at all times!

Basically, if I find that  I’m saying “Listen!” too often… it means I’m the one who needs to listen more.





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