Student A: “Ok, on to number 4.”
Student B: “I think the evidence shows that Hamlet is a hedgehog.”
Student A: “The evidence shows… that Hamlet is a … how do you spell hedgehog?”
You’ve heard partner-work sessions like this. No matter how many times you may remind students that they are not working with another person in order to avoid doing half of the work (or, heaven forbid, simply to copy each other’s answers), teenagers are biologically programmed to save their energy for important things with real-life value. Like scoring invitations to parties. Teenagers are not automatically invested in hearing, understanding, assessing, and responding to their assigned partner’s ideas.
Rather, students must learn, month by month, and year by year, to listen like a therapist, assess like a scientist, and respond like a friend.
It’s a slow process. But the reward can be dynamic, thoughtful discussion. And students will thank you for teaching them skills that they use in their real-life relationships.
The first step to get there is to teach Compassionate Listening.
Compassionate Listening is not one student parroting the words of the other student, though, when done improperly, it sounds like that.
Compassionate listening is where the Listener
- asks follow-up questions to “unpack” the speaker’s statement
- “track the deeper meaning” of the speaker’s statement
- carefully attending to the main kernal
- and finally, expressing it in the listener’s own words.
- When possible, the listener my employ a metaphor or image to encapsulate the meaning.
- Then, critically, the Listener waits for acknowledgement that s/he has seen, heard, and understood the main idea. If s/he missed the point, or there is another level of meaning the Speaker wants to share, then the cycle goes around.
I call this process “Reflect Re-reflect” and you can read more about it here. And boiled down, it looks like this:
- Listening / Unpacking
- Waiting for acknowledgement.
Listening / Unpacking
Student A: I think that Hamlet is a coward.
Student B: Why do you think that?
Student A: Because he won’t do what he is supposed to do.
Student B: Why do you think he won’t do what he is supposed to do?
Student A: Because he tosses and turns over it, and no matter the decision, he feels torn about whether it’s the right thing to do, or whether it will work, and whether it will actually accomplish anything.”
Reflecting (with metaphor):
Student B: So Hamlet is sort of in a maze…and whichever direction he tries to go, he finds himself at a dead end.
Waiting for acknowledgement:
Student A: Yeah.
Student B: So, it’s less that he’s a coward, and more like he’s paralyzed.
Student A: Hm. Yeah.
Notice the difference between Compassionate Listening and “parroting?” Parroting would have ended with:
“So, you think Hamlet is a coward.”
“Ok. Question 5.”
Compassionate listening is helping the partner to articulate his/her own ideas in a deeper, more accurate, and more nuanced way than s/he could by him/herself.
How does one teach this?
At the beginning of the year, you must spend some time unpacking what Compassionate Listening is. You might want to share some articles or video clips on the power of this sort of conversation, reflect on how it’s different from simple cooperation or from normal conversation.
Then, begin to focus on Reflection.
As complex as analysis, critique, and synthesizing new ideas may be, none of it happens without the first step of careful listening and reflecting.
On ClassDojo, create two badges: “Reflects without prompting” and “Reflects only after prompting.”
Show your students what ClassDojo looks like on your tablet / smartphone (so they know what you’re doing).
And when you send students into partner work, use the randomizer to send you to a pair of partners. Quietly sit down near them – do not speak to them or let them break conversation to talk to you – and listen.
- After one student speaks, does the second student reflect? If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
- Does the initial speaker go on and on, not allowing the listener the chance to reflect and check for understanding? If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
- If the initial speaker says something that requires “unpacking” – does the listener ask questions to unpack it? Or reflect at a superficial level? Again, you can gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
At the end of the quarter, scan the students badges, and share your observations with your students (in whatever form you usually do so – written, in reports, or in mini-meetings).
To watch Reflect-Re Reflect in Action, watch this animated example below!