Understanding what you listen to

Sonia Lindblom

One important thing about being a facilitator is to be recognized – by oneself and by the others – as an organic part in the whole group. Good facilitators lead the group to its moment; it is due to their attitudes and guidance that the group can achieve its goals. In a classroom environment, we can think of achieving the main goal of each lesson, each class or even each single activity.

As a matter of review we recall the expertise one must put in use in order to be an effective facilitator: (i) knowing the topic to be taught; (ii) being able to transmit it in an effective way and (iii) having the ability to deal with the emotions regarding the whole situation. It is not by chance that Marcia presents these skills in that very order. They affect each other in a chain reaction-like manner. First of all, you are able to transmit a topic if and only if you master it in all its complexity, and by understanding it as it should be, you will feel comfortable in dealing with the range of factors related to the teaching process.

As it is pointed out by Marcia Frantz, the whole group is affected by the facilitator’s feelings, attitudes, moves and quality of attention. Let us take a little longer in discussing this last feature. How could we classify one’s attention by having or lacking quality? It is hard to say precisely what are the criteria to do so, nonetheless one can – or even must – think of how our emotions towards the teaching process of a specific topic, the group, the environment etc. can affect the way we listen to the individuals in this group.

We ought to remember that there is quite a big gap between the meanings of hearing and listening. The Christmas song illustrates this difference: “the children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow”. Listen will certainly mean to understand, to pay attention – not only decoding and distinguishing sound waves, that is what we mean by “hearing”.

A few years ago, one of Brazil’s biggest listeners, Artur da Távola, a multitalented journalist who ran program about erudite music, made some bright observations on people’s bias to listening. Among other things he – as well as Frantz did – observes that in general, people listen to what they wanted the speaker to have said, instead of listening to what was in fact said. The teacher will mostly want the student to understand exactly what she or he said, and how great would it be, if the students just confirm it, and give perfect examples so that they will help out the others to understand the topic.

Da Távola tells us further: people listen to what they are used to listen – if we link it to our teaching reality, we might end up caught by the trap of always expecting the same questions in a lesson we have run repeatedly: at this moment, students at this level do not know this and this particularity, they never understand present perfect sentences, etc. But in fact, there will be a student who knows it and is making a question that the whole group would think of only some modules ahead. This sample situation is not rare. It might occur more often than we notice, because of our inability to listen exactly what our students are asking/telling us.

Another mismatches between what is said and what is listened, according to da Távola, are when people listen to someone and go thinking of a suitable reply, of what they guess the person might want to say by telling them something, of the relation to what the person is saying and their own beliefs, or even their feelings towards the person who is speaking. These four last misleading situations can be handled if we are attentive to our emotions towards the whole communication process, towards our interlocutor or to ourselves:

By letting our emotions and expectations interfering in the quality of our attention, we block ourselves to reach the common ground needed in the teaching-learning process. It has been pointed out since the beginnings of last century, since Vigostky one could even say – that students learn based on a previous knowledge they have. That is reasonable to say that in order to get acquainted to what one already knows, we do need to listen to what they have to say.

Just to conclude, to be a facilitator is to guide someone through the features they will put in use to reach their goal. Being a facilitator in a classroom is not to give students input of loads of information. The other way round: by listening and knowing what your students already know will spare you a lot of effort in telling them well known information or even what they do not need to know in order to achieve your class goal. Rewording the well spread Portuguese proverb, we have to hear with listening ears.

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