Thursday, January 12, 2012

Do You Hear Me?

In a very informative discussion that followed a recent post on Jemma Gardner's blog, she used the following phrase to describe one aspect of Dogme:

“listening to what the students are saying and doing something with it, rather than batting it off to continue with what I want to do”. 

Edison Museum, Fort Meyers, Florida

I think this highlights just what attracted me to the unplugged style of teaching in the first place.  I acknowledge that capable teachers the world over skillfully listen to their students, using whatever methodologies suit them best.  It's not exclusive to Dogme.  But not every teacher walks into each lesson with the intention of using what they hear to determine how the lesson will go.  Teachers who follow a Dogme approach, however, do and that's important to me.  Here's why.

It's a natural tendency to think of speaking as the primary aspect of communication.  The American Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. We all want to have our say, to speak out.  Even the seminal article by Claude E. Shannon that diagrammed the famous sender -> medium -> receiver model of communication in 1948 shows the arrows of communication going in one direction, from source/sender to destination/receiver. But is it communication if you don't know whether your message was received?  Later models of communication show a loop, recognizing that the process is incomplete without feedback: a return message that says "I hear you."

I see my primary role in teaching not as someone who provides information about the structure and content of the English language but as someone who helps people who want to communicate using English.  People come to my class because they want to be heard. I want to give them feedback -- to say, "I hear you." Yes, they need to know the mechanics as well. However, the branch of linguistics that views language as a complex adaptive system suggests that much (if not most) of that part of the process will emerge if students are given the opportunity to communicate often enough.  Sure, there are impediments for people who are acquiring a second language and intervention from teachers (i.e., explicit help with grammar) has been shown to facilitate the subconscious process. That's a second kind of feedback that we can give to students in the context of helping them to communicate as often as possible.

Feedback is not necessarily words. If a student has something to say and I sit down, go quiet and look directly at him or her, there is no question that they have my attention.  If I take action in response to what was said, no words are necessary.

But in addition to giving attention and taking action, truly effective listening includes another component: letting go of my own agenda.  Naturally, I can't do that to the point where there is no English lesson!  But what I mean is, when I'm listening "deeply", it's not about me.  As a teacher, I have a tendency to look for ways to correct or assist, so I'm likely to run what I hear through the "I want to help" filter.  It's not always necessary. Students will tell me when they need help and what they need. It may not be in English; it may not even be in words.  If I'm already busy thinking of solutions, I may miss the real message. My lesson plan can be thought of an extension of the "I want to help" filter.  It's literally my agenda!

Anyway, experts have described this better than I can. This concept, or something similar, crops up in assertiveness training, leadership training, and mediation training, among other places -- all areas where good communication is essential. I've taken an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program twice and this type of listening skill is developed as an integral part of the program.  (Note: the program is not just for people in mental or physical pain. It's also used in leadership training, at police academies, in prisons, etc.)  I surfed around and found a pdf file at this link which outlines the basics of mindful listening nicely.  It's addressed to project managers, but you can easily transfer the ideas to a teaching environment.  There's also a nice list of references at the end.  I've recently read two books more specifically on the topic of mindfulness and teaching and would like to comment on them (as well as a third) sometime soon.  If you're interested, stay tuned!

The point I wanted to make was that Jem's comment really hit the nail on the head.  Many people say Dogme is just good teaching. Maybe it's more accurate to say that Dogme includes good teaching skills such as staying present and listening carefully.  But it's more than that.  The intention to listen and make adjustments is built into the plan before a teacher ever walks into the room. I like this, because I believe that sharing the shaping of the plan with the people in the room is part of what makes an authentic communication process. When a student knows that his or her thoughts and ideas matter, and that they've been heard (in English), the affective filter is lowered and he or she becomes more receptive to what others in the room are saying. The feedback loop is strengthened and communication (in English) is further facilitated.  When it's time to pause and analyze, that's more likely to be heard and absorbed as well.

I'm not a consistently skillful listener, but I can vouch for the results when I'm able to pull it off.  And I can't say -- really, words fail to capture -- how good it feels to be on the receiving end of deep listening.  It happens all too rarely in this busy "information age"!

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