The world is loud. It is louder than I ever remember it being. When I was driving home from work yesterday, I not only could hear the music wafting from the car in the lane next to mine, but also I could see the car shaking. Sometimes I leave my living room and come back wondering why someone needs the volume to be so dang loud; then I remember that it was me. Have we all grown so used to noise?
Noise today is more than auditory. Noise is both written and visual as well. Human beings shout with their words when they message each other. They use all caps or exclamation points. People express anger when they tweet or post on Facebook. There are emojis and GIFs at the ready to help us express what we may not want or feel comfortable expressing in words alone. We can be anonymously loud with the click of the mouse pad or the quick tap on the mobile phone.
I am thankful that I remember a world that was not quite so loud. My teenage students certainly do not have that memory to tap into. Noisy is their normal. I try to keep this in mind when in class. When I explain a task and then two seconds later students ask the nails-on-chalkboard-sounding question – what are we doing now? – I do have to work hard not to express the complete and utter frustration that fills my mind. I have to remember my audience. They were born into this loud world with phones in hand, figuratively speaking. They oftentimes have multiple senses so engaged that it seems nearly impossible for them to be truly engaged in any one app or conversation.
When I’m in class and ask students to listen to my one voice and my one voice gives directions for an assignment or assigns homework, I should not be surprised when many students do not actually hear the information. How can we expect them to really hear it when perhaps their minds are still reeling from all of the noise in their lives? Perhaps really focusing in on one voice, one sound, or one piece of information is not doable unless there are a myriad of background sounds. These are students who often go to sleep and wake up with Snapchat streaks shouting at them for attention.
So what can we do about this? As a teacher I want these kids to be able to go out into the world and actively participate in it. To actively listen and actively read, etc. I also want students to learn how to advocate for themselves whether they are in class, in a meeting, or communicating online. I want them to develop a voice. I want students to learn how to see each other for their similarities and differences. I want students to learn how to build relationships with peers and colleagues. A critical component for any of this is listening.
Active listening has become another skill we as teachers do not assume students have when they enter our classrooms. The word active is key here. Like writing about what they read, when students are detached from the listening process they may not be able to truly capture the information. Here’s what I have started to do in class more regularly. I rely on an old stand by: repetition. I find ways to have important messages or lessons delivered in multiple ways.
First, I create a way to make the students active participants. I have them listen to directions and write down key takeaways. Note: I require students to keep notebooks, which ends up being invaluable as they can use notes on nearly all of the assessments. Once the information is delivered and notes are taken, students share with someone sitting next to them a takeaway or two that they gained from my explanation. This allows them to become a more active part of the listening process. It also introduces some background noise, which, of course, has become their comfort level. We cannot forget to tap into what we know about this generation. Lastly, I call on students to repeat some of the main points of whatever lesson or activity I introduced. It is a bit fascinating how the wording of the message or lesson can morph by the time we are talking again as a large group.
If this all sounds familiar, that is because it is. Game of telephone anyone? Here’s the deal: this game is one we all have to play nowadays whether we are talking to young people or to each other. Haven’t you noticed how muddled messages are becoming in the media? Do we hear what we want to hear or half of what is intended for us to hear? My answer is yes and yes. How many of us adults are half listening to the important people in our lives because we are working on our own noisy juggling acts: reading texts, catching quick video clip of the latest Trump gaffe, and having a conversation with someone all at the same time?
Needless to write again, but I will as I think the message deserves to be repeated: our worlds are noisy. An important consideration here, though, is that we create some of that noise ourselves. I truly am a curious individual. I will say that my curious mind and my want to discuss these very real issues are what helps my teaching improve every day I stand in front of my students. Honest communication has revealed that the majority of these teenagers can recognize that they struggle to focus and listen because of the overwhelming amount of access they have to content and to noise. Students sometimes say to me that they cannot concentrate without noise. I would imagine that this is not only an issue that impacts individuals in the 14-18 age range.
Listening is not a skill that only the young people need to focus on in order improve life. I see the same issue impacting adults. I do wonder, though, if students really cannot concentrate without noise or if it is just learned behavior. The struggle is real, however. Every year, every week, and during every in-class writing assignment that demands quiet, I have students immediately grab their ear buds or make a big case for why they NEED noise to finish X, Y, and Z. In the classroom this becomes a conversation, a teachable moment. Outside of the classroom, however, I believe we all need to model for future generations and those who are in the thick of technological sensory overload what it looks like to quiet the noise. This way we all can help each other better think, learn, and maybe even really hear what each other is saying instead of running around with half truths and misunderstandings.
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