Why Would We Listen?

11/23/2014  |  By Nicole Forsyth

Why would we listen? While reading a book and leading a discussion with a class of third graders, I asked students the question, “How do you feel when someone says, ‘Good job!’ to you?” The answers were not what I expected. “Horrible, “Put down” and “Embarrassed,” were some of the responses I received. The discussion question came up because we had been talking about how dogs feel when someone says, “Good dog.” The students thought dogs felt good when people say “Good dog” to them. What was the difference? Why didn’t these students like being told, “Good job?”

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” - CASEL

I had already trained myself to not use praise as reinforcement. I know to get kids to respond genuinely, to think for themselves, I can’t give any hints to what I’d like to hear them say. This means I can’t say “Good job” or “Yes!” or even nod in agreement to anyone’s responses to my open-ended questions. Students are brilliant at figuring out what they think teachers want to hear, and if that’s all they’re doing they are not engaged as deeply as they could be; that is they are not engaged personally, which is as deep as it gets. But hearing the student responses to how they felt when someone said “Good job” to them brought up a whole new issue in education for me: the misuse of praise.

When I went through my teacher training in the early 1990s, Carl Rogers and the promotion of self-esteem was huge. Rogers argument that students need to experience genuineness and empathy (being listened to and understood) in the classroom was right on, but his idea that students need “unconditional positive regard,” was misinterpreted by me, and perhaps many others, and hence evolved into the misuse or overuse of praise. Kids from a young age can see right through “unconditional positive regard” when it translates into “unconditional positive praise” as well as most adults can. If someone told me I’d done a “good job” when I knew I hadn’t, not only would I feel “put down” like the eight and nine year olds I talked to, but I would also lose respect for the person telling me this, and I would also feel sad that they weren’t really paying attention; they didn’t know me well enough to know I wasn’t trying very hard. In addition, the misuse of praise threatens to inadvertently reinforce mediocrity, which works in direct opposition to the craze for setting higher and higher academic expectations. If a student hasn’t studied much for a spelling test for example, and gets eight out of 10 words spelled correctly, and the teacher tells the student “Good job,” the student may believe this is good enough and not study harder. What if the teacher instead said, “Next time, I bet if you study harder you can get all 10 correct.” Then when they get all 10 correct, the teacher can say, “Wow, I can tell you studied hard!”

In addition to the fact that the over-use or non-specific praise that kids feel is somewhat insulting, praising intelligence or ability may be equally damaging. When my husband and I read the book “Nurture Shock” by Po Bronson, we had a hard time replacing our, “You’re so smart” praise directed at our daughter with praising her effort instead, but the Carol Dweck research referenced in the book was an eye-opening look at how praising intelligence or ability rather than effort could do more harm than good. But surely praising effort is not the only way to reinforce positive behavior and motivation. What about attention? I can’t even count how many times as a teacher in training I heard the warning about a student misbehaving, “He’s just doing it ‘for attention.’” The idea being here that a teacher should avoid giving a student attention when they want to eliminate an attention-seeking behavior. This is indeed true. This is called negative punishment in classical behaviorism, but as we all know, positive reinforcement is the best tool for achieving desired behaviors, so the flip side of this of course would be to turn attention into a positive reinforcer. What does a teacher giving a student attention as a way to reinforce positive behavior look like? In most classrooms, I believe this ends up looking like praise, but as we’ve discussed this may not work as a teacher intends. So what else could it look like? How about genuine listening?

Now, when I talk to other educators about the discussion and questioning techniques I’ve discovered that work so well to engage students, I place even more emphasis on the power of genuine listening as positive reinforcement. Is there a better way than genuine listening to indicate you are paying attention? How about a better way to indicate your unconditional positive regard? Is this not, in fact, what we all want -- to be heard, really heard? When I actively listen to students, when I make eye contact, repeat what they’ve said, ask clarifying questions to encourage their train of thought, acknowledge their emotional states, nod to show understanding and lean forward, I send a message that what they say is important, and they in turn feel important. And how do they look in response? They are making eye contact; they are leaning forward; they are nodding to show understanding; they are waving their hands, excited to participate; they are genuinely listening, and isn’t this the core of what we all want as educators?

During my visit to this third-grade classroom, I heard students tell me about how they thought the characters in the book I was reading were feeling. I heard their judgments and how they’d make decisions in a similar situation. I heard their stories that indicated they were connecting to the story in personally relevant ways. I saw them thinking, hard. I saw light bulbs go on. I saw them thinking in ways I could tell they had never thought before. I learned things about them as people, and I was genuinely interested. I engaged with them and modeled for them the very best of what we expect our students to become, which — when all is said and done — is so much more important than getting the answers “right.”

I understand the pressures schools are under to achieve the standardized test scores to prove they are successful, but my wish, my hope is that school leaders do not forget their philosophy of education, that they continually reflect on what they believe students really need to learn to succeed in life, that they encourage a culture of listening at their schools. I am always amazed at the insight students bring to what they want to learn, how they feel about learning and how they learn best, but more importantly it never ceases to amaze me how kids turn on as soon as you ask them what they really think. Standardized testing isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so perhaps the best selling point for taking time away from wrestling with the Common Core or state standards is the accumulated research that indicates students do better academically when their social and emotional needs are met.

Helping teachers incorporate genuine listening in the classroom is a fantastic way to meet the emotional needs of students. Through genuine listening, teachers create a safe, nurturing environment where students are motivated, engaged and ready to learn and at the same time model a critical skill students will need to be successful in life.

When I came back to the third-grade class the following week, for another story and discussion, one boy immediately came running up to me and gave me a huge hug. I could see in his eyes his excitement, his belief that I was truly there for him. “This is the magic of teaching,” I thought. I couldn’t wait to start reading and listening to the students’ thoughts on this week’s book and key concepts: Can people and animals communicate? And if so, what would that look like? And, why would we listen?

Nicole Forsyth is the President and CEO of RedRover, a nonprofit organization that operates the RedRover Readers program, which uses stories and discussion to build empathy for people and animals.
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