Inspired by Julian Treasure (sound researcher and international conference speaker) in his TED Talks lecture – “5 ways to listen better”, July 2011 - I got thinking about how his goal of teaching listening skills in schools (a skill he thinks is dwindling in a world where the volume is stuck on high) might be achievable in my classroom. Swapping the trusty image/picture starter for an aural starter activity seems a relatively simple way to get started.
Instead of displaying an image and asking students “What’s going on here?” as a lesson starter, play them a sound. Ask students to explain what they think they might be hearing and justify their suggestions. Encourage them to break down the sound and listen out for subtle cues or changes and replay the sound a few times to help this.You could provide prompt questions (e.g. “did you hear the drip…?” for example, or “did you notice the rise in volume in the middle?”) to help students focus in on subtleties. Alternatively you could provide a list of suggestions of what the sound is to choose from. Students could, after the first listen, identify what they might listen out for next time to help narrow the field of choices; each time the sound is repeated (possibly with more elements added) the students will be refining their choices and getting closer to reaching a conclusion. This could be left deliberately ambiguous to build in challenge.
The activity could be an individual one, with quality silences in between each play of the sound to avoid distraction and help focus on thinking, or as a collaborative group task where students also have to listen to each other to work towards a common goal.
The sound used could be unrelated to the lesson content to focus on the skill itself, or could even be a sound that links to the concepts to be explored in the lesson (without making identification of the sound too predictable of course and reducing the need to listen carefully). As an extension, students could be asked to compare and contrast 2 sounds, just as they might be asked to do with 2 visual stimuli; quite challenging but a real stretching activity which would be highly likely to end up with learners drawing on a range of subject areas. The activity could also be used to teach concepts related to bias by providing a context prior to hearing the sound that leads them down a particular, perhaps incorrect path. This could be a good way to show that previous experience can colour our perception of events. The context could be different for different groups of students which would provide a clear demonstration to show that we don’t always all hear the same thing from the same source. Being a good listener after all, rests on being able to put aside your own views, beliefs and preconceptions when required.As the task is first and foremost a listening one, it would be important to ensure the goal doesn’t become getting the answer right (guessing the sound correctly) but instead focusses on helping students reflect on their listening skills and transfer what they have learned about listening to other learning situations.
Microsoft Office online has free downloadable sound files that could be used. On his blog Julian Treasure suggests a project called “Savouring” where students record sounds they like and bring them in to class to discuss them; this could double up as a way to build up a bank of sounds for future use.