Updated: Apr 11, 2022
What I love most about my work is the opportunity to listen.
It challenges me, inspires me and teaches me.
It acts as momentum in my thinking and learning.
It nurtures my curiosity and wonder.
Most importantly though it often reveals something new.
It leads me to different places than before and can change me and the relationships I have.
Taking the time to really see and listen to children (and adults) in a busy early childhood setting takes heart, attention and responsibility. It doesn't just happen because we think its important. It happens because we highly value it, and therefore we position ourselves as a team of individuals to cultivate the disposition and skills in our practice. It takes heart and head to really listen. A listening culture in an early childhood setting sets the stage for engaging an educational program centred on children's ideas, thinking and curiosities.
Listening has been the ignition switch for most of my professional learning as an early childhood teacher and leader (not to mention as a mum too). I have only come to realise the significance of this in more recent years. When I am present and my mindset is tuned in I am naturally intrigued and inspired by the seemingly simple yet complex ways of children and adults alike. I can see the depths of what looks like a simple act, like stopping to smell a flower. When I am listening, it can speak to me about the presence of nature, children's natural empathy with living things and the appreciation taken to stop and notice the beauty of the world around us. Sometimes a world I rush through.
When I am in an early childhood setting I find myself wondering and imagining, whilst at the same time being perplexed, as I better understand the phenomena of interactions around me. Listening connects me to being a teacher-researcher. When I listen, different things can happen, for example being challenged by what I thought was a truth only to see before my eyes a significant contrast. Sometimes this is being simply puzzled by what I see and realizing I want to better understand. Either way I am grateful that cultivating the act of listening for longer takes me to some wonderful places in learning about children, childhood, teaching teams and myself as a professional.
Listening also evokes the desire to communicate in me, to ask questions, to share my thinking, hear others and to debate and advocate. This process of active listening and reflective listening always involves others and is an act of reciprocity. This shapes and moulds me as a professional and positions what I put out into the world about children and childhood in my writing and documentation.
What does cultivating this type of pedagogical listening mean for me? I have tried to capture some of the practices I wrestle with, ones I have not perfected but continue to be aware of and pay attention to. These ultimately contribute to my ongoing learning in listening and I hope they offer you a place of thinking too:
Letting go of the known - I have dropped the 'knowing' mindset and trust 'not knowing' to bring more open space for understanding and learning. This means diving into, and staying with, what it means to be authentically curious. What captures my attention is what I pursue, not always what's planned. This requires a level of trust that the process of following your listening leads you to far richer and deeper places than you could have planned.
Slowing down so the details don’t pass you by - When you slow down you see more. Like watching a movie for the second time where new aspects reveal themselves. When we slow down it uncovers what is ‘unseen’ to the busy eye, like intentions, questions, motivations and struggles. Don’t let the tasks at hand overshadow your relationships and ability to read the cues which often ask you to focus on something different than planned or intended. Anthony Semann puts it simply: Let the observation find you.
Delving into questions - When you are in the moment I invite you to fall into an internal dialogue, asking questions as you watch and observe. Stop, pause and ponder whilst you observe and listen, try not to always do it on the run. Over time research has lead me to some important tools that have strengthen this skill, such as The Thinking Lens, by Deb Curtis, Ann Pelo and Margie Carter. They dive into this way of way of thinking with children in their book From Teaching to Thinking which you can purchase here.
Catch your judgement - Making premature judgements about anything we notice can stop you from listening and push you into proving the learning. We must protect time to gather a picture, a journey taken and for sharing perspectives in order to assess what we see whilst also inviting it into further question. Reactive judgement will always over simplify learning and therefore assessment. The speed at which we notice, judge (assess) and document needs to be slower, allowing time to gather the full picture. When we move away from a culture of 'tagging the outcome' and 'linking the outcome' where the depth of learning is over simplified, and teaching teams have opportunities to think with more complexity, overlap and interconnectedness. Our cycles of assessment are far too quick for any authentic understanding, learning and planning to take place. I invite you to read this beautifully articulated blog on Farmers are Smart by Jill McLachlan to reflect on this further. I know it can feel like a risk to wait, listen and gather information, but a risk I have come to realise is worth taking.
Think out loud - Talking about what you notice shows curiosity and conflict in your thinking and at the same time invites others into that space. This might be children, parents and/or colleagues. Everyday we should think out loud our wonderment, position it as significant in our practice because it changes what people focus on as a whole and holds space for professional practice 'IN practice'. When I was a new beginning teacher in New Zealand I remember hearing about Dr Margaret Carr's 4 D's on assessment within the learning story model. I think it is something we can borrow to reinforce the importance of 'thinking out loud'. The 4 D's are: Describe, Discuss, Document, Decide. What you will notice here is document is third, first we must learn to be confident to describe learning as we see it and also discuss learning with others before we document it. This process for me always brings clarity and invites me to write a braver story or piece of documentation.
Cultivate practice tools - Find ways in your day to day practice to gather the traces children leave before us or offer in their play everyday (see photo example below). This is the rich data. What children say, photos, video and their drawings provide us with insights into their learning. It is important not to gather everything and be tuned into the unexpected, finding the pieces that speak to transformation. I think there is always a caution with data gathering and taking observations. The first is consent which Janet Robertson unpacks briefly in this ECA video and the second is trusting yourself to know what is worth gathering. Lets not spend our days gathering unnecessary data, so sharpening our eyes on the important features in learning is something to practice. Or as Stefania Giamminuti shared at the INSPIRE 2020 Conference, "Is the moment capturing you or are you too busy capturing the moment". I thought this was powerful and worthy of reflection.
Listening can activate a quiet rumble in your professional spirit. You know that sense you get when deep continuous thought gathers and connects across time and it eventually forms into new understandings and insight. Oh I do love this rumbling. When listening, the rumbling starts to form and is like an attention to something you hadn’t paid attention to before. Almost like your intuition takes hold of a thought or idea and it won’t let go. I remember when I first discovered the idea of respectful practice from Dr Emmi Pikler, it was a quiet rumbling I connected with. I researched, practiced and spoke about it as I deepened my understanding over years.
There is a responsibility to tune into others and harness the skills and dispositions that cultivate this quality as a professional. It is only then you come to appreciate its gift in your practice. Be cautiously aware of the confirmation bias we often hold close in our practice. This can prevent us from being open to ongoing learning, it speaks the story of ‘I already do this’ and always affirms ‘our team listen well’. Dare to reveal the possibility that listening is never ‘done’. It is always in motion and always offering revelation and disruption to our knowing.
In my own research I came across the Chinese character Ting which describes listening and I often find myself reflecting on the integration of the 5 components that make up one powerful attribute. I wonder if this might be a useful reflection for you too.
In some ways it is easy to talk to the idea of listening, to intellectualise it, but to get at the heart of it with words is difficult, almost as though words simplify the complexity of it. Listening comes with a deep responsibility to be a responsive and present educator for children, families and colleagues. We all know what it feels like to be really listened to, to be heard and to be seen. Carla Rinaldi puts it so eloquently when she writes "a pedagogy of listening is an attitude and a sensitivity to what connects us....listening is also about ‘listening to ourselves'".
What opportunities might present themselves this week where we can listen more deeply I wonder?