HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Column: A Very Good Listener

by Miriam Heller Stern Issue: Taking Measure

Being a “very good listener” is one of the highest forms of praise a kindergartner can receive from her teacher. “Emily is cleaning up so nicely. She is a good listener.” “Look how Daniel is doing his work. He is a very good listener.” When children are little, “a good listener” is measured by a child’s track record for sitting quietly and doing as he or she is told. Listening is often measured by obedience.

As they climb through the grade levels, “listening skills” are measured by an elementary or middle school student’s ability to hear a passage, draw basic facts and inferences and answer the test questions with accuracy.

Why is following instructions or simple summarization the measure of a good listener? This is one of many cases where our school measurements sometimes focus too narrowly on outcomes that help a classroom function (e.g., children do what the teacher wants them to do, and perform tasks at grade level in a standardized language arts exercise) rather than measuring the application of that skill in the real world. As a result, we miss the opportunity to encourage and recognize the behaviors that will enable our children to succeed as moral, upstanding human beings.

How aligned are our curriculum learning outcomes with our mission statements? In Jewish day schools, we often highlight virtues in our rhetoric, but then obscure them in our report cards. If we break down the “listening skills” checkbox on the report card into valuable life skills, we might consider these types of listening:

Listening with empathy. When we are present, available and open to the experiences of others, we can support and challenge our peers with integrity and authenticity. We can learn from them by putting ourselves in their shoes. We can make them feel heard, welcomed, valued. We can recognize and respond to a cry for help. This kind of listening is the basis for friendship, community-building, team-building at work, and the helping professions.

Listening with a discerning ear. When we take the time to internalize the arguments we hear, remove our biases and evaluate the evidence presented as well as competing claims, we can develop our own opinions rationally and thoughtfully. The public square is increasingly an echo chamber of 140-character commentaries; it takes a trained ear to find sophistication and nuance and raise the bar for intellectual debate.

Listening with conscience. When we put what we hear in dialogue with our values, we can turn listening into a springboard for moral action and protest in the face of injustice. This kind of listening is the opposite of being aloof, apathetic, or oblivious. The world is not as safe or just as kindergarten; sometimes good listening must lead to civil disobedience.

All of these habits of the ear are measures of developing EQ—the emotional quotient that is at the heart of good leadership.

In school, students can demonstrate these kinds of listening skills every day. Classroom participation can include not only one’s own contributions but the ways in which students make space for their classmates to contribute and show an interest in learning from them. Working collaboratively in chevruta pairs or groups demands generous and attentive listening. The moments when our students hear a friend’s pain and lift that person up, present a reasoned counterargument, write persuasive op-eds and launch campaigns to address problems in society. When they tell us in their own words what the call of the shofar means to them during the season of renewal and repentance. These are the measures of good listeners.

Sometimes we lose sight of measuring the virtues that are really important. Perhaps we think they are tangential to the content of the curriculum; or they are too subjective to test; or it is too resource-intensive (time and money) to write detailed narratives depicting students’ listening habits. The problem is, including only what we can easily measure only tells part of the story. To the extent that one’s report card is an artifact of one’s educational autobiography, we owe it to our children to build a more nuanced narrative of who they are, how they are growing, and how they might contribute to society.

Facing an uncertain and imperfect world on the eve of the twentieth century, John Dewey famously professed that ideally, a school is a place where students learn to build and perfect a minisociety. How they utilize their academic skills as human beings is paramount. Good listeners can change the world, not just follow instructions and summarize passages. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from conventional report cards. In the real world, an empathetic, discerning listener who acts in good conscience can actually save lives. That’s worth measuring.

This column was inspired by the legacy of my colleague and friend Rami Wernik z”l, an exceptional educator who has been universally remembered as a very good listener, by all measures.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is the dean of American Jewish University's (AJU) Graduate Center for Education in Los Angeles. mstern@aju.edu

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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