Is listening really passive?

//Is listening really passive?

Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.
David Hockney

Like many others, I got very excited to see this published on the Ofsted website back in February:

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Inspectors should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

There’s so much in here that is cause for celebration that it seems almost churlish to find fault, but there’s one line that continues to nag: “On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course”.

Isn’t the assumption here that ‘passivity’ means sitting still and listening? I thought so. I would contend that listening is a highly active still that requires focus and attention. But in our misguided desire to demonstrate what great teachers we were, we got pupils running around, massaging their brain buttons and slapping Post-its on every available surface. Active learning was reduced to a caricature.

A few months ago I was working with a group of middle leaders in a school and explain my passion for reclaiming and improving ‘teacher talk’ from the dustbin of pedagogy. I was in full flow extolling the virtues of a finely wrought explanation when one subject leader stopped me say, “That’s all very well, but our kids just can’t pay attention for more than 5 to 10 minutes.”

To say I was flabbergasted would be something of an understatement. I was so surprised I wasn’t quite sure what to say in response and muttered something pathetic about agreeing to disagree. But it’s continued to reverberate and has built up something of a head of steam.

What if you were to say, the trouble with ‘our kids’ is that they can’t read so we don’t give them any books? Or that ‘our kids’ can’t behave so we just let them chuck chairs about? This would be clearly unacceptable if not downright negligent. If ‘our kids’ can’t pay attention for more than 5- 10 minutes then we damn well need to teach them to do so! The idea that we should pander to children’s inability to pay attention is terrifying. Paying attention for extended periods is a crucial ability for anyone who is likely to flourish as is much too important to be left to chance. That’s what I wish I’d been able to reel off at the time.

And while we’re at it, what all this about ‘our kids’? What make ‘our kids’ so special? If kids in grammar schools and independent schools can pay attention as a matter of course but those in ‘bog standard’ comps can’t, what should we conclude? Is the ability to pay attention dependent on social class? Or is it dependent on high expectations? I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out?

I can imagine some readers saying in response, but what about Billy? Surely he’s a special case and should be treated differently?

Well, we’re all special and should be treated differently, but if Billy’s needs are so extreme that he needs to be treated in a qualitatively different way from other children in a school, maybe he’s in the wrong place? But part of being a member of society is about conforming.

Consider this example: some years ago I taught a boy, let’s call him Carl, who had a diagnosis of ADHD. He behaved perfectly in my lessons but was hell on wheels for various other teachers. In particular his relationship with his French teacher had descended to a running feud and his behaviour towards her was appalling. The school decided to confront his outrageous shenanigans by offering him a mentor. And because I got on with him, Carl nominated me as the teacher he most wanted as a mentor. After one particularly horrific low I tried to confront him about what he had done and the following exchange ensued:

Carl: It’s not me sir, it’s my ADHD.

Me: But how come you don’t have ADHD in my lessons?

Carl: That’s cos you’re alright sir.

What does this tell us? Carl was exercising a choice. He chose when and when not to behave and pay attention. The school’s expectation of him was incredibly low, but in the end he was permanently excluded in Year 10 after committing one atrocity too many. If on the other hand the expectation was for him to jolly well do as he was told, I’m sure we would have done a far kinder service. At the very least he’d have had an early lesson about consequences and had more time to settle in to a new school.

Anyway, this has rather wandered away from the point. Passive implies a lack of purposeful learning. Day dreaming may be passive. Going to sleep is probably passive. Not listening is entirely passive. But listening is active requires our complete attention. So can we please stop referring to listening as passive?

Related posts

Teacher talk: the missing link
Independence vs independent learning
Listen up: improving the quality of classroom discussions

2014-07-01T08:47:06+00:00June 30th, 2014|learning|


  1. musicteacheruk June 30, 2014 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this post as it really does make you think about the ‘our kids’ assumption. What sort of activity would require you to speak to learners for over 10 minutes? Would you expect them to question the explanation or take part in a whole class conversation as part of this? I’m just trying to imagine teaching one of my lower ability classes to sit and listen to me explaining a key point for over ten minutes whilst being truly engaged. Thank you once agin for sharing your thoughts!

    • David Didau July 1, 2014 at 8:52 am - Reply

      I’m not certain that there are many activities that I’d want to engage in that would require pupils to listen for longer than 10 minutes (maybe watching a performance?) but as soon as I’m told that this is an unreasonable expectation, then I immediately want to do it!

      In reality, there are vanishingly few teachers that will want to spend entire lessons lecturing their pupils – any instruction sequence worthy of the name will include Q&A at the very least. i love this post from Martin Robinson on the subject:

  2. Dylan Wiliam July 1, 2014 at 3:49 am - Reply

    An interesting study by Alison King sheds some light on this. Students listened to a lecture presentation by the teacher, were tested on the content of the lecture immediately, and again ten days later. Students were allocated at random to one of four groups:

    Self-questioning/peer review: students were told before the lecture to pose questions as they listened to the lecture, and at the end discussed answers with peers

    Self-questiongin/solo review: students were told before the lecture to pose questions as they listened to the lecture, and at the end worked on the answers alone.

    Peer-review: at the end of the lecture, students discussed the content of the lecture with peers

    Self-review: at the end of the lecture, students reviewed the content of the lecture on their own.

    At the end of the lecture, all students had increased their knowledge of what was in the lecture by roughly the same amount. Ten days later, both the peer-review and the self-review groups were back where they had been before the lecture. In other words, ten days later, any knowledge they had gained was completely gone, so in effect, no learning had taken place.

    However, the two groups of students who engaged in self-questioning scored almost exactly the same in the 10-day delayed post test as they had done at the immediate post-test.

    My interpretation of this result is that just telling the students to ask questions as they listened to the lecture made them more active listeners. They presumably sat there, and didn’t jump about, or talk to anyone during the lecture, but they were cognitively active. And perhaps almost as interesting is the fact that it didn’t seem to matter whether they reviewed the lecture on their own or with peers. It was the cognitive activity during the lecture presentation that mattered. Students can be active learners when completely immobile and silent…

    Reference: King, A. (1991). Improving lecture comprehension: Effects of a metacognitive strategy. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5(4), 331-346.

    • David Didau July 1, 2014 at 7:45 am - Reply

      That’s fascinating! So giving a students a prompt as simple as, ‘formulate some questions about what I’m telling you’ might be enough to make the explanations we give stick?

      Thank you

  3. Philip Crooks July 1, 2014 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Top post I did enjoy reading it. Thanks.

  4. 4c3d July 1, 2014 at 7:32 am - Reply

    A great post that, in my opinion, reminds us of the core aspects of teaching and learning – building relationships and taking responsibility. I am tempted to say it is a “team game” between the teacher and learner. I think it also points to the requirement that learners are helped in developing and understanding their learning needs (not styles – that’s another label and they stick!) and appropriate responses. It is true too that schools develop a view of “their” students and whilst this may form an accurate caricature it is not an excuse not to do something about it, even if it upsets the apple cart for a while. Perhaps we are left with the question – Is it our kids or our teaching that is the cause? Essentially I think it is both and you are right to pointing to the need to challenge expectations.

  5. ijstock July 1, 2014 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Spot on. Thanks for this – my sentiments exactly.

    One point worth adding – it’s also down to the quality of the talk being given. Someone droning on in a monotone without any apparent awareness that they’re meant to be talking to an ‘audience’ is a completely different thing from an entertaining speaker who engages the audience, uses wit, anecdote etc. and clearly builds a relationship.

    Then there are the natural orators – not easily taught, but some people just have the ability to speak engagingly, and there’s no reason to suspect the power of that has diminished.

  6. Dylan Wiliam July 1, 2014 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Responding to ijstock, we also have to be aware of what Abrami, Lenventhal and Perry called “educational seduction” or the “Dr. Fox effect”. In one study, students were lectured by either a speaker who lectured high quality content in a boring monotone manner or low quality content in an engaging and upbeat manner (both presentations were given by actors). Students who had received the engaging content thought they had learned more than the other group, but they had not. When tested on the content of the presentation, it was the students who had received the high-content presentation that had actually learned most. So ijstock is right to point to the quality of the talk as being crucial, but, for older students at least, it may be that content is more important than charisma…

    Abrami, P. C., Lenventhal, L., & Perry, R. P. (1982). Educational seduction. Review of Educational Research, 52(3), 446-464.

    • ijstock July 1, 2014 at 2:02 pm - Reply

      Thank you – that’s interesting and useful – and it also calls into question another shibboleth of modern times – that one always needs to be interesting and engaging to be effective.

      I have had a similar experience when using city tour guides in Lille, France, who are completely unused to British child-centred techniques. They can be of very variable quality – but the pupils nearly always seem to recall a lot of what they’re told.

      • muzzyizzit July 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm - Reply

        But in this experiment they changed two things: the delivery and the content.

        • ijstock July 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm - Reply

          Yes, that had gone through my mind too. I’m also curious about how the test of learning was applied – and over what time frame. Retained earning or short-term recall?

          I’d also still suggest that an engaging speaker is more likely to appeal than a dull one at an affective level.

  7. logicalincrementalism July 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    “…if Billy’s needs are so extreme that he needs to be treated in a qualitatively different way from other children in a school, maybe he’s in the wrong place? But part of being a member of society is about conforming.”

    Letter in this month’s The Psychologist analysing test results from HE students with learning difficulties identified over 95% with below average Working Memory Index scores and over 95% with below average scores on Speed of Processing Index. All above average on verbal & non-verbal reasoning. Author (Denis Lawrence) draws conclusions about dyslexia, but working memory and speed of processing problems would impact on ability to actively listen.

    In other words, students might vary in their ability to actively listen and some might need quite a lot of practice before they can do so. Not necessarily a case of them being in the wrong place or not conforming.

    Couldn’t access the reference unfortunately, which is: Lawrence, D (2009) An analysis of the test results of 447 adult students assessed for dyslexia. Patoss Bulletin, Nov. 14-17.

    • ChrisN July 1, 2014 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      My daughter is dyspraxic and has working memory and speed of processing problems. She used a tape recorder at uni to record her lectures, and “actively listened” to them whilst taking notes at her own pace afterwards. I’m not really sure that practice can improve these problems much, but work-arounds can often be found.

      What was problematic for her in her earlier school career was if she was not provided with textbooks or hand-outs containing the information she needed to know, because these were necessary to give her the opportunity to work out what she had missed in class. Copying from the board was particularly problematic, because she would often copy incorrectly or incompletely, again due to slow processing speed.

  8. nancy July 1, 2014 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    Love this, David. A fine rant. I totally agree with you on expectations, and that listening (properly) is an active process.
    All learning is active – in my view it is nonsensical to suggest otherwise. Children are not receptacles into which we spoon bits of knowledge. In order to learn they must ‘eat’ it themselves and we (as teachers) must find the myriad of different ways to use in order to entice them to partake (to stretch a metaphor).

  9. […] It’s interesting to put these two quotes side by side. They are separated by over a century of psychology but essentially saying the same thing. Whilst many of our ideas about memory have changed since the time of William James, some of the basic foundations are still there. Likewise, in education the distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning has been perennial one. Indeed, these ideas are couched in the same psychology of memory. Unfortunately, ‘active’ learning has lost something of this connection in some education discussions – often conflated with ‘activity’ and ‘independent learning’. David Didau recently argued this point in his post “Is listening really passive?” […]

  10. […] to be was shown by the potential flaw in the research quoted even by Dylan Wiliam in this exchange here (follow the comments)  – and this in a case where research might just have shown up something that […]

  11. @ewendylee July 16, 2014 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    I’m a speech and language therapist by trade and have spent a lot of time teaching children and young people how to listen – children with learning needs as well as typically developing students. I couldn’t agree with you more, it’s absolutely an active process and one where when we teach the component elements, children can understand properly what it is and how to do it. This then means they can build meta skills around listening, especially comprehension monitoring (spoken language, not written) which engages the cognitive elements in different ways to make sure they are actively involved – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that kids can’t listen! My reaction is the same as yours – let’s teach them then!!

  12. Debbie Hepplewhite July 19, 2014 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this posting, David, I believe this is a hugely important topic underpinned by many issues – some of which are raised via your blog posting and readers’ comments.

    I have linked to your posting here:

    As I’m in the field of phonics provision – and we all know the negative press around phonics – I frequently get the comment from teachers that they have been told (and they believe) that little children can only sit for a very short time – and they always quote a similar version to what has been mentioned already ‘their age plus […] minutes’.

    The last teacher who said this to me said ‘their age plus two minutes’.

    This is simply not my experience – it is a ridiculous notion – but it is a mindset that I believe could be seriously hindering education from the earliest stages of learning.

    It is also one which hinders the provision of phonics – and all the vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension which should be part an intrinsic part of high quality phonics provision.

    The notion of ’15 or 20 minutes of phonics per day’ is mythical and an apologetic and flawed idea of good teaching (talking and modelling and interacting) and providing good learning opportunities (where each child gets to do the practice personally). In any event, how can 30 different children need the same amount of teaching and learning opportunities as one another – but also how can one teacher (or a couple of adults if we include a teaching assistant) teach the children effectively and then allow them to practise effectively with appropriate supervision with such a restricted time-scale and a restricted notion of what children can do and learn.

    Kind regards.

  13. […] particularly pleased that ‘passivity’ has been unpicked and the point that listening is recognised as being as active as any other form of learning. And I’m also chuffed that my suggestion that inspectors should be ‘looking at’ […]

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