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 skill 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 explained the need to reclaim  ‘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