Text of the 1989 J. A. Robinson Memorial Lecture held at the Kelvin Grove
Campus, Brisbane College of Advanced Education, 10 August 1989.
Certainly the educational processes of schooling have traditionally devoted a great deal of attention to the most effective and interesting ways in which children might acquire the secondary modes of language literacy - reading and writing - while maintaining a nurturing and developmental role in the oracy area. As the child moves up through the educational system - meeting the increasing challenges of primary, secondary and tertiary courses - considerable educational resources are devoted to mediating the individual's interaction with the increasing complexities of the print environment integral to those challenges.
Whether the prevailing educational philosophy concerning the print environment focuses on Dick and Jane, Dick and Dora or other forgettable characterics of reading schemes, the colour coded rigours of the stepwise SRA era, the idiosyncratic narratives of the child's own storying, or another current reading imperative at the initial acquisition stage, the implicit principle is one of staged introduction, of acquisition in a gradual way appropriate to the needs and developmental stages of the learner. The child and adolescent literature industry bears eloquent testimony to this fundamental principle. For example, Gwendda McKay's ( 1985) doctoral study entitled 'Where have all the metaphors gone?' was predicated on the low incidence of metaphoric language in poetry written specifically for young children, presumably deriving from assumptions made by writers about the suitability of metaphor for the young reader of poetry.
The Language Across the Curriculum movement has made us very conscious of the importance of the language used in content area texts, and appropriate language level has become a central criterion for teachers of all disciplines - whether science, mathematics, English or health and human relationships - in choosing texts for use in their classes. Indeed, the challenges implicit in, for example, reading the plays of Shakespeare, have been judged to be inappropriate at certain stages for many students in this country. Consistent with the view that disciplines have their own specific genres and register (which it is not necessarily the business of schools to impart), a number of Schools of Education including James Cook University have made the decision to introduce a compulsory course for all students in Language Education. At James Cook the central objective of this course is to introduce students to the reading and writing demands implicit in the genres of academic discourse in Education.
The point I am making is that our educational processes expend a great deal of energy and creativity on the orchestration of the individual's formal induction into the readily acknowledged complexities of the print environment. Yet no such induction takes place into the listening environment which is potentially at least as complex and, arguably, even more diverse in its demands on the individual. Is it, in reality, such a 'natural' environment? Does it, indeed, connote such an automatic process that no carefully orchestrated induction needs to take place? Is any induction necessary? Are we simply born into our listening environments able to function with complete effectiveness?
In school contexts Markgraf (1966) found that, of the high proportion of time devoted to listening, by far the greater proportion of it was spent listening to teacher rather than to self or peers. This finding has led to a call for redressing that particular imbalance in the listening environment but has not directed any specific attention to characterising the idiosyncratic demands of that particular listening environment. This kind of fairly bland quantitative evidence does at least alert us to the dominance of the listening environment, regardless of our stage of life. Yet there has been relatively little research attention devoted to description and analysis of the listening environments in which we operate as individuals.
When I asked each of the groups to listen to the news, however, they were not engaged in any other activity and, in that sense, the range of behaviours that were evinced on each occasion were quite atypical of what might be termed the 'normal' range of news broadcast listening behaviours. For example, some people took notes with assiduity; others focused intently on a specific area of the ceiling of the room in which we were located; some drummed their fingers on the tables in front of them; all were manifestly disengaged from any other activity except listening.
At the end of the news broadcast in each instance, I asked each individual to perform a simple task. Every second person was asked to construct ten true/false items on their perceptions of the broadcast (Task A) while every other person was asked to reflect on the listening behaviours they had displayed during the News Broadcast (Task B). On each occasion after the tasks were completed, members of the group were asked for a rationale of the behaviours they, themselves, had exhibited during the replay of the News Broadcast. While, as I indicated, the behaviours were divergent, the rationales were clearly not so. Each indicated that the behaviour was predicated on the suspicion/fear that I would somehow 'test' them on the content of the News Broadcast, and that recall of specific details of items would be involved. They were obsessed with fear of failure on the anticipated test. Without exception those who were assigned Task A - constructing the ten true/false items - found their task easier. While this was not set up in the first instance as a controlled experiment, the results are sufficiently consistent - and compelling - to provide support for the hypothesis that the establishment of purposes for listening in specific contexts is likely to be both useful and productive - at least for the individual. In other words, those whose prediction of the likely outcome of the activity most closely approximated its demands experienced both less difficulty with and less anxiety about the eventual task.
It is evident, though, both from the anecdotal evidence provided by my experience with the reaction to the News Broadcast task of all four groups and the formal test data reported earlier, that attempts either to sample listening behaviour or listening performance via listening tests - in whatever form(s) - are likely to yield enhanced results at least from the more able because of their superior predictive ability. It might also be hypothesised that those with lower predictive ability may yield, in fact, a flatter/lower profile of performance in the face of the anxiety inherent in the lack of precise predictive skills. Thus it might be argued that identifiable listening test situations sample as much intelligence applied in a speculative context as they sample listening behaviour and/ or performance.
There are, of course, other kinds of evidence about behaviour in the listening environment - yet this tends to be scattered rather than systematic. The anecdotal evidence of many teachers is that it is difficult to achieve a satisfactory level of listening behaviour in the classroom - satisfactory, that is, in terms of a learning environment. Teacher educators will testify to the number of exhortations to listen that they hear/overhear in the course of their perambulations around the educational scene, exhortations which imply the absence rather than presence of the desired behaviour. Indeed, in all too many classrooms, students know that the teacher will repeat the instructions for a task three times and that they thus do not need to listen until their consciousness is penetrated by the trigger words expressed in exasperated tones: 'Now for the last time this is what you are supposed to be doing ...' and their attention is given.
Studies at the tertiary level suggest that students listening to lectures remember at best only about 50 per cent of the content (e.g. Nichols, 1949; Brown, 1950; Irvin, 1953) - which certainly calls into question the lecture as an efficient, effective mode of giving information. If, however, a lecture is designed to challenge students, to provoke them to more sustained thought, to question and to speculate, then the modes of testing the effectiveness of listening to lectures in terms of recall of information that have been employed to date are probably both inappropriate and invalid and the results consequently misleading.
Research into listening environments has thus been descriptive of how much listening we do in particular contexts; research into listening behaviours, on the other hand, has tended to be judgmental of how much is retained from that listening, almost within a deficit framework. The testing of listening, with its dominant emphasis on listening comprehension, has largely foundered on the test context in which the instructions which precede the test items serve to change even the most passive listener into an active listener, at least for the duration of the test, thus not sampling normal listening behaviour. There has been little attempt to sample listening behaviour across a range of contexts, or to experiment with different instructions.
The 'let me tell you a story' strategy where the principal, without actually giving the teacher a hearing, seizes the opportunity to share a personal experience.The notion that listening is a critical factor in ensuring the organisational communication effectiveness of both superiors and subordinates is not confined to schools or educational settings. Downs and Conrad (1982) point out that:
The 'not now ... later' strategy by which the principal instigates postponement to avoid listening to the problem and thence never re-opens an opportunity for the teacher to air the problem.
The Honeycutt and Worobey (1987) study of communications styles and competence in nursing relationships argues from its findings that, 'since an attentive style [i.e. listening] did not differ in usage across ... all [nursing related] relationships, we would expect listening to be important in all nursing relationships' (Honeycutt and Worobey, 1987, p.222). Honeycutt and Worobey (1987) assume that '... feedback is essential in the hospital because errors in listening have detrimental effects for patients ... [especially] since doctors require nurses to convey decisions that they have made regarding the patient's treatment' (Honeycutt and Worobey, 1987, p.223).
A second study conducted by the same authors (Honeycutt and Worobey, 1987) '... revealed that listening was the most important communication skill regardless of the [nursing] relationship. [Certainly] researchers in health communication have found that effective listening comprises a critical element in the communication process (Kreps and Thornton, 1984; Klinzing and Klinzing, 1985)' (Honeycutt and Worobey, 1987, p.225) and is most effective '... when communicating in a more open situation such as a nurse-patient relationship [in] contrast to the strained and closed relationships between a nurse and a doctor or a nurse and an administrator' (Honeycutt and Worobey, 1987, p.226).
Wolvin (1984) surveyed 134 adult tertiary students enrolled in basic speech communication evening courses at the University of Maryland regarding their perceptions of the importance of various communication skills to them as individuals in both work and social settings. The perceptions of these students from a range of degree backgrounds revealed six communication skills which were perceived to be most important to work: (1) listening; (2) motivating people; (3) telephone; (4) informal conversations; (5) briefings; and (6) interviews. The six communication skills which were seen as the most important in Family and Social Settings were: (1) listening; (2) expressing feelings; (3) building relationships; (4) informal conversations; (5) resolving conflicts; and (6) self-disclosure (Wolvin, 1984, p.269). While one might be tentative about the results of this study given that these students had voluntarily enrolled in this speech oriented course - presumably to remediate problems they perceived in their own communication skills, the results are nevertheless consistent with the results of studies of other professional groups, especially across the workplace.
Even Grade 6 students (11-12 year olds) recognise the importance of listening and are able to articulate indicators of effective listening habits and skills as was reported by Emma Plattor (1987) as part of her report of the Calgary Listening Inquiry Project to the International Oracy Convention in 1987. Some of their insights include the following:
STUDENT A: My best listener is my best friend. I know he's listening to me because we have the same problems and we listen to each other's problems. You concentrate on what he knows and you give him suggestions about how he can solve his problems. It's like you're being brothers. If you've got a younger brother, he comes up to you and says, 'Big brother, what do I do? This bully's pushing me around.'
STUDENT B: All of my best friends listen to me most of the time. They look at me so I know they're listening. But I also think enemies listen to you. They're looking for your weak spots, and if you say something wrong they say, 'No, no, that's not right. It's this.' And they're waiting for a moment when you say something wrong.
I would certainly add listening to Hannan's 'uncertain and haphazard' group but I also note that he doesn't mention it at all! In 1970, Milton Clark wrote, in the context of listening curriculum across Australia, '... unfortunately, current curricula available in Australia offer little concrete help to the teacher in providing adequate training and listening' (Clark, 1970, p.2), a comment which was equally true when we quoted it in our book Oracy in Australian Schools in 1980 (Bourke, Clark, Davis and Holzer, 1980). As we face 1990 in a couple of months, the comment remains as accurate as it was in 1970. There will be no implementation at the classroom level unless teaching resources are available and teachers are educated in the listening area. Without such resourcing, statements in curriculum documents remain simply motherhood statements about language, statements which provide ballast for work programs but do not influence practice substantially at any level.
The point is that if doctors, teachers, engineers, solicitors, etc., are to become au fait with - and hence sophisticated individuals with and within - the total listening environment, they must first acquire knowledge of and insights into themselves as listeners within the range of listening environments to which we are typically exposed. One element of my current research is to sample reflective listening behaviour via listening diaries. These encompass one week of listening for each of the individuals concerned. Although no specific method of recording listening is required, participating individuals are asked to incorporate in their records a description of the listening context, some characterisation of the types of responses required within those contexts, an analysis of their responses as a listener, as well as reflections on their own learning about themselves as listeners.
The diaries collected thus far have provided an extremely rich source of data not only from the point of view of reflections on listening behaviour but also from the point of view of the individuals concerned who believe that the learning experience involved in the task and accompanying reflections have modified their self concept and consequently their behaviours. I will not attempt to summarise these data here but will simply provide you with a few samples, encompassing both the prosaic and the poetic.
Listening changes dramatically depending upon whom one is interacting with ... for example, listening to a superior requires strict attention and carefully measured 'positive-type' responses. These is also a great measure of recognition of this person's requirements. Listening must be seen to be absolute and lots of 'yes, yes' agreement must follow. Speaking to peers is a little different; depending on the relationship listening becomes more interactive, more giving. Listening to subordinates is again different with the use of dismissal being prominent (by this I mean tuning out, because after all what has a subordinate to say!!!).EVAN:
Already I feel [after one day's reflection] I should listen more spontaneously rather than in my acquired military fashion. We deal in communication sets and this I feel stereotypes our listening patterns - quite rigid. I'll be paying more attention to this.
Today as well, I found out something interesting. If listened to people carefully, spoke at the right times, gave the appropriate non-verbal responses, that I could get people to talk more and more. If, however, I did the opposite people did not even try to talk, simply lost interest and quickly got on with what they were originally doing before I started talking to them. They lost interest very quickly.MEG:
I realise I miss some observations because I'm not listening. I usually am thinking of two or three things at once. My sister places values on status things which I don't and therefore I only hear the first two or three words and then pick up again when the tone of her voice tells me she is finishing ... If I tell my sister about something that happened at school or at university, I can hear her tone change, as if to say 'don't talk over my head' ...I am a creature of habit, until I start teaching, then I become versatile and listen, question what I am hearing, reviewing what I hear and seek an answer to the problem if any. I am more discerning as to what I will listen to, than when I was younger. I use my experience, perhaps prejudice, to screen what I wish to listen to. Finally, I react automatically to many everyday sounds. I realise that I am almost programmed by sound; I rise to the kettle's whistle; I move automatically as the washing machine shudders at the end of its cycle. I suspect that women are much more programmed in this way than men.SYBIL:
[Like Meg, Sybil is programmed by domestic sound. Her] Sunday morning shuddered with the sound of the washing machine vibrating its way through endless loads of accumulated articles. [Liberated from the endless routines of this task she sets out] to enjoy the sights and sounds of a long walk ... Horses clip, clop easily along the path behind us - and in front a whole family of cyclists approach warning walkers of their imminent arrival with insistent rings on their bells. To the left in a very large blackberry patch a number of pickers are calling to each other as they seek and find the last season's crop. Today, although it is summer still, there is a scent of autumn in the air and a hint of a blue haze. From the local Greek Club come muffled sounds of the joyous celebrations. The music comes and goes as it wafts on the breeze as it travels the basin of the creek sweeping fragments of 'Zorba the Greek' in our direction. Eventually we pass beyond the places where most people wander ... Ibis call standing elegantly on their fine black legs. Herons cry as they circle above seeking a place to land. Ducks wade on the water surrounded by water hens, coots and moorhens. There is a constant plip, plop as one after another they dive, disappearing into a swirl to surface at some distance spot ... At home again l decide to pick up some of the rubbish which blows from [the] road into the edge of [the] park ... I attract a few whistles which amuses me. Then disaster, I bend beneath the heavy wooden sign, some up suddenly - and split the front of my head. I am aware of my own cry in response to this sudden abrupt end to my good deed for the day.DENIS:
I am awake, listening to my thoughts ... I am listening for the sake of listening, putting the fabric of sounds together as the morning begins. The birds have been active since dawn. Their calls are woven into the incessant sound of the street, the cars coming and going, the street sweeper working at a higher constant pitch than the cars as they approach and disappear.While analysis of the listening diary data is still in its formative stages, these examples point to the quality of the learning experience for these individuals as they explore the dimensions of their listening environment and their role(s) within it. These explorations are, of course, highly idiosyncratic.
I move. I become part of the fabric of sound. The mattress replies and the doors respond. I am making noise but the level is trivial compared to the alarm as it pierces the relative calm. Like a tardy thread expelled from the cloth it is soon eliminated. The morning has begun.
The routine hardly varies but I begin to realise how common the use of water is and yet how diverse the sound. From a small steady stream, aimed and expelled, to a cascade in the shower playing on various surfaces, the symphony of sound proceeds to a crescendo, only pausing as I reach for the soap. Thematic variations occur during breakfast as I pour my fruit juice and boil the water for coffee.
As the day proceeds the loom is spinning cloth faster than I can cope with. I begin to eliminate sounds or rather isolate what I want to hear. My car stereo plays Stravinsky's 'Pulcinella' shutting out engine noise from the street. It is almost absurd to watch cars zoom by to a jaunty, contrapuntal rhythm.
School, the main focus for the day, looms before me. It too begins quietly with tired 'Good Mornings', yawns and mandatory curses at the photocopier, but here too the mesh becomes more dense transforming from a fine linen to a course flannelette as the students arrive.
Sound controls the day. Bells direct movement to and from class and direct eating habits. School yard teasing or compliments, 'You're a wimp' or 'Where'd ya' get that', set mood and create cries of anxiety or delight. Teachers drone on as if they have something important to say. I talk too much.
I leave my sack-cloth surroundings and attempt to experience silk. I go to my singing lesson. Here we try to create pure sound and suggest a change of mood or emotion by a subtle tone change or a diminuendo. Sound is experienced in its truest form. Sound is not just an aural form, to be heard, it can be experienced. The vibration that is sound can permeate the whole body. The resonance in the head, the dentist drill like vibration of the teeth and the taut diaphragm make sound and singing a total experience. [In his diary for Day Two, Denis moves from stream of consciousness description to a more questioning mode:]
I have also mentioned 'listening to my thoughts'. I am conscious of creating words to discuss in my mind the process or phases of an argument or debate. These are words - yet they are silent. A11 the same I am listening to my thoughts. I have eliminated the need for sound to concentrate on the actual problem. To arrive at this point I have taken the sounds that are symbols for meaning, kept the meaning and discarded the sound. The sense is still the same. I could vocalise those sounds to convey meaning but with an audience of one there is no need. Am I then still listening? ... Do we therefore listen when we write? We are simply reproducing sound with pen and paper. Musical notation is the same. The crotchets and quavers represent value in terms of time and pitch and is reproduced when read correctly. Are we listening when we read ?
It is also possible to examine at least some of the dimensions of our listening environment with greater rigour, even objectivity. Take, for example, the listening environment provided by radio or television with the diverse genres that each reflects. It is possible, as indeed I have demonstrated (Davis, 1987) to examine specific genres in terms of the role model for speech provided within the listening environment. In the course of that study I analysed the speech role models provided by the contemporary sporting heroes of the day and reached the albeit tentative conclusion that:
The speech of Australian sporting heroes, regardless of the sport, relies very heavily on cliche - whether it is the sport specific cliche, e.g., the racing parlance of 'there was plenty of pace on and she rattled home in her first up run' or the seemingly general reaction of the successful Australian sporting hero to success 'it was the biggest thrill of my life you know' or 'it's every person's dream to ...'. Not only is the individuality of the person masked by the sameness and predictability of the cliches but it might also be argued that the capacity to be self observing (Dixon, 1987J, to analyse, to introspect, to interpret performance and achievement is reduced by this tendency to resort to a narrow range of cliches.In another direction, given the precise time formatting of commercial television programming, one might hypothesise that a pattern of trigger listening is being formed - in which the listening is shaped at the global level by the pattern of show and advertisement - and the specifics tend to have but peripheral value. Initiation or cessation of 'ad' sounds triggers behaviour. To what extent do other listening environments, even - might I suggest - classrooms, create a context for 'trigger' listening?
Partly because of the reductionist nature of cliches and perhaps partly also as a result of a very significant reliance on stop gap phrases like 'you now' and 'sort of', the utterances tend not to be extended and hence are limited in the degree of exploration and/or speculation attempted. This environment appears only rarely to produce examples of sustained oral monologue. Utterances tend to return the conversational ball rather than to attempt to do anything new with it, e.g., a young discus thrower asked why he had taken up this sport for which there was so little precedent in Australia, replied 'Yeah, well you know, I just find it a challenge' . There is little that reflects personal response and enthusiasm. (Davis, 1987, pp.48-9)
I could almost certainly pose a generation of Ph.D. research questions in the area of listening. Indeed many of the questions I posed as a result of my own doctoral dissertation remain unanswered a decade and a half later. That is not the most urgent problem. Our central and critical problem, across the broad spectrum of all professions and occupations across the vast distances of this nation is to accept and act upon Tom Devine's (1961) recognition that:
The professional persuaders, whether politicians, advertisers, pleaders of causes, teachers and professors, or barkers at country fairs, have learned with Hitler, that 'it is in their listening that people are most vulnerable'. (Devine, 1961)Do we, as educators, have the right to assert to that vulnerability? I leave the question with you.
|Further details of the references throughout this article are available from the author: Professor Diana Davis, Head of Department, Language and Arts Studies in Education, James Cook University, Townsville Q 4811.
Please cite as: Davis, D. (1989). Listening: A natural environment? Queensland Researcher, 5(1), 4-22. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr5/davis.html