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Children should be seen and heard – The need for passionate listening

Our need to focus on global issues has coincided with the opportunity for young people’s voices to be heard.” – Shay Wright, Ulearn19.

Recently, I attended the ULearn conference in Rotorua; an opportunity to meet with teachers, discuss ideas and learn from other educators. Asked by a fellow teacher to summarise the conference in a few sentences, I realised that it probably warranted a blog post. So, here is my key takeaway.

Children should be both seen and heard.

In the wake of Greta Thunberg’s recent speech to the United Nations and the furor it prompted, predominantly by the creature that is the “old white male broadcaster”, we must be challenged to rethink how our conversations with students shape our classroom spaces.

If, as Mason Durie puts it, education is about preparing people to actively participate as citizens of the world, then we need to be opening a space for young people to express their curiosity, passion and opinions. Too often as teachers we fall into the “Mike Hosking (Jeremy Clarkson/Donald Trump/ Duncan Garner/insert relevant figure here) trap by shutting down students’ voices, playing them off and discounting their interest. It’s not just Thunberg. Young people worldwide are standing up to have their voice heard on a myriad of issues and we need to start listening.

I was recently in a PLD session where a student articulated the need for teachers to listen stating, “you know the teachers who are actually listening, and the ones who are just waiting for you to finish, so they can reply”. I’ve been reflecting on this for several weeks, asking myself the question: am I actively listening or am I just waiting for students to finish? How can I listen better not only to my students but also to my colleagues? Listening isn’t just about hearing voices; it’s about valuing voices. Brene Brown puts it simply “Listen as passionately as you want to be heard.”

So, what does that look like? I’m drawn to a piece of research I read recently on negotiating identity in the classroom by James Cummins. He argues that we need to rethink our identities as educators. That what is necessary is a fundamental shift from coercive to collaborative relations of power. We need to reframe our interactions with students through the lens of identity negotiation, which is represented by the messages communicated to students regarding their identities - who they are in the teacher's eyes and what they are capable of. That’s about power. Relationships need to be additive and power created with others as opposed to imposed.

When classroom instruction encourages students to inquire critically into social issues that affect their lives (e.g., racism, environmental deterioration, omissions of groups other than "dead white males" from official histories, etc.), students' intelligence is activated in ways that potentially challenge the societal status quo.” – (Cummins, Negotiating Identities, 1996)

If we can create a space where students critically inquire into social issues, where the power is additive and students voices are heard, we may be on the way to an equitable classroom.

What is it we are afraid of? Handing over the microphone? Much like climate change deniers reject scientific arguments because it means they have to accept they have screwed up the world, are we refusing to hear the voices of our tamariki in the knowledge that maybe they have the answers that we do not?

Thunberg puts it best, "I guess they must feel like their world view or their interests or whatever... is threatened by us.”

My challenge is for this week is simply that you let your world view be threatened, that you listen as passionately as you want to be heard.


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