Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, author of Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul
Schools Should Do What Democracy Needs: Teach People to Listen

On September 8, 2009, President Barack Obama told the school children of America: "What you are learning in school will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges of the future." What do our children need to learn in school so that such challenges can be met?

Schools must teach students to read and write and do mathematics. Schools must also engage them in the arts and in physical activity. But to what end? Our educational institutions have been charged with a sacred trust: to safeguard our democracy by teaching people to both think for themselves and work with others collaboratively. And in order to do either, people have to learn how to listen.

Far from simply following orders and obeying what others direct us to do, listening involves paying attention so as to understand what others intend to say, even if we disagree with them. Attentive listening requires asking what the others mean and making sure we have heard the answer correctly, regardless of our own preferences.

How can schools teach such listening? Research shows that classroom discussion which is organized around interpreting the meaning of texts teaches students how to think and listen to others' views, even those that conflict with their own. In an interpretive discussion, students and teachers work together to form questions about the meaning of books, non-fiction articles, numerical and other data, paintings, music, etc., and pursue resolution of the questions by searching the text for evidence. As students listen to the texts and other people speak, they come to understand the views and values of others as well as their own. In cultivating their listening skills, discussion participants develop empathy for the other, and empathy is as critical to the future of our nation and world as is the mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. Teaching students how to listen fosters their intellectual, social and emotional development; it leads to the development of character and citizenship. It is what schools should do.

Cover of Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul