Listening to Teach, Speaking to Learn

Deeply etched in an archway in Myrtos-Pyrgos is the Minoan phrase, “Listen to teach, speak to learn.” This counterintuitive instruction echoes through Listeningthe ages to challenge practices in contemporary Christian education and faith formation. In a culture where speech is valued over listening and where teachers are more highly revered than students, it is easy to dismiss such a phrase as quaint or clever. However, there is deep wisdom worth reflection in this simple aphorism.

Listening to Teach

The first part of the phrase does not merely mean that before we teach we must listen, but that listening is a way of teaching. The Socratic Method begins by asking questions rather than giving answers. A fundamental tenet of Socrates’ method was the belief that people already possess the answers to the most profound questions in life. In the silence, in the struggle, in the quest — therein lies the answer.

Buddhist teachers often employ long periods of silence in the guidance of their students. One story tells of a student asking his teacher for the key to enlightenment. The teacher simply smiles. The student repeats his question. The teacher continues to smile. After a dozen further attempts, the student yells in frustration. The teacher looks at the student and says, “Ask your question four million more times, then you will receive your answer.”

Quakers come to “clearness,” not in debate or discussion, but in silence. When there is an important decision to make, Quakers enter a time of prolonged silence. When someone speaks, it is from a center of prayer and reflection — often to raise a question for further reflection.

Neill Hamilton, a New Testament professor at Drew Theological Seminary in the 1970’s and 1980’s, used to answer questions with a long pause — considering deeply. Giving an answer, he would often invite the student to “take time and think about the answer to see if it worked.” He used to teach that no answer was timeless and that no answer was complete. “If we would take more time,” he would say, “we would learn more.”

How many stories from the gospels begin with a request being made and Jesus responding by granting something completely other? Jesus listened through the words to the meaning and responded appropriately. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, the power of the silence while Jesus scratched on the ground was greater than the impact of the words. At his trial, Jesus stood mute before his accusers, teaching an incredible lesson about true authority.

The power of modern psychotherapy lies not in the words and wisdom of the therapist, but in the space created for people to unburden their souls and “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” As one professor of psychoanalysis said, “Wholeness waits in the spaces between words and images.”

A critically important work for leaders in local congregations is to learn to listen. There is healing in listening. There is connection and community in listening. And there is learning in listening. We may become most effective as communicators, not by what we say, but by our ability to refrain from speaking. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, consider some of the following instructions for learning to listen:

  • Make friends with silence. Spend twenty minutes a day in silent reflection and meditation.
  • In conversation, silently count to ten before each response.
  • In groups, wait until five other people speak before you do. 
  • When trying to make a point, ask questions rather than making statements.
  • When called on to make a decision, ask for a day to “think about it.” 
  • When calling others to decision, offer a time of silence for reflection before acting. 
  • Have a conversation with someone, then attempt to capture it on paper, writing the other side of the conversation as close to verbatim as possible. 
  • Pose questions and make space for hearers to offer their own answers first.

These simple ideas are anything but simplistic. Listening is an art, and dwelling comfortably in silence is a powerful way to educate and communicate.

Speaking to Learn

Conversation is a lost art. In conversation, all participants are equal. Everyone has the right to speak; everyone has the responsibility to listen. In ancient Greece, conversation was the primary form of learning. Teachers would share their knowledge and insights; and in the sharing, they would learn what they believed. New information was reinforced, processed, and integrated. The perspectives of the students added to the mix. Students learned, processed, and integrated new information; then they taught others as a way of reinforcing their own learning.

In our own day, many who teach claim that the process of preparing a lesson helps them learn new information more completely. My own third grade Sunday school teacher always said, “I learned so much more than I ever taught.” Nelson Thayer, another professor at Drew Theological Seminary in the 1980’s, once said, “As I speak, I think, and I learn what I truly believe. Were I not to teach, I fear I would cease to learn.”

John Wesley instructed the people called Methodist to engage in Christian conference. By this, Wesley meant that a central practice of our Christian faith is to participate in regular discourse about matters of faith. Christian conference is conversation that answers such questions as, “How is it with your soul?” and “Where have you experienced the love of God in your life?” and “In what ways have you shared the love of Christ with others?” As we put into words the experiences of life that have meaning for us, we learn what is truly important.

Our common structure for learning is to have a leader — an expert — impart information and knowledge to receptive hearers. Teaching is often a one-way conduit through which words flow. However, true learning occurs when information leads to meaning and understanding. When teaching is offered as monologue rather than conversation, we limit the potential impact of the message.

The primary reason we avoid dialogue is the fear of loss of control. Many teachers look at the time frame they are given and seek to fill it with important information. Lesson plans are developed that leave little room for silence, reflection, or — heaven help us — “getting off on a tangent.” We are taught to fill time with activities, exercises, visual aids, and stories. We “honor” a diversity of learning styles and “multiple intelligences,” sometimes ignoring the fact that across the entire range of learning diversity, the one constant factor shared by all is the reinforcement that comes by sharing what we are learning and thinking with others. People who repeat what they hear within twenty-four hours are more likely to retain information, transforming it into knowledge. “Meaning making” happens with the taught rather than with the teacher. The greatest teachers say the least and create space for the students to speak, not just listen.

  •  How can we begin to enable people to speak to learn? A few simple ideas are:
  • Create “conversation plans” rather than lesson plans. 
  • Help people develop the skills for silent reflection. 
  • Offer people opportunities to articulate their faith and knowledge. 
  • Explore ideas instead of dispensing information. 
  • When teaching, plan to speak no more than twenty-five percent of the time. 
  • When leading large groups, make sure group members have time to talk about what they are hearing, thinking, feeling, and wondering. 
  • Raise questions rather than make statements. 
  • Invite people to respond in safe, open ways. 
  • Don’t fear the “pregnant pause.”

Summary and Sources

Some implications of this thinking for the church are: 

  • To reevaluate the way we design curriculum
  • To critically examine how we “train” teachers
  • To ask what we really want to accomplish with our lesson plans
  • To deepen our understanding of group dynamics.

We are not talking about replacing tried and true learning models, but reclaiming effective learning models. Obviously, the concept of listening to teach, speaking to learn is as old as the hills of Crete.

For further study and reflection, consult the following resources:

  • People Skills by Robert Bolton, Touchstone Books, 1986.
  • Listening: The Forgotten Skill by Madelyn Burley-Allen, John Wiley & Sons, 1995.
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Fireside Books, 1989.
  • Group Dynamics (Third Edtition) by Donelson R. Forsyth, Brooks/Cole-Wadsworth, 1999.

6 replies

  1. I would add one more bullet point to both lists of wonderful suggestions for listening and speaking — converse with a young child. A 4-year-old’s questions about life (a la Bill Cosby’s “Why is there air?”) afford opportunities to stop and consider carefully the language we use to respond. And the feedback is immediate and emphatic on how clear and helpful our answers are.

  2. Good post! Forsyth’s book (Group Dynamics) has since come out in 4th and 5th editions. I’m not sure how much it’s changed [I’ve never read the 3rd ed], but you might want to check it out!

    • Thanks, Diane, I was aware of the updated editions but failed to update this article (it is a couple years old.) Forsyth’s book is still one of my all time favorites. I don’t think there is one better that covers as much as he does.

      • Dr. Forsyth was one of my undergrad professors… what a fantastic person to teach leadership studies! I’m excited that you are appropriating his research for the church context — that’s the integration that I always wanted to do in his class 🙂

  3. May I also suggest “Start Here,” the text for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship course “Lay Speakers Teach Adults.” It dives deeper into some of the topics and has a great bibliography.

    With the advent of child labor laws to reign in the abuses of the Industrial Revolution, another burden was born – the industrial model of education. Highly efficient student-teacher ratios, homogeneous class structure, strict two-tier teacher-student hierarchy, assembly line progression from one station to the next. “Model Ts only on this line! All motorcycles are to be rejected!” My grandmother, at 17, was the only teacher of 8 grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Depending on the season, she would have between 20 and 40 students ranging in age from 7 to 19 or older. There is no comparison between the quality she produced at the turn of the 20th century and the quality produced today by the average high school. As a learning community, all of the methods above were employed, through the teacher-as-facilitator.

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