Friday, June 26, 2015

The Best Listening Exercise Ever

Did you ever wish people would just listen to each other—really listen? Asking questions, trying to figure out why a reasonable, rational, normal person would hold that opinion, making sure they had understood correctly, asking for clarification when necessary? Maybe even acknowledging a perspective they hadn’t heard before?

What if your students could experience this in a given class period? 

They can. In my past 4 days at a seminar for teaching AP English Language and Composition, among the many things I learned was a scaffolding activity for academic argument that does just this. The instructor, Chris Baldwin, called it Four Square.

  • 4 signs posted on the 4 walls of the room—Agree opposite Disagree; Strongly Agree opposite Strongly Disagree 
  • Chairs for all participants arranged in a circle (may be layered)
  • A question or issue from your discipline on which there are different perspectives (from “Is Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman a tragic hero?” to “Was the U.S. use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima justifiable?”)
Students begin by standing in the middle of the room. The teacher reads the question or issue. Ours was (appropriate for a group of 30 mostly public school teachers), “In 2000, education rose to 3rd place in U.S. public opinion polls of national concerns. One proposal made in response was that teacher tenure should be abolished. What is your opinion?” 

Students move to a chair by the sign that represents their opinion. (With 30 participants, we had the biggest group, not surprisingly, in Disagree, but the group for Agree was only slightly smaller, and the 2 extreme opinions had 2 people each.) If it ends up that no one in the group takes a position, the teacher may do it and play devil’s advocate. 

Starting with one of the moderate opinions, the teacher calls on one student to give a reason he or she chose that position. Then the teacher asks questions of the opposite group about the statement just made, such as
  • What type of perspective was that support (economic, political, sociological, psychological, religious/moral/ethical, practical, emotional, rational, legal, environmental, historical)?
  • Can you restate that piece of support in a way that the speaker would agree?
  • Questions of clarification can be asked of the whole group or of an individual, defining terms in the question or in a response.
Then the teacher moves to another student, still in the first group, “Can you give a different reason why you chose this position?” To prompt thinking, encourage students to think of the different perspectives—economic, political, etc.—or different classes—anything they might have learned in English, history, math, science, P.E., music…? 

Only after all available opinions have been elicited from the first group, with the opposing group able to speak only to answer classifying, clarifying, or restating questions, does the teacher finally turn to the other side of the room to call on a student to provide a reason he or she chose this position. When all opinions at that corner have been elicited, classified, clarified, and/or restated (not all of these operations must be performed on every statement), the teacher turns to one of the extreme opinions, and then to the other. 

When no one has any more reasons to offer, the activity is over. People are not asked to reconsider their opinions and move chairs if they have changed position. Changing minds is not the goal: Hearing and understanding all perspectives is. Only then can we take the next step of forming a well-considered opinion and constructing an academic argument. 

  • When students may not blurt refutations at the moment of objection, they must take notes to remember what they want to say, and opposing opinions end up being stated in a calmer and more thoughtful way. 
  • No one is frustrated at not being heard.
  • Most people hear a reason or perspective they had not considered before.
And that is a win. 

Can't wait to try it in the fall!

P.S. Absolutely true story: As we strolled from the courtyard where we had conducted the activity back to our classroom, there was not one comment about the stupidity of any opinion expressed. Though the issue was one they probably had long and deeply held opinions on, my colleagues were talking about new perspectives they’d heard. I would make this type of reflection (probably in writing for students) the official closure to this activity.


  1. I really like all of this post! If I were still teaching, I would love using this in the classroom, although some students would really shine at this, and some might find it frustrating, and some might be a bit introverted for it. Still, it would accomplish some excellent discussion and engage them well. I wonder -- in high school, would they tend to all clump into one single opinion? They can be a bit lemming-like.

  2. Depending on the topic, it would most probably call for some front-loading--reading/studying several different articles from several different perspectives, brainstorming/journalling on personal responses/reasons. Brainstorming/journalling for even a couple of minutes before a discussion helps both introverts and extroverts--introverts to begin to formulate their response and extroverts to begin to whittle theirs down.