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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of... listening

Listen with your ears, eyes, heart and mind.

This is how I start a philosophy session with my preschoolers.

A simple reminder that there is not one way to listen... not even with listening is there a single story.

Many of the activities I did with the children was to give the children time and opportunity to practice their listening skills... to listen with their ears, to listen with their eyes, to listen with their hearts and to listen with their minds.

I want to live in a world where people listen to understand, not listen to wait for the pause to press their own agenda as their answer...

With understanding comes acceptance... and I would much rather have that than tolerance....

"The danger of a Single Story" TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a film I have shared many times on my facebook page and in blogposts... (The film can be seen at the end of this post). I feel it is a talk that all educators should watch. As educators we have an enormous responsibility not to to present one version of what it is to be human, to be a child, to learn, to be "acceptable".

The Reggio Emilia Approach started at the end of the Second World War as a reaction to this... the fact that so many Italians had simply followed the story of Mussolini... they accepted it, did not question it, or maybe not even consider there was an alternative... or worse, dare to think of another alternative. The parents and Malaguzzi wanted children that did not simply follow... that asked questions, that explored ideas, that did what is right rather than what is easy.

Last August I listened to a lecture about schools in the Netherlands during the Second World War and how teachers were no longer able to simply teach the truth, but only a certain approved truth that was selected to manipulate the children to tune into a Nazi way of seeing the world. Simply said they were taking away the right for the children to make a choice about how they felt about others, or treated others.

Choice is important - especially for children, and play. Just this week I was reminded by a nine year old that without choice there is no play.

Without choice we are following the beat of someone else's drum.

This is why it is so important that we are exposing children to multiple stories... not just ones that feed the stereotypes, or fuel exclusive norms...

We need to see beyond them and make our own, informed, decisions, every child... every human.

During my keynote about Original Learning in Athens (it is possible to listen to it and others, it is a "to pay for" option) I talked about the need for us as educators to provide children with experiences to acquire new knowledge.

New knowledge and new experiences will expand their thinking and expand their imaginations and creativity, as long as they are given the time and space for this, and that time is not just filled with cramming minds with facts. I would argue that children first need to play with new facts to understand them, for them to become knowledge. For example knowing that water can also be labelled H20 as a 4 year old is more fact than knowledge as the child, unlike an adult researcher in molecular biology who will have an understanding of what the H is and the O is and how molecules function etc.

This is the basis of Original Learning... a loom with the warp strands (the ones going down) representing play... and the experience, learning, knowledge, wonder etc are all woven into the play. The play is essential for converting the experiences and facts into knowledge.

As educators we are providing the children with facts, experiences and opportunities to build their own knowledge. For a healthy future, we do not want that knowledge clouded by bias (a single story) but illuminated by multiple stories and and the truth found there.

It means we need to be open.

We need to listen with an open mind and an open heart...

Actually, this is something that we practiced with the children as part of the International Fairy Tea Party celebration. It might seem an unlikely place to explore being open... but I think this is something that children and their imaginations can teach us.

Greg Bottrill talked about the magic door to the realm of play... and I think if we learn to be open enough to step through this door and to really listen to the children's play - not to answer it with learning agendas and analysis, but simply to understand the children and the process, then it is a way for us as adults to practice our skills at being open to the other...

The photo to the right is a child placing her hand on a tree to listen to nature, she closed her eyes, opened her heart and listened (you can see one hand on her heart). She told me the tree said they were welcome to the forest to play.

I feel children are naturally more open.

I remember working with a young boy who was constantly wearing princess dresses, he was the only boy of 40 children that did this. One of the girls asked him once why he dressed up as a princess, and his answer was simply "because I feel good, and they are beautiful". The 8 children sat round the table listened, approved that this was indeed a very relevant answer, and accepted him as the boy who loved dresses because it felt good. This was all the reason they needed. Sadly his parents did not share this openness and forbade him to wear the dresses. I sometimes found him by the dress up box, stroking the dresses. I so wanted to tell him he was allowed to put the dresses on at preschool, but both he knew and I knew that his parents would not approve (would be angry) and it was not my place to encourage him to defy his parents at age five. It was my place to have dialogues with his parents to help them understand. Sadly some parents are not open, they have been fed the story that wearing dresses will change their son into something they personally did not approve of...

For me this is part of gender equality... it's not just about the girls getting the same status as boys, but also about the boys being able to express the whole of themselves and not feel they have to repress it because it is deemed lesser.

There are many stories of gender... not just two!

Sometimes I wish I was a fully competent open listener. That it came naturally. I am though burdened with my own story. But at the same time, this story of mine, is what fuels me. So by being open, it does not mean you have to abandon who you are, what you think or believe in, it simply means that we listen with respect to others, that they may share with us things that expand our own thinking, or change our thinking or even solidify our own thinking. it means we have to value what others say. it does not mean we have to agree with them.

Too many in this world are making judgements and decisions based on their own conviction fuelled by a single story. And often this is done in a binary way... mine, and the other...

I feel there is an element of truth in the saying "Birds of a feather flock together" - that like-minded people seek each other out. its how we build our self esteem. Its important to feel a sense of belonging. it is only "dangerous" when the like-mindedness refuses to listen to the minds of others, or worse seeks out to demean the minds of others... the whole idea of Otherism (you can read about that here... The Story of Otherism)

I look at the young climate strikers trying to get the politicians to listen to the scientists. Here we have stories of childhood, of the climate, of industry, of adults, of power, of countries, of economics, of trade... so many stories... and so little listening, as leaders are selectively choosing which stories they should listen to - or maybe they are being told which stories they are allowed to listen to?

This is why we, as educators, need to help children learn to listen to all the stories and not be fed a single story. We need to become aware of the single nature of the story we have been raised with - so that we can start making choices as to what kind of teacher/parent we want to be.

Fear is a big factor when it comes to choice. The fear of getting it wrong, the fear of being excluded, the fear of pain or death or danger... look how stranger danger limits play in many cultures... it limits freedom. Choice-Freedom. Maybe, in fact, the single story is dangerous because it not only limits the freedom of others... but also our own personal freedom... we are not free to make our own choice about what we really think... to only react to the story we have been fed.

I was talking about the amygdala the other day - as it is the part of the brain where fear sits... two small almond shaped parts of the brain. The thing is that if the brain gets fed the story (through a bad experience or observing the reactions of others or listening to others) then it can develop a reflex to fear.

As a child mine was insects, I learned from watching my mother that I should be afraid of them, and fear kicked in every time a creepy crawly came near me. I have had to retrain my amygdala, change the story of the insects, so that they are not to be feared but to be admired.

I have also seen this with young children... I find that most preschool children are afraid of the dark... mostly it felt (after listening to the children) because they could not see their parents, and their imaginations kicked in as to what could be there when their parents were not visible to protect them. So we played in the dark... the first time, some children opted out after a short time, the second time only one child, the third time on they all played - it went from a scream-fest to a place of joy in a matter of weeks. The children declared that they were no longer afraid of the dark because (their words) "we can play there". The children had a new story about the dark. Their amygdala had a new version of what the dark could be that was not as threatening and did not put them into a state of fear... fight or flight is useful when it is really needed, less so when you want to fall asleep!!

This is the importance of offering a myriad of stories.

We need to..


with our ears... hear the words that are being said

with our eyes... see the intent, the context

with our hearts... with empathy, understand the emotions that fuel the communication

with our minds... think critically, does it make sense based on the knowledge you have, does it make you realise you need more knowledge to better understand, do you need to help the communicator with evidence to expand their thinking? Think creatively... use your imagination to expand the ideas and the possibilities.

We want to create a sustainable listening climate. This means we need to give the time for children, all humans, to practice the skills they need to be good and open listeners.

This means they need language to communicate, they need to to understand relationships and build trust to share ideas and listen and value the ideas of others, they need self-regulation to be able to listen to all the stories and not just the ones that immediately catch their attention (otherwise we will only be listening to like-minded people), they need to learn about compassion and taking care of each other, about consent and respect. They need to be given skills to think meta-cognitively, to reflect.

This film inspired me to start writing posts entitled "The Story of..." because I feel it is important for everyone to know that this is one story of education, play and child development... it is my story and I also try to share the stories of others... those without a voice that others hear... often children... but sometimes cultures that we like to not think about too much... so we often only understand a stereotype of them, rather than the complexity of every culture, every nation of every human!

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