Whakarongo mai: The power of listening

Dr. Raewyn Eden, Massey University

When kaiako make space and listen, really listen, it can be transformative. Communication is central to the work of teaching, so it was surprising to discover how much of a difference it made when a group of kaiako learned new ways to listen – really listening really matters.

Listening is surprisingly powerful … and surprisingly challenging!

The importance of kaiako working in partnership with others, especially with ākonga and whānau, is well accepted. In an 18-month Teacher-led Innovation Fund (TLIF) project, kaiako explored how they might develop and engage in processes of explicit collaborative inquiry with ākonga and whānau. They wanted to build powerful partnerships and co-design learning opportunities for ākonga that would forefront their strengths, passions, experiences and perspectives, and empower ākonga to lead their own learning. This blogpost shares some of what happened when kaiako engaged in talanoa with ākonga and whānau, and learned to listen in new ways.

So, what is talanoa … what did we do?

Our understanding of talanoa came from the work of Vaioleti (2006) who describes talanoa as “talking about nothing in particular, and interacting without a rigid framework” (p. 23). Kaiako in four schools (three primary and one intermediate; three in the Manawatū and one in Wellington) engaged in talanoa with groups of ākonga, or groups of their whānau, or both, to talk about “what is it like for you/your children to learn in this class/at this school?” As each group of kaiako prepared for their first talanoa, they were encouraged to “not be teacherly”; in other words, to listen with curiosity and resist the urge to justify, defend or problem-solve any matters that emerged in the conversation. This was largely interpreted as “don’t talk!”

The talanoa were aimed at co-generating knowledge about learning conditions that could promote success for ākonga, and co-developing plans to “do something different” in the classroom. In essence, the focus was on new ways of working together to design authentic curriculum. Adjustments were made to teaching and learning as kaiako reflected and responded to new understandings about ākonga and their experiences.

Kaiako started to listen – and talk – differently

We initially envisaged using talanoa as a method for gathering data to inform our partnership work, however the value of sitting together to talk – and importantly to listen – was a transformative practice in itself. Talanoa were increasingly used by kaiako as a way of engaging in conversations with ākonga and whānau and, as such, were central to innovations on practice. Kaiako “not talking” created unanticipated space for others, and a central idea that emerged was about the power of kaiako opening space in conversations and listening. We started to explore that seemingly simple idea in more depth and we were surprised–and excited–about the challenges and the powerful impact of kaiako listening, really listening.

New ways for kaiako to engage with ākonga and whānau

Conversations characterized as talanoa involved shifts in power relationships and required teachers to be vulnerable. They created space for future conversations and helped kaiako to question taken-for-granted aspects of their practice to consider the “why” of what they do. As they listened, kaiako increasingly saw whānau as genuine partners in teaching and learning and recognized the need for co-involvement to understand and build on one another’s perspectives and approaches. Co-design initiatives impacted charter goals, appraisal processes, and learning conferences where, for instance, some kaiako and ākonga started creating learner maps with whānau to build a picture of who their ākonga are, and who they are connected to and bring with them into the classroom.

Opening new spaces for ākonga

There were shifts in what kaiako understand and do, and there have been shifts in engagement, hauora–particularly social and emotional well-being–and learning outcomes for ākonga. Ākonga increasingly exercised choice and followed their interests and passions. They recognized that kaiako cared about who they were and the whānau they were connected to, they felt more listened to, and they understood better how and why their ideas might not be agreed to. They valued opportunities to make authentic choices and lead their learning, and over the course of the project they were increasingly able to make those choices.

Kaiako introduced more flexible timetables, allowing students to learn when they chose to and at their own pace, and this led to deeper and more sustained engagement. For some ākonga engagement, confidence and learning outcomes were significantly improved. One such case was Carl* (a pseudonym), who had been experiencing low levels of engagement and achievement and had low social status in his classroom. Kaiako noted significant shifts in Carl’s engagement and confidence when they set a very open task that allowed him to follow his passions and show off something he was really good at (game design). They also saw a shift in his status where his classmates suddenly saw him as a capable learner, and as “cool”, and the positive attention he received from them increased his confidence and engagement even more.

For kaiako, the extent of their transformation was unexpected. For instance, one group of kaiako was surprised at the impacts of co-designing their shared learning space:

“The learners as a whole amazed us with their understanding of how everyone was different and it was important that our space would work for everyone … this was an open conversation between learners, and what came out of it was more than we ever expected. They recognised the skills that they had been developing through the co-design, as well as the importance of the role they played in setting up our space and how it would work. They saw the value of resolving issues themselves and having a say in developing a space and systems that would work for them as learners. The classroom truly became our space, for the learners and teachers”.

The interconnectedness of learning for kaiako, ākonga and whānau

Where ākonga were empowered to lead their learning, in partnership with whānau, there was an explicit and often complex role for kaiako, which illustrates the interconnectedness of learning for all of them, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1

The interconnectedness of learning in partnership for kaiako, ākonga and whānau (Eden, 2020).

Co-design didn’t just mean leaving ākonga to it. The process required kaiako to maintain control of certain elements such as assigning roles, and leading the setup of talanoa with an initial question to “spark” the conversation. Ākonga experienced new opportunities to make choices in their learning, contribute their voices to decisions that mattered to them, find audiences for their voices and influence the design of classroom environments and learning experiences. Doors opened for the active involvement of whānau in learning, and for their tamariki to be known and valued.

Authentic partnerships with ākonga and whānau involved kaiako becoming vulnerable and relinquishing some of the control they traditionally hold:

Like we all push through something called puwaiwaha … the streams that flow from the river to the sea. You have to follow the current and we all end up back in the ocean but it’s really hard to do that because it requires trust and belief and when you’ve been so used to knowing what you’re going to get before you enter into something, it’s so hard to trust that something beautiful is going to come out of it“.

Making space to listen can transform teachers’ work and create new opportunities for ākonga to learn and be. How can we be less “teacherly” and learn to listen in new ways?

Dr. Raewyn Eden is an experienced classroom teacher with a passion for collaboration, diversity and equity, especially in mathematics education.  She has taught in New Zealand and the Cook Islands across all levels of the school system, from classroom teacher to school leadership. Her research explores how teachers’ collaborative inquiry can strengthen teaching and learning, the role of emotions in mathematics teaching and learning and how whānau, ākonga and kaiako can create powerful learning partnerships. Her passion lies in working alongside groups of teachers – experienced and new to the role – to develop and enact powerful pedagogies that give diverse (all) learners access to rich experiences including (but not only) in mathematics.

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