Join us on our journey to explore the use of dialogue and active listening with postgraduate students in an interdisciplinary environment.
Unmaking Single Perspectives (USP): A Listening Project is a HEFCE Catalyst funded teaching and innovation project at Keele University. Our main aim is to try out a variety of new pedagogic approaches that are designed to enhance the student experience and support the development of skills useful to post-graduates during their academic careers and beyond.
Our focus is the effective use of dialogue, and in particular listening, in order to explore other viewpoints and expertise by bringing students from different disciplines together for workshops and conversations that focus on sharing knowledge in a non-challenging way.
These conversations will be varied but all link to sustainability issues that are now acknowledged as world challenges. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will be used to map conversation topics because they offer comprehensive coverage and classification of all these issues. You can find out more about the project through this blog, on our website and by following us on Twitter @USPlistenproj.
Written by Christa Appleton, Education Project Officer
As the formal project comes to a close, as the project lead, it feels time to reflect on the impact of the project on a number of different levels.
We have carried out a range of evaluation activities to try and understand the impact of the project on our project participants, I still have a way to go with analysing our data, but it is clear that the project has led to changes in the way that people communicate in both their professional and personal lives. Some of the words that have jumped out at me, that people have written after the workshops include ‘mind expanding’, ‘refreshing’, ‘open’, ‘unique’. My favourite piece of feedback from one workshop was that after the workshop ‘everyone turned into someone I would talk to.’ Several months on from the workshop, some respondents have told us they continue to try and be more actively interested in what other people are saying, and put more effort into internalising others’ viewpoints, and are still very much aware of trying not to interrupt when the other person is talking. The thing that I have also been struck by is that a number of participants, whether they are students or staff attending as part of our dissemination events have actively blogged about the workshops, choosing to describe their experiences and learning from our workshops to others.
I have also been struck by the great warmth and positive energy that our workshops have had. What we cover in our workshops is not new, it is stuff that we do all the time, yet we spend so little time thinking explicitly about how we communicate with others. The feedback that we get from the workshops both directly and indirectly is that this is something that it is well worth spending time doing.
One of the most rewarding experiences has been seeing staff and students work together in our workshops, showing that we can set a tone where we minimise the natural power dynamics and create an environment where these groups can share their different perspectives about issues. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could try and create more of these open spaces, for different groups, to work together without our normal hierarchies?
On a personal note, this project has had one of the most profound effects on me of all the projects I have worked on over my career. I am now so much more aware of how important conversation is in our everyday lives. How much in a work context things are progressed through those informal conversations, whether passing someone in the corridor, or setting aside time ‘to go for a coffee’. I have developed almost a Pavlovian response whenever I hear ‘conversation’ or ‘listening’ talked about – and I realise how much we talk about its importance, but put so little effort into trying to do it better.
I actually feel as though my world is richer for this project, I find myself making more effort to talk to people I might not have done in the past, I have more confidence to hold conversations with those people, and I find that if I approach any conversation with genuine curiosity about someone else’s perspective or what I can learn from them, I come away from the conversation with a richer appreciation of the world. I also feel that I am more tolerant, it is easier to accept people and their views, and their way of doing things, even if it is different to my own, more easily. From a teaching perspective, I have also become more aware of much in the past I have relied on PowerPoint, and how by ditching PowerPoint, and giving more space to listen to different views and develop those relationships with the people I teach, the experience of teaching becomes even richer and more rewarding.
One other thing that has really become so apparent to me through this project is how important listening is for sustainability. We can only work effectively together if we are genuinely willing to listen and try to understand other perspectives, and it is so important to ensure that we listen to those often unheard voices. The final two of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’, and ‘partnerships for the goals’ – and surely listening is an essential part of achieving these goals. Something so simple as just listening to each other can be a key part of us all working together for a more sustainable future.
The Keele Listening Project delivered its final full-day dissemination event last week, thank you Kathryn at Lancaster University for the invite. The opportunity to deliver this event arose because unable to attend any of our planned dissemination events Kathryn asked if we could deliver the same event specifically for staff at her university. Consequently Zoe and myself visited Lancaster last Thursday, we were made to feel very welcome and spent a productive and enjoyable day with staff from the quality and academic development teams.
As always with our workshops ideas flowed and new things arose, we particularly like the idea of including specific dialogue time in meetings to surface individual thoughts and ideas properly, and the general consensus that taking something we take for granted and know implicitly (conversation skills) and making it explicit is really helpful in many ways. It highlight the value of meaningful dialogue in all sorts of contexts and helps us understand how we can improve our personal skills and those of others.
The day ended with the inevitable completion of an evaluation form, Zoe commented on the fact that after such an engaging day, rich with dialogue, it seemed a pity that it should end in silence, which inspired a final participatory activity…
Suggested by one of our attendees, it involved making a paper plane out of your evaluation form and, once completed, initiating flight-mode en-mass with the objective of achieving the longest flight. We listened and, inspired by what we heard, we decided to try this activity out! It was a lot of fun with hurried paper plane construction, the chatter of anticipation and ultimately paper planes whizzing around the room. Apparently such flight challenges at Lancaster are often accompanied by a prize, we didn’t have that but it was a certainly a high point to finish on.
Smoothed out for reading feedback on the evaluation forms was very positive and we hope that all our dissemination events will provide legacy for the project, as professionals from many different disciplines and backgrounds take up some of the ideas and activities that have been part of this project.
** Guest post, written by Rebbecca Laycock, PhD Candidate, Keele University and Project Assistant for Sustainable Food Systems, Blekinge Institute of Technology **
When I first started teaching it was expected that I would take more time to prepare for classes, be less efficient, and make more mistakes. It’s part of what it means to start something new. A year on (autumn 2017) I was starting to feel like a real teacher – not just someone faking it at the front of the class. And since I was a real teacher, there were certain expectations that were attached to this newfound credibility… one of which was that I needed to do more with less time. Fair enough, I thought. I am a real teacher now. So, I started finding ways to cut corners. I was faced with one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to deal with so far as a teacher – how can I deliver a quality educational experience as efficiently as possible?
Around this time, I also took on a role in the HEFCE-funded ‘Unmaking Single Perspectives: A Listening Project’. The aim of the project was to support students in developing their listening skills. The rationale behind it was that, in spite of being an important communication skill, there is far greater emphasis on teaching students to argue a point than on how to be an effective listener.
Student Advisor Roxy Birdsall talks about her experience being involved with Unmaking Single Perspectives: A Listening Project
So what is listening? It’s more than hearing. You need to open a space for another person to speak. Because of this, listening is more than sitting and being quiet while another person talks. Listening uses your whole body. You use your ears to hear, sometimes you look at the person to read their body language – and you use your whole body too, to show the other person that you are listening. All of this enables them to openly share their thoughts.
Listening is challenging mental work because it isn’t passive – it requires physical and mental engagement. You need to be taking in what the other person is saying (though their words and tone of voice), and you need to be quick thinking enough to respond and probe thoughtfully without letting your own thoughts prevent you from listening, all whilst reading and responding to their body language.
Before getting involved in the Listening Project, I hadn’t reflected much on listening in the context of my role as a teacher. But before long, I became conscious of the range of listening skills that are required in all different modes of teaching, from lectures, to seminars, to one-on-one support. I came to be especially aware of listening in a particular type of one-on-one teaching interactions: meetings with dissertation students. My meetings with my dissertation students usually ran between 15 and 45 minutes, depending on their needs, the stage they were at, and their English language skills. I started arranging these meetings back to back to save time and to limit the length of the meetings.
But it didn’t feel right. It was utterly draining, and as a result I wasn’t able to listen properly to the students. My patience waned. I heard myself telling them what to do rather than asking questions to find out what they really meant. This was one area of my teaching that I couldn’t seem to make more efficient.
This push for efficiency, this challenge I was being faced with as a ‘real’ teacher, is a manifestation of the demand of the neoliberal university which asks academics to do more and more with less. This was (and is) a model I can’t make sense of – it is unsustainable to expect more efficiency year on year.
In the face of this apparent oxymoron, I found an article by Alison Mountz and her colleagues who were making a case for an alternative. They argued to slow down and claim time for slow scholarship as an in the face of a fast-paced, metric-oriented neoliberal university. I was heartened by this idea. Like them, I feel that slowing down represents a commitment to good scholarship, teaching, and service, and a collective feminist ethics of care that challenges the accelerated time and elitism of the neoliberal university (emphasis mine). Like them, I am in favour of a fundamental restructuring of the university as a workplace and learning environment, but this isn’t something that can be done overnight. This is why they suggest ways academics, as individuals and as a community, can take steps towards change. They say to take time for your work. Reach for the minimum (rather than maximum) level of achievement in order to produce quality rather than quantity. Say no to more work. Don’t respond you your email at all hours. All of these actions provide space to become a better listener, and a better teacher.
It must be said that I do feel there are ways to be an efficient teacher. I usually take an afternoon walk to clear my head, so scheduling dissertation meetings either side means that I can have some mental respite before resuming the taxing challenge of listening. And it’s true that I need less time to prepare for lectures and seminars I have already delivered. But at some point, we need to recognise that the reality is this: a good teacher is not one who can be increasingly more and more efficient. Being a good teacher requires effective listening, and effective listening requires time. And there is no room for compromise.
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., … & Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259. (PDF downloaded 2/7/18)
The Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC) annual conference took place at Keele last week (19-21 June); a wide range of workshops were available on both the academic and campus strands and the exhibition space was very busy during the breaks. There were many interesting sessions, from Woo bikes at Worcester University, to modern music on climate change from the University of Winchester. There were several sessions from Keele University, including our Listening Project workshop on Thursday. Thank you to all who attended our workshop ‘Listening for Sustainability’, there was plenty of interesting conversation about the workshop exercises, open dialogue and using it to raise awareness of Sustainable Development.
The conference included some excellent keynotes, in particular I found Judy Ling Wong’s (Director of the Black Environment Network, BEN) inspirational. Based on the principles of her life’s work it centered on acknowledging that we are not separate from nature, we are part of it and nature is part of us. Growing urbanisation and general busyness means that often this fact is forgotten. Likewise as human beings, we are all connected by our humanity but the divisions we ourselves impose between cultures, race, and creed creates a disconnect that becomes a big barrier to joined up thinking, even in the face of world problems such as climate change and other Sustainable Development issues.
Judy described sustainability as having ‘soft edges’ and that it was the ‘nibbling at the edges’ that has helped bring minority groups in to the mainstream of action. She gave an example of a successful UK project where Bangladeshi women were supported in their desire to grow their own food; when asked, they described the biggest impact for them as a renewing of physical connection with the land – literally feeling mother earth under their feet. This physical grounding illustrates the integral and significant place the environment holds within many traditional cultures, and deep within all of us, it just needs awaking, or to find an outlet. In Judy’s experience it is the cultural connect and the healing power of nature on the psyche that brings about an openness to action. She described how ownership of action based projects empowers minority groups, allowing them to engage and blossom. In turn the impact of BEN’s work highlights how everyone can become more involved and make a difference in mainstream projects and initiatives.
The intrinsic link with nature was highlighted by other speakers during the conference, Fiona Harvey spoke about a sense of joy in nature as a good motivator for action. Professor Ioan Fazey talked about change requiring more than knowledge, he highlighted the importance of wisdom, including ethics and aesthetics, a similar way of describing the soul in science that Judy referenced as ‘love wisdom’ and how useful more of that would be in the formation of policy.
Based on the principles behind Buddhist philosophy ‘Love wisdom’, as I understand it, means being open-minded and objective, listening to other points of view and carefully weighing up information with a willingness to reconsider personal views in the face of new knowledge. All of which sounds very similar to the open dialogue and active listening at the heart of the Listening Project and why it is, and should be, an important part of education for sustainability.
This week the EAUC Collaborations for Change Conference 2018 comes to Keele. A double honour, as it is actually two conferences in one – with a campus-based and academic programme complimenting each other and making this relevant to a very wide range of staff.
The conference title, inspired by Goal 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aims to highlight the importance of partnership and the critical role every university and college, and all staff and students, can play in working towards solutions that help sustain human and planetary harmony and well-being.
The conference is “a unique and powerful cross discipline and sector opportunity to achieve the Global Goals and research and education fit for tomorrow. “ EAUC 2018
EAUC’s conference aims to bring people together from similar but also diverse backgrounds and disciplines to listen to each other, understand each other’s perspectives and learn from each other, not unlike this project. We do have a workshop (Listening for Sustainability: Developing understanding for partnerships and collaboration, Wed 19th, 4-5pm) as part of the conference, for anyone attending who would like to experience some of our repertoire of activities first-hand and take-away one approach to achieving greater understanding as the first step towards increased partnership. There are of course many other interesting sessions to look forward to, the full programme is available online
The Listen More workshop took place on an unexpectedly warm and sunny Thursday afternoon and, for the first time, I was able to deliver the workshop outdoors, in a rather sheltered and pleasant quad in front of the allocated room. I think we may all have felt like we were being boiled alive in the room, as its windows faced the sun, but the quad was perfect for a small group of individuals to come together and concentrate on conversation and listening skills. The ambiance of a large space with blue sky above, lovely trees and a gentle breeze was definitely a plus. It also felt fitting for a project that has sustainability and valuing the natural world as one of its key themes.
As the group was small it was easy to establish a good rapport and, as always in these workshops, learning was a two-way process with myself, as the facilitator, learning new things as well as the attendees. During a group conversation reviewing the importance of indicators that support what we hear and help interpretation (body language, gestures tone etc.) one attendee, whose first language is not English, highlighted the value of facing the speaker so that she could see the words spoken as an aid to understanding what was being said, a point agreed by a second international student at the workshop. While I already knew that a range of non-verbal signs help add meaning to words for all of us, I had not previously appreciated how useful lip-reading, or at least seeing the shape of the words on the lips, might be in helping those for whom English is a second language. A useful point to be aware of I thought!
Listen More finished with a conversation about sustainable development using the image cards developed as part of the project. It was good to observe enthusiasm for the topic among the students and staff attending and gave them an opportunity to spread out in the courtyard and practice everything they had learnt during the workshop. The debrief highlighted some varied and interesting points from their conversations, covering a range of topics relating to sustainable development It also led the whole group into a brief exploration of the concept of the Knowledge Economy, mentioned by a student who had been studying this in her course. In a nutshell this theory links economic development to human capital (knowledge), the hypothesis is that sharing knowledge is increasingly important for the economy and innovation in developed countries. Whether or not this will lead to a change in values that in turn decreases physical resource consumption is debatable, I suspect it will not, but it was interesting to explore just a few of the links with the sustainability agenda. It provided food for thought for me personally because valuing and combining knowledge, perspectives and expertise is precisely why the project encourages listening and conversation.
In the final two weeks of this semester Keele University runs an energising programme of varied events for students under the catchy title ‘Be More’. Originally a project to support the ‘Distinctive Keele Curriculum’, now known as ‘The Keele Journey’, the initiative has continued and is enthusiastically coordinated by Keele’s Careers and Employability team. The programme takes an holistic approach, addressing personal development and citizenship, as well as academic excellence. ‘Be More’ aims to inspire and engage students in activities that help develop ‘ Graduate Attributes’ and support employability in a fun way, providing something for everyone and a chance to try something new.
Be More is now in its fourth year and the programme this year is bigger and more varied than it has been before!
Matt Coombe-Boxall, Information and Events Coordinator
There are some very intriguing sessions titles on the 9 day programme, such as ‘Be More Sherlock’ , ‘Be More Duck’ and ‘Be More Bouncy’, as well as those that emphasise the practical ‘Be More Bi-lingual’ and ‘Be More employable’ and sessions like our own ‘Listen More’ that aim to develop skills important for life in general, as well as academic study and employability.
The eagle-eyed among you have probably noticed that the Listening Project workshop takes a small liberty with the ‘Be More’ title but ‘Listen More’ is definitely an important project aim and the right title for a workshop which is precisely about Listening More.
Listening is the most fundamental component of interpersonal communication skills, it takes effort and practice to listen effectively but few people have had formal training on how to listen.
“Frankly, I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”
Harvard Business Review
It is easy to be distracted and miss something vital, or misconstrue a message, which can lead to misunderstanding or a missed opportunity to connect, to learn, to enjoy an experience just because we missed something important by not listening properly. Attending Listening More will help participants get the most out of all the sessions offered as part of Be More and beyond.
“I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something, or getting it in a distorted way.”
Harvard Business Review
Listen More is an opportunity to prick up your ears and have fun working with others to develop your listening for the love of life and learning!
Listen More Workshop: 2-4pm Thursday 31 May #BeMoreKeele