Three Questions: A listening exercise
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Three Questions: A listening exercise

This exercise fits well near the launch of a Can We Talk? unit or initiative. It's a good way for students to get to know each other better while practicing the skills of active listening. It's also a relatively low-stress way for students to begin experiencing dialogue. Also, if you plan on using the lesson plan that digs into active listening, more explicitly teaches the skills and habits involved, this exercise is good preparation for that.

Time to complete:

40 minutes 

What principles, ground rules, or concepts are at play here?

  1. Listen. It's as important as talking.
  2. Listen in the same way you hope to be heard.
  3. Begin with story, not position.
  4. Ask clarifying, build-upon questions.

How to do the exercise

Explain to the class that you're all about to do a get-to-know-you-better exercise that's also an experiment in what's called "active listening."

Ask for a show of hands about how the students would rate themselves as listeners:

  • Who would say they are a really good listener?
  • Who would say they are an OK listener?
  • Who would say they probably could stand to improve as a listener?

Then ask, "So what makes a good listener?  How can you tell someone's really listening to you?" Record answers on the board.

Then ask, "Then, on the other hand, what tells you someone isn't or wasn't really listening to you?" Record those answers on the board.

Review the answers, both good and bad habits, then say: "OK, for the next 15 minutes or so, I want all of us - including me - to try as hard as we can to follow those good listening habits that make people feel valued and to avoid the bad ones that make people feel ignored or undervalued."

Then, put a list of three "get-to-know-you" questions up on the board or the screen. (It's not a bad idea to also have them written on a sheet of paper for each student to have.)

You can pick the three from among the long list of possible prompts at the bottom of this document.  Feel free to add in more of your own; just remember they should avoid controversial issues and stick to the individual's values and experiences.  At the same time, we're trying to avoid the stock "small talk" questions that produce limited information.  We're trying to invite students to share something real about what they value and what they hope to do or become.

Depending on class size, have students pair up in twos, or form triads.   You want to keep the number of pairs or triads to a number small enough that you can hear from each one during the reporting out period to come.

Triads are a little trickier, as the students will have to keep track of which "asking" student will be responsible later on for reporting on which "answering" student's responses.

It's a good idea - if you can have another adult in class who can keep time, or if you're good at multitasking - for you to participate in the exercise yourself.  (Students usually like it when you're willing to do what you're asking them to do, and willing to share a little about who you really are.)

This will underline that even adults need to work on their listening skills; it's a lifelong task, not a once and done.  You could pair up with a student whom you think would not be intimidated by that, or you could join a pair to form a triad, and just stay in listening mode.

Tell the students, "Now, what you're going to do is sit down with your partner or partners, and each person in turn will get asked the three questions by their partner or partners.  Listen carefully to what your partner says, because in a few minutes you'll be asked to report to the rest on what your partner said.  If something said confuses you or really intrigues you, ask a follow-up question to clarify what they meant, or to get more information ono the point that interested you.  After four minutes, I'll give the signal and you'll switch, so that the person who was answering becomes and asker, and another person in the group gets to answer."

Review the questions one more time and see if students have any questions or concerns. Then tell them to get started, reminding them they have four minutes for the first round.

Give a 30-second warning, to let people to begin wrapping up the first round.

Then, once you call time, explain that they should start round 2, switching the asking and answering roles, and reminding them to listen actively so they can give a solid, accurate report on what their partner said.

Give another 30-second warning for Round 2, then call time after four minutes. 

Ask for a volunteer to go first in reporting on what their partner said.   Or, if you were able to be part of a pair or triad, model the reporting out by talking about what you heard your partner say.

When doing this part, students often forgot to mention one or more of the questions, so it's fine for you to remind them of ones they haven't brought up in their report.

Depending on time available and the size of the class, you can have all students report out, or just do enough so that every pair or triad gets at least once chance to report out.

When reporting out is done, ask, "So what did you notice during this exercise?  Did you learn anything that surprised or really interested you?"

You're looking for answers touching on:

  •  What they noticed about the effort that active listening involves.
  •  How it felt to experience active listening by someone else.
  • Or something they heard from a classmate that really struck them. That's fine as well.

Finally, ask the pairs to do one more thing:

"Give your partner(s) brief feedback on how well they did at listening - and reporting out, if they got a chance to do so.  What good listening behaviors from the list did they show?  If they did any less-positive things, feel free to point that out - but gently."

Follow-up activities

  • Suggest students try the 3 Questions format with family or friends.
  • Ask students to come to the next session with an idea for a new "get-to-know-you question" to add to the list.
  • After you've done the Active Listening segment, which tries to help students dig into the idea that listening is really a skill you can learn, practice and get continually better at, do another round of three questions with the class, using different questions.  Ask them afterward whether they noticed any difference in how well they, and their partners, listened - now that they know there are skills involved that they could try to demonstrate.

PA State Standards

  • 5.2.U.D. / 5.2.W.D / 5.2.C.D. - Evaluate and demonstrate what makes competent and responsible citizens. 
  • CC.1.5.9–10.A - Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • CC.1.5.6–12E - Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks.