What Does Learning Sound Like?

For the past several years, we’ve been trying to rethink what happens in our classrooms. We’ve looked for a set of essential tools we teachers can use to understand what we do and why—the modest and difficult work of helping students learn rather than disrupt or reinvent or any of the other activities described by the buzz words beloved by administrators. We discovered that we needed to consider the kind of questions we ask ourselves, the ways we learn how to see—and, as we’ll discuss in a moment, to hear—our students. The real students in front of us, not our preconceived or projected versions of them.

Then came COVID-19; classes went online, and we were forced to see (or not see) our students differently.

Whatever we think of online teaching, it is—under our current circumstances—a model we must learn to use. The more we read and think about online teaching, however, the more it seems to us that we need to focus less on the medium and more on the teaching itself. Which means that whether we’re teaching online or in the classroom, we need to read and think and write about our students.

Picture this: it’s week 4, and your students have done the reading, you’ve asked the questions, discussion begins. What do you hear, and how do you hear it? You know that you should focus more on what the students are saying than on what you’re saying. In fact, you’ve learned to get out of the way as much as possible. A handful of students become animated as they connect the reading to current events. One chimes in with a personal anecdote related to those same events. Another follows with an anecdote related to that anecdote.

Are your students going off the rails, already? Do you need to reorient them? If you do, are you falling back into the mode of top-down teaching you’ve been trying to avoid? But if you don’t, will the lesson fall apart?

Even in a discussion that stays on target, you might arrive at the end of the class and wonder what you and your students have to show for all this talk.

If a class isn’t a lecture, what is it?

The old high school model of the study hall was usually a quiet time in the student’s schedule, an hour to be frittered away until the next class bell rang. But what if that space were online, reasonably noisy, and imagined as a learning community where we and our students get to study together?

Group Improvisation

In the classroom, we see our students. In the online classroom, we may not see them—speaking to a row of black boxes is an accommodation some of us are willing, or required, to make for students uncomfortable with giving the class a window into their homes. More important, however, is the fact that in class meetings we hear our students.

A classroom can be a cacophonous space, one that evokes the wild complexity of experimental music more than the structured sonority of Mozart. Sometimes it’s hard to hear what’s happening because students’ conversation is so fast you can barely keep up. Sometimes it’s hard to hear because it’s so slow: you’re getting so little from students that you feel trapped, having either to do too much yourself or to suffer through the silence of students who seem checked out.

But are we sure we know what we’re listening for? Does good pedagogy have a distinct acoustic?

If you’ve ever been a music student, you’ll know how important a practice room is. A small, acoustically insulated space, big enough for a piano or bass or trombone, safe from prying ears so that you can make all the necessary mistakes. You spend hours there going over material, as the movements of eyes, hands, mouth, and limbs become second nature, just in time for your intelligence to begin interpreting the music. Technique first, interpretation to follow. A teacher joins you and comments, first on the one, then on the other. We move into larger practice rooms from there, where we learn to hear our bandmates and they learn to hear us.

The classroom—our classrooms—are practice rooms. In them, we teach techniques of learning so that informed, reasoned ideas—that’s the interpretation part—can follow.

But what does learning sound like? What’s the sonic character of a good class? How can we hear our students as they go about transforming themselves? It certainly doesn’t sound like you soloing for an hour, unless the learning in question is your own learnedness. And it doesn’t usually sound like your students taking long solos, either.

Since music is a useful way to think about sound, let’s go further and think of discussion, or “participation,” as a sort of music. Wynton Marsalis suggests that “the bass player is the key. He needs to keep a steady pulse to provide the bottom and to hold the music together” (qtd. in Berliner 353). In most bands, other players appear to be the leaders—trumpeters like Marsalis, pianists, vocalists, saxophonists, guitarists. Bass solos are less frequent, typically, than are those of other instruments, largely because without that consistent beat, the collective structure and movement of the music may break down.

If you’re any sort of musician, dear teacher, you’re the bassist. It may not be the most glamorous job, but in the kind of classroom music we’re trying to make, it’s an essential one. It enables the individual performers to improvise and test the limits of their instruments.

You will urge the ensemble on or slow it down, provide the chord changes, signal the end of a tune. In this kind of music, all have parts to play, some composed in advance and some invented on the spot. Group improvisation in jazz resembles what we want our classrooms to sound like:

[P]layers are perpetually occupied: they must take in the immediate inventions around them while leading their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They constantly interpret one another’s ideas, anticipating them on the basis of the music’s predetermined harmonic events. (Berliner 349)

Perhaps from modesty, we teachers don’t typically admit just what a complex performance a class period is. We’ve planned what will happen, but what really happens is improvised by the students, who can’t—and shouldn’t—give up their own, autonomous selves. It’s essential for us to plan, but planning’s never enough. We’re faced with a difficult task: to cultivate the listening—ours and theirs—that will help students achieve the ambitious work set out in our syllabi.

Hearing Things

Learning sounds like “perhaps,” “maybe,” “I’m not sure if. . . .” We hear learning when we hear students point directly at specific details in course materials rather than gesture vaguely at the gist of those materials. Learning typically sounds better from week to week, but it does not always improve in a perfectly linear progression.

Learning sounds like increasingly sophisticated syntax, as students need “not only . . .  but also” and “on the one hand . . . on the other hand.”

Learning sounds curious, as students ask questions that feel crucial to them, not just for getting through your class but also for gaining an understanding of problems that are theirs as much as yours.

Learning sounds like your students trying out activities at which they are not already experts. To hear those attempts (as writing teachers, we hasten to note that essay derives from the French essayer, “to try or to attempt”), we’ll have to shift our focus from the right answer to the efforts that lead to the right answer.

What sounds like improvisation is actually a product of lots of smaller riffs, theoretical understandings, embodied knowledge, and, only very infrequently, genius. It is and isn’t being invented on the spot: you want students’ contributions during class to show that the work you designed for them is working for them and helping them work. You’re listening to hear if they’re using what you gave them, how they’re using it, and how they’re putting the pieces together.

Sometimes a teacher tells a class directly, “Today, I’m going to be listening for the way you practice the skill on which our last assignment focused. Please don’t be offended when I jump in to help you adjust how you’re using it; this is like refining a jump shot in basketball or a riff on the guitar. We can always get better, and it’s my job to help.”

Framing our listening work this way makes clear what the stakes are for us and for them and can help us distinguish the melody from the noise. Once we’ve explained what we’re listening for, students know what they’re trying to perform, even if they can’t do it yet. Later, when they’re alone at a desk in the library—or in their apartment or parents’ house—starting the evening’s work, remembering your classroom listening will help them realize that someone will listen to this work, too, that it’s not busywork. Their concentration will strive to operate within the range of possibility your listening defined. And, frankly, they may want to try to impress you, assuming you’ve shown you’re capable of being impressed by student work—and that may be unusual for them.

Good classroom listening is reciprocal. Your listening inspires theirs. Because one way that students learn is by listening to others—their peers, experts they encounter through course materials, and, yes, you—the teacher can’t be the only example of someone doing the thing we want students to do. This communicates the wrong message. We communicate our belief that knowledge is a group project—many-headed, many-voiced—by demonstrating our fascination with and admiration for the way others work and think and by showing respect for approaches different from our own.

You encourage students to learn through imitation, to channel in their own writing the many kinds of other voices you listen to together. You put these voices on your syllabus because you thought that listening to them was worth the effort, an effort you help students make by finding ways for them to practice understanding out loud. You do this so that students will become more comfortable with the way our disciplines make and process questions.

Listen well and make listening the core of your presence in the classroom. Let’s remember that our ears, not our mouths, are at the center of our heads. Our syllabus is about what the students do, so when we’re in class, let’s try to hear it.

What Teaching Sounds Like

What should we be listening for from ourselves? Many of us are uncomfortable hearing recordings of our own voices, perhaps because we’re unfamiliar with how we sound to others. And now we’re typically heard through tinny laptop speakers, wireless headsets. What do we sound like when we’re doing our work well?

To answer this question, we might consider what we can hear at the most elemental level of teaching, the one-on-one interactions of office hours—what we do with them, and what they can teach us about the sound of our own voices in class.

We ask, “What are you here to work on today?” Teaching sounds like that. We say, “Tell me how you got to that idea,” or “to that solution,” or “to that interpretation.” Teaching sounds like that, too. We say, “I noticed that here,” pointing to a place in their work, “you refer to the text from last week, but you don’t actually quote it. Where exactly are you looking? Can you show me, right now?” The student pulls out the text, finds a spot on the page, and reads aloud. You ask more questions, and whenever the student gets somewhere you urge, “Write that down!”  Like the classroom, your office—or a one-on-one Zoom session—is a place where students work.

Good questions lead to more work by the students and more questions from us, in a cyclical progression. We use Socratic questioning to get students to carry themselves somewhere we know they need to go. We use something like Socratic questioning to get students to carry themselves somewhere they’ll discover they need to go, a place we can’t entirely anticipate for them.

Like the office, the classroom demands that our participation enable our students to find a way to work better. This is, of course, a harder task when so many people are trying to learn at once. Your questions can’t always respond to individual students or point to work that seems right for just one person. Your students are struggling with different things. But it’s also true that if you’ve designed the work of the term well, there will be some things that most or all of your students are struggling with at once. We try to give as many of them as much of what they need as we can. That’s what good teaching sounds like.

A question causes something to happen next. Good lecturing does, too. A lecture is really a form of participation the teacher engages in, a voice calling other voices, ultimately, to speak.

Done well, the lecture (which is really a lecture-question) can generate good sounds. If you make students wait too long, or they realize you never imagined they’d say anything meaningful in the first place, students check out. If our own utterance is the final word, we’re hearing poor participation, from them but mostly from us. A lecture can be an extended bass solo, too, if we’re doing it wrong. We strive for something better and more modest not because we’re obligated to hear students’ opinions but because we are obligated to listen to students doing something with what we just gave them. Why else would we have given it to them?

Of course, we might mistakenly assume that because we are responding to a student’s question, we are necessarily participating in their learning. We forget that our answer also needs to be a question, needs to point toward something the student will do with that answer. Not just call-and-response, but call-and-response-and-response.

And response and response. What does a community sound like? The dystopian version of the community is groupthink, where the impulse to work together erodes the unique strengths of the individuals who make up the group. When that happens, sloganeering takes over. We know the political consequences of an overwhelming desire for conformity.

When what we’re suggesting here works—and we believe it’s a lot easier to make it work than you might at first think—the classroom community understands that a learning group is only as effective as the recognition of the differences among the individuals who make it up. Standards, requirements, assessments, and other evaluative tools are meant to help all students work and learn within  themselves while at the same time working and learning within a group. And that requires listening to two kinds of sounds: together and apart.

Make good noise. Encourage it in others. Tune your class—and your own ears—to hear the messy, active thing called learning.


This text is adapted from a section of the authors’ Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything (Princeton UP, 2020).

Work Cited

Berliner, Paul. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. U of Chicago P, 1994.


Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

William Germano is professor of English at Cooper Union. Kit Nicholls is director of Cooper Union’s Center for Writing.

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