“Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear


A few weeks ago I initiated a series of blog posts at PlusUs.org (cross posted here, and vice versa) investigating the rationale for using design-based learning as a teaching method.  I wrote I would be delving more into the ways I see design as a method that honors the traditions and goals of liberal education as outlined by Professor William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect”: On the Goals of a Liberal Education.

Consider this blog post the first foray into the connections between the 10 goals of Prof. Cronon (and the great liberal educators who came before him) and design itself.

Some of these posts will be longer than others, but my intent is that, by putting Prof. Cronon’s ideas into dialogue and play with the field of design, we will recognize that, without question, design is a liberal art.  The implication here is two-fold.  First, that the development of designerly minded learners is a doorway to the development of singularly self-directed, self-determined learners.  And, second, that the liberal arts are key to security and prosperity in the future for ourselves and our students.

So, onto Cronon’s list…


Part of a personal Mindmap of Cronon’s Argument in the essay, “Only Connect.”

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you’d think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who “work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.”

There is hardly another goal so clearly linked to design as this one.  Design, like education, is a human-centered endeavor.  Educators like designers must empathize with their students/users.  If empathy is the heart of design, and design thinking more specifically, it seems listening and hearing is a fitting place to start this comparison, and more fitting to this argument that Prof. Cronon begins here as well.

I’ll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I’m a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic LeagueThe Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

However, for the teacher practiced in design-based learning, the opportunities for practicing listening skills increase exponentially.  Teaching students how to use empathy maps during interviews, or even as ways to track and analyze characters in works of literature help to hone this skill through real world practice or close reading.  Design research of this sort hinges on the key skill of listening deeply and empathetically.

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can’t test for it, but you sure as heck aren’t building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like “They listen and they hear” we’ll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we’ve seen in the world lately.

Featured image: Simon Sinek–Quote Fancy

6 thoughts on ““Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear

  1. Wow! Powerful and challenging essay. So thankful that you shared this. I have been contemplating the meaning of education for my disengaged middle schoolers. If only I can incorporate some of these things into my classroom culture I know there will be more connections with them. So glad I found your blog!


  2. Thanks, Dianne. Cronon’s essay is amazing. It, as well as William James’ “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” are the three most important essays informing my pedagogy. You can incorporate these things into your MS class. In fact, I taught MS humanities for 20 years. I’ve written about that in a paper I presented at a symposium in Boston back in 2012. Check it out here: https://www.academia.edu/5013559/STEAM_Power_for_a_Better_Future


  3. Read James’ essay. So powerful and I really relate to the quotes from Wordsworth, and others. I can be held in rapturous silence just by the sheer beauty in the details of a leaf or insect. It’s the reason for my going into teaching science. And yet, the boys who all wanted to get fidget spinners and the girls who were making and bringing flubber to class are like those boys who Stevenson wrote about with their bull’s eye tin lanterns. I have some idea of the draw for these things, but they obviously are feeling a special connection with their peers The last paragraph’s summary back up what I have already reflected and concluded long ago about interaction with each other. It is the reason why I am so patient most of the time and try to listen closely when others talk about themselves: “neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands…It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.”


    • That essay…It makes me think so deeply about my interactions with my learners every day, and yet it’s sometimes not enough of a bulwark against the vicissitudes of the system. I run to it for solace so often.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You have me thinking about the distinction between testing and assessment. Perhaps you can’t test for listening and hearing, but you can certainly assess for both, and in a world where learners have a thousand different tools at their disposal to make their thinking and their learning visible (and the intentions behind both), who really needs testing anyway? Isn’t testing just something we did for efficiency’s sake when we didn’t know better? Isn’t it what we rely on when the best choices aren’t options due to volume or money or time? Every time we test, we need to do more investigating to better understand the root cause of performance anyway. I think we could learn so much by making a study of listening and hearing in our classrooms. Things I can’t predict or even imagine. It would be worth it, I think, to assess those things. I’m off to read the essay…..


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