The Art of Listening in the Question-Driven U.S. History Course

A child using a telephone

 Courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert J. Fitzgerald

A 2013 OAH Magazine of History article by David J. Voelker and Anthony Armstrong promoted the design of question-driven U.S. History courses in which the goal of learning extends beyond basic knowledge of facts and concepts and into the realm of critical thought. Developing the capacity of young people to think critically about historical events is something the authors argued should be performed in all classes. “Questions are the lifeblood of historical thinking, understanding, and research,” they wrote. (1) To withhold questions from students enrolled in any history course does them and the discipline a gross disservice.

What should be evident for anyone interested in pedagogical approaches to teaching history is that inquiry is essential, and Voelker and Armstrong are correct in suggesting history teachers redesign their courses to be question-driven. However, there is a danger in focusing only on questioning without enumerating the importance of skills associated with questions. The ability of teachers to listen is as important as their ability to ask questions. Often taken for granted, listening is critical to the intellectual development of students. It is a skill that deserves time and effort to master, and it is critical in the question-driven classroom.

“There is an art to listening,” the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti insisted. “When you are in a receptive state of mind, things can be easily understood; you are listening when your real attention is given to something.” (2) Though challenging to attain, a state of attentiveness and receptivity should be the aspiration of every history teacher interested in making inquiry a driving force in their classroom. The following skills can help the history teacher inspired by this approach move closer to being an effective questioner and discussion leader.

Listen to Yourself

Most people, including history teachers, create a disconnect between themselves and those with whom they speak by interrupting. This can occur on two levels. Initially, the responder becomes disengaged because of the untimely interlude on the part of the inquirer. If it is a history teacher posing a question to the class, the responding student becomes immediately disconnected because the student feels as if his or her comments are of little value. Patience in allowing a student to finish his or her response goes a long way in encouraging increased participation. An interruption can cause students to check out, lose interest, and become less likely to volunteer other answers—thus defeating the purpose of having a question-driven course in the first place. The secondary disconnect occurs when remaining participants become hesitant to offer responses to questions posed by a teacher who interrupts. The learning environment is damaged because students are dissuaded from thinking critically and voluntarily sharing their insight.

To avoid interruptions, consider memorizing (or even putting up on a bulletin board) the following statement attributed to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” (3) Trust me when I say this is sage advice for teachers leading a history class structured around inquiry and discussion.

Listen to What Is Not Being Said

Two choices present themselves to history teachers who are met with blank stares and awkward silence upon posing a question. First, they can wait it out for a few unconformable moments and then proceed to respond to the question initially posed. Unfortunately, that happens more often than not as the awkward silence creates feelings of frustration and even momentary incompetence. If this happens frequently, it is possible for students to be trained to not respond and instead wait quietly for the teacher to provide the correct answer. When this happens, students are deprived of opportunities to offer feedback, and more importantly, work their way through questions with guidance from the teacher.

Facing a wall of stares and silence offers an opportunity for immediate contemplation about why no one has volunteered and what adjustments might be made to rectify the problem. If a teacher asks a question about the ideological dichotomy between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—a topic that usually inspires critical thought and an engaged discussion in a U.S. History class—and it is met with seemingly little to no interest from the students, what should the teacher do? How about taking a moment to consider why no one has volunteered to engage the question. Do the students have the background knowledge to do so effectively? If concerning a reading of some sort, have they understood the message well enough to confidently respond? Maybe the clarity of the question was an issue.

The ability to listen to what is not being said is important now more than ever, as evidence suggests students are becoming increasingly more disengaged and unwilling to volunteer responses in class, especially as they move into the upper grade levels. (4)

Listen to What Is Being Said

“Good listening,” according to Herman B. Leonard, “enables us to appreciate complex and subtle ideas. . . . Good listening is also critical listening.” (5) If critical thinking is the driving force behind the question-driven history course, then the ability of teachers to listen critically to the responses of their students is paramount. As Voelker and Armstrong wrote, “When instructors guide a more focused inquiry, they prioritize the development of understanding over memorization and create opportunities for students to recognize connections between the present and the past.” (6) The ability to listen critically begins with recognizing the type of response a student has offered and the intention behind it. Leonard describes four answering pathologies: the Mortar Lob, the Mongoose Strike, the Spartan’s Shield, and the Pit Bull. (7) Each represents an answering strategy that history teachers should recognize if insight into the thought process and comprehension level of the responding student is the goal.

The first, the Mortar Lob, reflects the student who has one response prepared and is waiting for the select moment in the discussion to hurl it back at the teacher or another classmate. The second, the Mongoose Strike, consists of quick, calculated attacks aimed at weak points in the discussion rather than providing evidence of a deeper understanding of the material. Both are offensive in nature and should be considered as evidence of selective comprehension. In a question-driven history course, the Mortar Lob and the Mongoose Strike should be recognized for what they are: ways to appear attentive in order to cover any misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the discussion topic.

In contrast, the Spartan’s Shield and the Pit Bull are defensive techniques designed to deflect attention away from a lack of comprehension. The Spartan’s Shield occurs when a student attempts to divert a question away from its intended topic toward one they are more comfortable conversing about. The Pit Bull occurs when a student continuously focuses the attention of the discussion on one frame of reference to which their responses always return. Both the Spartan’s Shield and the Pit Bull are evidence of a lack of in-depth comprehension and reflect the student’s inability to engage the topic of conversation in a more critical and open-minded manner.

If a history teacher aspires to design their course to be question-driven, understanding and being able to recognize these pathologies and the impact they have on class discussions is essential. Acknowledging issues of comfort, confidence, and preparation will help teachers become more effective listeners, which will in turn help them become better at gauging the level of understanding of their students and their abilities to think critically about the topics, concepts, and issues being discussed.

In the conclusion to their OAH Magazine of History essay, Voelker and Armstrong wrote, “Instructors must carefully structure the learning experience to ensure that students are given the opportunity to engage in an authentic process of historical inquiry.” (8) This is an accurate statement, but it does not go far enough. Such opportunities are critical, but they are limited unless the teacher listens effectively to the product of student engagement. Mastering the art of listening—learning to listen to oneself, what is not being said, and what is being said—is critical to the question-driven history course. As Leonard wrote, “The instructor who wants a true discussion learning environment must go further and attempt to build up underlying listening skills.” (9) This essay is a modest attempt to encourage history teachers in question-driven courses to begin to do so.

Robert Fitzgerald is a Faculty Associate at University High School, a laboratory school at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, where he teaches AP U.S. History, AP U.S. Government and Politics, and philosophy.


(1) David J. Voelker and Anthony Armstrong, “Designing a Question-Driven U.S. History Course,” OAH Magazine of History, 27 (July 2013), 19–24, esp. 19.
(2) J. Krishnamurti, Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti (1996), 60.
(3) Epictetus, “The Golden Sayings of Epictetus,”,
(4) See the results of the 2014 Gallup Student Poll, at
(5) Herman B. Leonard, “With Open Ears: Listening and the Art of Discussion Leading,” in Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, eds. C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet (1991), 139.
(6) Voelker and Armstrong, “Designing a Question-Driven U.S. History Course,” 19.
(7) Leonard, “With Open Ears,” 140–42.
(8) Voelker and Armstrong, “Designing a Question-Driven U.S. History Course,” 23.
(9) Leonard, “With Open Ears,” 145.