Listeners: evaluative, interpretive, generative

What type of listener are am I right now? Do I know what modes of listening I use? How might I improve as a listener? What if I actively choose to practice?

Listening informs questioning. Paul Bennett says that one of the keys to being a good questioner is to stop reflexively asking so many thoughtless questions and pay attention— eventually, a truly interesting question may come to mind. (Berger, 98 pag.)

I’ve been studying a paper Gail Burrill (@GailBurrill) shared with us a couple of weekends ago.  The paper, Mathematicians’ Mathematical Thinking for Teaching: Responding to Students’ Conjectures by Estrella Johnson, Sean Larsen, Faith Rutherford of Portland State University, discusses three types of listening: evaluative, interpretive, and generative.

The term evaluative listening is characterized by Davis (1997) as one that “is used to suggest that the primary reason for listening in such mathematical classrooms tends to be rather limited and limiting” (p. 359). When a teacher engages in evaluative listening the goal of the listening is to compare student responses to the “correct” answer that the teacher already has in mind. Furthermore, in this case, the student responses are largely ignored and have “virtually no effect on the pre-specified trajectory of the lesson” (p. 360).

When a teacher engages in interpretive listening, the teacher is no longer “trying simply to assess the correctness of student responses” instead they are “now interested in ‘making sense of the sense they are making’” (Davis, 1997, p. 365). However, while the teacher is now actively trying to understand student contribution, the teacher is unlikely to change the lesson in response.

Finally, generative listening can “generate or transform one’s own mathematical understanding and it can generate a new space of instructional activities” (Yackel et al., 2003, p. 117) and is “intended to reflect the negotiated and participatory nature of listening to students mathematics” (p. 117). So, when a teacher is generatively listening to their students, the student contributions guide the direction of the lesson. Rasmussen’s notion of generative listening draws on Davis’ (1997) description of hermeneutic listening, which is consistent with instruction that is “more a matter of flexible response to ever-changing circumstances than of unyielding progress towards imposed goals” (p. 369).

If you’d like to read about these three types of listening the authors continue their paper with a case study.

Evaluative listeners seek correct answers, and all answers are compared to the one deemed correct from a single point of view.

Interpretive listeners seek sense making.  How are learners processing to produce solutions to tasks? What does the explanation show us about understanding?

Generative listeners seek next steps and questions themselves. In light of what was just heard, what should we do next? And, then they act.

For assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning; thus a significant aspect of any program will be the ways in which teachers make these adjustments. (William and Black, n. pag)

“Great teachers focus on what the student is saying or doing,” he says, “and are able, by being so focused and by their deep knowledge of the subject matter, to see and recognize the inarticulate stumbling, fumbling effort of the student who’s reaching toward mastery, and then connect to them with a targeted message.” (Coyle, 177 pag.)

What if we empower and embolden learners to ask the questions they need to ask by improving the way we listen and question?

Unless you ask questions, nobody knows what you are thinking or what you want to know.” (Rothstein and Santana, 135 pag.)

How might we practice generative listening to level up in the art of questioning? What is we listen to inform our questioning?

How might we collaborate to learn and grow as listeners and questioners?

Berger, Warren (2014-03-04). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas . BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

Coyle, Daniel (2009-04-16). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Davis, B. (1997). Listening for difference: An evolving conception of mathematics teaching. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. 28(3). 355–376.

Johnson, E., Larsen, S., Rutherford (2010). Mathematicians’ Mathematicians’ Mathematical Thinking for Teaching: Responding to Students’ Conjectures. Thirteenth Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education Conference on Research in 
Undergraduate Mathematics Education. Raleigh, NC. Retrieved from on September 12, 2015.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education, 2011. Print.

Wiliam, Dylan, and Paul Black. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.” The College Cost Disease (2011): n. pag. WEA Education Blog. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Yackel, E., Stephan, M., Rasmussen, C., Underwood, D. (2003). Didactising: Continuing the work of Leen Streefland. Educational Studies in Mathematics. 54. 101–126.

2 thoughts on “Listeners: evaluative, interpretive, generative”

  1. Thanks for making these connections. I was meeting with our lower school faculty today and much of the focus of their shared learning was on how to create more space for student voice in the curriculum. Often, these conversations get stuck on finding the balance between the opportunities, frame and provocations initiated by teachers and the need for students to move and shape the direction of inquiry. This post resonated for me as our conversation was unfolding because it identifies a path through this tension. While it is important for us to think about the big changes that we might make in program and curricula to create more space for authentic student voice, the simple act of listening to our students may be the most powerful way to give legitimacy to their voices. So our team will think more about how the work we need to do is really on ourselves so that we can more often find ourselves listening to our students in a generative way. So thanks for the provocation.


  2. Thank you, Mark. I agree with you.

    While it is important for us to think about the big changes that we might make in program and curricula to create more space for authentic student voice, the simple act of listening to our students may be the most powerful way to give legitimacy to their voices.

    Beautiful and powerful thinking.


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