Sound Advice

A couple of years ago I invested in a pair of hearing aids. It was not an easy decision. I thought of hearing aids as a sign of weakness and I imagined myself being horribly self-conscious. Besides, my wife had gotten used to having to repeat herself and listening to the television at an uncomfortably high volume. I had gotten used to her exasperated expression and having closed-captions displayed prominently across the screen.

Then, I realized that it wasn’t really about me. I was having trouble hearing students in the classroom. A classroom is unlike a social situation in which I might nod politely at something someone said. Even if I hadn’t really heard the potentially witty bon mot tossed my way at a social gathering, there were other cues; such as facial expression or tone of voice that would telegraph what type of appropriate non-response I would need to muster.

The classroom is not a social gathering. If I ask a student a question I really need to hear the answer. If a student asks me a question, I need to be able to supply an appropriate response. This much is obvious but, what only gradually became obvious was that in far too many situations, with far too many students, when I asked them to repeat something they had said, they said something else.

It seems that students have become highly attuned to teacher responses and have come to learn that, in many situations, an instructor is not necessarily asking a student to repeat what they have said as much as they are giving them an opportunity to adjust their original answer. “So, you’re saying that Columbus sailed to the new world in 1692?” Becomes ‘code’ for “try again”. What dawned on me was, when I asked students to repeat themselves, they weren’t thinking “man, this guy’s really hard of hearing”. They were thinking they had supplied a wrong or incomplete answer and I was giving them a chance to make it right. This was particularly frustrating for me since their revised response didn’t help me to catch the words I missed first time around because the student had recalibrated and altered what they had said.

The stop and start of classroom communications resulting from my hearing deficiency was actually torpedoing my efforts to orchestrate meaningful, free-flowing discussions.  More troubling yet was that some students were more negatively impacted than others. Confident Amy in the front row, who spoke loudly and clearly, didn’t have a problem.  I could hear her and provide any necessary feedback.  No, it was Damien, who was already struggling with key concepts and was speaking quietly and uncertainly, that felt the full force of my hearing loss.  By asking him to repeat himself I had effectively shut him down.

Room acoustics also impacted my ability to hear clearly in the classroom. One particular room, near the ventilation system was particularly frustrating because the air handler created a kind of ‘white noise’ that masked what was being said. The large lecture hall was an easier fix since there were microphones available in the room; although students seemed allergic to using microphones.

So I finally bit the bullet. The one thing I insisted on, when I chose my hearing aids, was that I could control them (volume, pitch, directionality) with my iPhone. It was a concession to my vanity. If I needed to raise the volume I wouldn’t have to fiddle around with little buttons near my ears. I could use my iPhone; which I was already using for other tasks such as controlling a slide deck.

So what happened? I was immediately able to hear questions and answers from almost all students. Of course, there were still some that spoke so softly that even my new bionic ears couldn’t capture what they were saying. I stopped disrupting the flow of discussion and was able to encourage the soft-spoken students; who after a while became less soft-spoken when they became more confident in what they were saying. A real added bonus was that I could hear my wife and have much more fluid conversations. I was also able to turn off closed captions on the television; except for the murder mystery series where everyone’s Welsh accent is so thick that closed captions are really subtitles. Finally, and much to my embarrassment, I realized that everyone, but me, had been able to hear the students in the large lecture class without them needing to use a microphone.

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