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Passive vs. Active Listening

By: Music Teacher Amira Fuller

February 21, 2020

You’ve heard English teachers talk about passive and active voice, but people don’t often pay the same attention to passive and active listening. As humans, we each experience passive and active listening every day, and both play important roles in our lives. People often assume that passive listening is a bad thing, but it’s not, and it occurs often. Whether you’re humming along absentmindedly to music while driving, or zoning out while smiling and nodding at an acquaintance who’s telling a long-winded tale, there will always be moments of passive listening in your day. Everyone is a passive listener at times and there’s nothing wrong with that. The issue with passive listening is when it occurs during a moment in time where one needs to be actively listening.

Active listening is what we expect our students, family and friends to do whenever we are talking or sharing something with them, and sometimes it requires a little extra thought or incentive to make that happen. In music this year I have implemented a game at the beginning of each Upper School music class called Poison Pattern. This game is designed to engage the students and encourage them to be active listeners instead of simply passive listeners.

In the game, I sing different music patterns with different notes, intervals and rhythms that the students have to echo back, except for the specified “poison pattern.” Before we start playing I let them know what the “pattern” will be for that class and the game begins. Whenever they successfully identify and don’t sing the “poison pattern” they get a point, however, if even one student makes a sound then I get the point. It is a competition between myself and each class to see who will get the points. Through this, students work to be active listeners as well as encourage their classmates to be active listeners. The class works together to engage their listening skills and be ready to learn.

During each class the students have the opportunity to get up to five points. Sometimes they get all five other times only one or two. These points add on to the number they’ve already accumulated from previous classes and rounds of the game. This game is often a good indicator of the level of attention and listening I can expect throughout the class. Eventually, once the class has reached 50 points over a period of several classes they are awarded 15 minutes of free time. The students then discuss different ideas of what they’d like to do during their free time and vote as a class on the activity as well as the day the activity will take place. This reward helps motivate the students to be more successful during the game and be better and more active listeners for the duration of the class.

As teachers we always want our students to be actively listening, but sometimes they need a little push or reminder to be more active with their listening and learning. There are certainly times where it is acceptable to be a passive listener, but it’s all about the time and the place.


Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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