Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is it bad be quiet in class?

In the title of her recenly-published article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mary Reda asks a refreshing question: "What's the Problem With Quiet Students? Anyone? Anyone?" After conducting "a yearlong study of a first-year composition class in which students periodically wrote about their experiences of classroom silence, followed by a series of interviews with five students who self-identified as 'quiet,'" Redy discovered that, beyond boredom and lack of preparedness:

The overwhelming majority of the students in my study understand speaking in class to be a high-stakes testing situation in which they are expected to provide a right answer. The more pressure a professor creates through grading class participation, the more complicated it becomes for students to speak. By observing an instructor—how she interacts with the class, the kinds of questions she asks, and how she responds to their voices—they determine whether they are expected, in general, to reflect, speculate, and hypothesize aloud or to perform on an oral quiz.
Redy finds that "choosing silence" is also associated with certain types of of personalities and backgrounds:
Some students choose silence because it best fits their learning style, culture, or history. Much contemporary pedagogy lauds the calls for "student voice" as empowering. But students who are, for example, visual learners, or whose home cultures have taught them to value speaking and silence differently than the contemporary culture of American higher education does, often benefit from the inclusion of silence in the curriculum.

Some students are quiet because they are listening to others' views to integrate them into their own perspectives. Speech and contemplation may not happen simultaneously; those who don't come to the classroom already skilled in academic discourse need time and space to "translate" their thinking.
Redy's takeaway?
I have stopped automatically assuming that the silences in my classroom necessarily indicate failure. I work harder to communicate with my students about my expectations and theirs, particularly since for many students, my student-centered, dialogical classroom is the exception, not the rule, and the kinds of discussions—and silences—I invite may challenge what they think a classroom should look like
I now make time for occasional silence in my classes by assigning in-class writing and building deliberate pauses for reflection into our discussions. 
Redy's newfound wisdom, particularly if it spreads to others, is good news for the many "left-brainers" who find discussions difficult to contribute to--whether they are shy, socially awkward, or simply have trouble following the discussion closely enough to know exactly when to jump in.  As one commenter puts it:
I was extremely quiet all through my undergrad years and into graduate school. My professors unanimously agreed that I "needed to participate in class more often." I was quiet not so much because I was shy (though that was true during my first couple of years of college) but because I'm an introvert, and I need time to think before I put my ideas out there. I don't "think out loud"; my brain just doesn't work that way. The problem with a lot of class discussion is that it moves so fast that by the time someone like me is ready to chime in, the rest of the class has moved on to the next topic. That's not the only reason students don't talk, but I don't think my experience is at all unique.

I don't think I even realized all of that until I started teaching and had to confront student silence from the other side. One of the things I learned to do was to periodically ask the students to stop, reflect, and write down a few sentences about whatever topic we were discussing, and then share them out loud. It seemed to help turn classroom silence from something awkward and empty into something productive.
Another commenter was less sympathetic:
Shouldn't education be partially to facilitate students' maturity and comfort participating and contributing? Wouldn't the other students benefit from hearing a wider range of points of view? And wouldn't class discussions be more interesting with more participants?
Yet another commenter offered yet another reason for student silence: some students prefer the expertise of their professors to the inexperience of their classmates.  They keep silent and silently hope that their peers will, too.  

This last comment brought back memories from grad school. One of my classes lost two full weeks of content to two students who enjoyed the sounds of their own voices. My friend and I took to putting down our pens and sitting back in our seats until the professor finally returned to the syllabus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article, Katherine.

My son had a tough year in high school often because of "class participation" expectations He's a left brainer in a big way.