You have the right to remain silent

ceramic artwork by Vanessa Long

ceramic artwork by Vanessa Long

Have teachers taken the rhetoric of participation too far? Susan Cain in her book ‘Quiet’ (also see her TED talk) makes some great points about how teaching in higher education privileges extroverts, and expects students to ‘engage’ and ‘participate’ by talking, answering and asking questions, giving presentations and by doing lots of group work (and see Chapter 3 for her critique of group work ‘When collaboration kills creativity’). Quiet students are seen as too passive and not suited to doing well in the workplace. For example, at Harvard Business School

The school tries hard to turn quiet students into talkers. The professors have their own “Learning Teams” in which they egg each other on with techniques to draw out reticent students. When students fail to speak up in class, it’s seen not only as their deficit but also their professor’s. “If someone doesn’t speak by the end of the semester, it’s problematic,” Professor Michel Anteby told me. “It means I didn’t do a good job.”

This extreme privileging of spoken communication disadvantages students who, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable speaking up generally, or just at that moment. A recent paper by Phan Le Ha and Bingui Li studies the reasons why Chinese university students in China and Australia are silent in class. Their paper challenges lecturers’ assumptions that such students are passive due to the language barrier, as students in the study gave varied reasons as to why they remained silent in class. The participants in the study did not see

in-class silence as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘corrected’ or ‘remedied’…[they] do not endorse that talking is a necessary element of students’ thinking; rather these two processes are different.

So what can we do as teachers?

  • Think about the purpose of class discussion
  • If class participation is assessed, think carefully about how this is done
  • Pay attention to what Ha and Li call the ‘multilayered meanings and values’ of silences
  • Keep silence as an important choice available to students
  • Be aware that some students might need support to speak in class
  • Consider other ways of enabling participation e.g. ‘think, pair, share’
  • Consider ways of enabling anonymity e.g. polling systems