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


Let me entertain you

How important is it to be an entertaining teacher? Kane Sandretto and Heath’s study of 17 excellent university teachers noted the importance of ‘personality’, especially enthusiasm, humour and passion.

This got me thinking about teaching as entertainment. There are plenty of examples of entertaining teachers, such as  But how much do students learn if the focus is solely on being entertaining?

In 2013 there was an interesting blog post by James Rovira, who argues that being entertained implies passivity, and so it’s better to focus on the pleasure of learning.

Do you think this video is a good example of an entertaining teacher who has student learning firmly in mind?

For some teachers, this kind of style of teaching can look too over the top and energetic – people think it’s not their style and find it off putting. (I’ve heard it described as ‘too masculine’!) Being enthusiastic, passionate and humorous is all well and good, but what if you’re not naturally outgoing? Can you ‘fake it til you make it’?

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet (also see her TED talk), reports her discussions with Professor Brian Little (see his TED talk here). Little, an avowed introvert, is nonetheless an entertaining lecturer and award winning teacher. He says he’s able to do this because he cares deeply about his students. So it’s not a false persona – he’s skilled at self-monitoring (i.e. able to modify his behaviour to meet the ‘social demands of a situation’). Cain calls such people ‘pseudo-extroverts’, and advises that they’ll need ‘restorative niches’ to avoid burnout.

Award winning university teacher, John Croucher, found in a five year study that

there was one [student survey] question that was consistently most highly associated [with good teaching] across all subject areas over all the years. This was the one that asked whether the teacher was able to explain the course material clearly. There were a number of instances where a teacher was rated as enthusiastic, knowledgeable and well-prepared, but was still considered a poor teacher overall.

Similarly, a large longitudinal study recently reported in Studies in Higher Education found that students’ exposure to clear and organised classroom instruction was significantly and positively linked to increased deep approaches to learning and critical thinking.

So what do you reckon? Should new teachers start off by focusing on giving clear explanations and being well-organised? Will the enthusiasm and passion be easier to convey with more experience, as confidence builds?