Quiet in the classroom

One of the most rewarding experiences of teaching undergraduate students is the lively, engaged seminar group. When ideas and views and vigorous discussion are flying around the classroom, when the group are interacting enthusiastically and brightly, then I sense that clear progress is being made. Conversely, few things are more dispiriting than the seminar group in which stony silence is the default mode of the students. When it is a struggle to elicit even brief comments, and I am faced by averted, nervous and embarrassed expressions from which is uttered not a word, then I begin to wonder what purpose the class is serving—and, indeed, what purpose I am serving.

Increasingly teachers are guided by buzzwords such as interactivity, active learning, student participation and group work. We are encouraged to assess students according to their abilities in these areas, and to devise tasks and learning resources to encourage them—force them, even—to participate actively in the classroom. But are we right to focus so heavily on these things? Is it appropriate that those who resist interaction are flagged up for support and intervention on the grounds that they are in danger of falling short of learning outcomes and objectives?

I began seriously reflecting on these questions as a result of an unusual teaching experience. I was convening a first-year undergraduate history module, comprising weekly lectures over two terms. Following the lecture the students divided into six seminar groups, each numbering about twenty members. I was responsible for teaching two of these groups over back-to-back seminars. The first group ranked among the most enjoyable classes I have ever taught. Participation levels were remarkably high: most students contributed to the weekly discussion topics, and no student sat through the entire course without speaking. Contributions were consistently engaging, interesting and lively; strong but good-natured debates were frequent.

But each week, as I wrapped up this class, my uplifted spirits were always clouded by the prospect of the next seminar. Week after week, no matter what I tried, the second group of students sat through the class in near total silence. Two or three of them, perhaps unable to endure the uncomfortable absence of contributions, would venture their thoughts, but even they became more confidently reticent as the weeks passed. Over half the students uttered not a single word in front of the whole class at any stage of the course. Even when I divided the class into smaller groups of three or four, in the hope of prompting greater interaction, it was striking how quiet they were. Like the proverbial blood from a stone, drawing out any sort of discussion seemed impossible. Keeping a surreptitious eye on the clock, which advanced with apparently preternatural slowness, I silently reassured myself that this teaching torture would not last forever.

More pressing than my lack of enjoyment of the quiet group were my concerns about the students: whereas the lively group were breezing along, more than meeting expectations of student engagement and progress, the quiet bunch seemed to advance hardly at all. My expectations for their written assignments were correspondingly low. But I worried unnecessarily. For when it came to academic progress, the quiet group collectively outperformed all the other seminar groups, exhibiting in their work a bright intelligence and enthusiastic engagement barely detectable in the classroom. In fact, they surpassed the rest of the year by some margin: although they were only one group out of six, they accounted for just over half of all the First class grades across the course. The lively group, on the other hand, returned mediocre results: no Firsts, and several notably weak performances. Interestingly, the inverse relationship between classroom loquacity and academic performance received further confirmation by the fact that the two or three most vocal members of the quiet group performed less well than those students who invariably said little or nothing during seminars.

This teaching experience qualifies only as anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, I have observed in other classes that especially vocal students very rarely performed at the highest academic level; indeed, many of them ended up with weak grades. By contrast, academically the highest achieving students I have taught were those who were relatively quiet in the classroom. (Note that I am not saying quiet students always do well academically, only that those who do well tend to be quiet; some of the weakest students have also been quiet.)

None of this is likely to be surprising to anyone who has read Susan Cains Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Although I have reservations about the schematic introversion-extroversion spectrum as a way of categorizing people, Cain presents a vigorous and important defence of the need to value the quiet personality—and a critique of our social and cultural failure to do so. As she notes, western culture does not make life easy for such personalities:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. (p. 4)

In Cain’s view, introversion, which she suggests applies to as much as half the American population, ‘is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology’. The Extrovert Ideal, with its roots in books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and the celebration of the successful salesperson as a modern hero, can be observed all around us, most obviously in the plethora of reality television shows that unquestioningly extol as virtuous those who put themselves forward, make themselves heard, covet attention and celebrity, and engage fully in, and preferably lead, team activities. Not to speak up, not to participate fully: these are marks of weakness and personal deficiency. A tendency towards solitary reflection and quiet creativity is not yet regarded as unacceptable behaviour; but the social and cultural place for the quiet personality is shrinking.

This way of thinking has influenced how university students are taught. For the tutor, quiet students are in fact anything but: they are vocally mute alarm bells sounding a warning that academic and personal development is not progressing normally. Thus, teachers are urged to promote active learning at the expense of so-called passive methods. The student who listens and takes notes, reflects and thinks, reads and writes, but says little in class, is labelled a passive learner and hence in need of pedagogic approaches designed to elicit a more active learning style. So tutors are encouraged to utilize group-work assignments and assessment based on class participation (one former colleague would mark as present only students who contributed to the class discussion). Education increasingly mirrors the contemporary cultural veneration of the active individual, at the same time assuming the deficiency of the passive individual.

One of the functions of a university education is, of course, to help students prepare for life after their degree. It is understandable and right that an attempt is made to equip students with the experience and skills necessary to survive in a society biased towards an Extrovert Ideal. But universities need not mimic this society, particularly when, by doing so, they risk creating a learning environment uncomfortable to a large proportion of people. Encouraging the quiet, passive student to experiment with more active approaches is one thing; building a pedagogic approach on the premise that active is right and passive is wrong is something else.

An awareness of different learning styles (visual, kinetic, etc.) is a valuable asset for teachers. Knowing that some students flourish in the presence of, say, images benefits both learners and teachers. But are we neglecting the importance of different temperaments in the classroom? As Cain has commented in relation to school education:

There’s a lot of attention in education paid to difference in learning style, and I think not enough understanding of differences of temperament and how that shapes who children are and how they learn and socialize. (‘How to Teach a Young Introvert’; Susan Cain in conversation with Kate Torgovnick May, February 2014)

A fixation on teaching approaches that favour extrovert learners fails to satisfy the social and educational needs of introverts–and it risks alienating them. Furthermore, without an understanding of different temperaments, teachers may be doing a disservice to extroverts and introverts. When I reflect on my contrasting lively and quiet seminar groups it occurs to me that my worries were misplaced. The quiet students were, for the most part, doing fine; hopefully they benefited from the attempts to give them experience of group work and class participation, but these things could be developed over time and at a pace appropriate to their personality. Above all, they were performing at an academically good level. Any concerns ought perhaps to have been distributed to the lively group: these students may have benefited from a gentle reining in of their extrovert qualities so as to steer them in the direction of quieter and more reflective approaches.

In an academic discipline such as history, where the foundation of doing well lies in occupying oneself with the necessarily solitary tasks of reading, thinking and writing—the sort of activities extroverts often find under-stimulating and a struggle—a teaching approach that blindly subscribes to the mantra of active learning may be letting students down in two ways: first, by undervaluing the qualities and progress of the introvert student and overlooking how a focus on active learning can be stressful for them; and secondly—and ironically—by excessively encouraging in extrovert students skills and traits they already possess at the expense of helping them foster other qualities that do not come easily to them.

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