The right to remain silent? More quiet in the classroom

One of my earlier posts, ‘Quiet in the Classroom’, has prompted an interesting discussion on Facebook. The original article concerned my experience of university seminar teaching, specifically in relation to two contrasting seminar groups of history undergraduates: one, a highly vocal group who interacted with one another extremely well; the other, a group in which, no matter what I tried, profound silence was the unshifting, default position. What particularly interested me was that it was the latter group who performed, and by some margin, at the highest level when it came to formal written assessment. I concluded that this was not necessarily surprising: history is a discipline requiring extensive and solitary reading, reflection and writing, and so those personality types (the introverts) who are most at home when quietly reflecting, and least comfortable when expected to interact publicly within a group, may be especially well-suited to the subject. Yet quiet students are increasingly seen within academia as ‘problem’ students, since they are not meeting academic expectations of contributing regularly to classroom discussions and engaging and interacting vocally with their peers. This seems to be a reflection of the more general tendency to see extroversion as an ideal and introversion as a problem. (In the article I refer to Susan Cain’s fine exploration of this issue in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

It is clear from some of the comments I have received that a number of students share my feelings about the growing expectation that learning has to be a socially interactive process. As an undergraduate student once myself, I can recall how daunting the seminar was: for me as a shy, introverted type, the prospect of having to speak in front of a group of people (including, of course, at least one person with vastly more knowledge about the topic of discussion than I had) induced anxious and uncomfortable feelings. The risk of making a fool of myself in front of my peers was forever at the forefront of my mind. I am sure this is a common experience, particularly among students, many of whom are young, lacking in confidence, and anxious about social relationships and how they are perceived by others. Rather than make them feel that their reticence is a problem, we should instead reassure them that it is perfectly normal.

Of course, part of the point of education is to push and challenge students: to support them in gaining more confidence in areas they may find difficult and uncomfortable, and to prepare them for a future in which they may well have to contribute to meetings or deliver a presentation to a group. But to approach this task bullishly by demanding that students interact (as some teachers do) is insensitive and narrow-minded. It fails to appreciate that personalities vary, and, worse, it can generate unnecessary anxiety among students to the extent that, counterproductively, studying becomes for them a miserable experience.

A better approach would be to create the right conditions that enable students to contribute if they wish, while respecting the right to remain silent. We should not demand that anyone has to speak if (for whatever reason) they don’t want to, nor should we make students feel embarrassed, ashamed or a ‘problem’ if they are quiet. Fundamental to the classroom environment is an atmosphere of respect and tolerance, and this ought to mean that everyone (students and teachers) respects and tolerates the various personalities and views within the group. Rather than become frustrated that some students seem to say too little while others say too much, one might reflect on how the seminar is valuable training for how we can interact constructively with a wide range of people and personalities. For some that means learning to contribute more; for others it means learning to contribute less; for all it means respecting the contributions of others, however sparing or effusive they may be.

Does it really matter anyway if a student says little in class but is otherwise performing at a good academic level and seems generally happy? I would say not, and hence that there is no justification in worrying about it. Instead we might focus on that student’s evident strengths in other areas of the learning process; we might acknowledge that for some people it takes years to develop the confidence to speak regularly in social groups (something I know from personal experience); and we might realize that there are many paths through life for which confident social interaction is not an essential skill whereas the ability to reflect and think is. Listening and thinking are at least as important as talking and acting.

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