Should Shy People Be Forced to Speak in the Classroom?

We have all been around people who were very quiet and generally keep to themselves. It’s just how some people were meant to be – there are some that are bold and some that are shy. And neither one are necessarily bad things! Yet, shy people get the cold shoulder in regards to schooling, because they have trouble speaking in the classroom and maintaining normal levels of anxiety when confronted in a manner that is unnatural to them.

There is nothing wrong with being timid. (photo by schleikmeister)

There is nothing wrong with being timid. (photo by schleikmeister)

Part of this article by Chronicle shows exactly the perspective we need to stop treating kids that are shy or quiet so poorly, when it’s just a disposition that is them.

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.

The students in the study also consider their self-images, their knowledge, and their comfort levels with criticism and confrontation in the classroom setting when deciding whether to speak or be silent. They understand that their classmates’ opinions of them will be affected, if not formed, by the opinions they offer in class. And that makes speaking out a complex negotiation. Students know that their contributions to a discussion—say, ones that challenge another student, or that are misconstrued—on highly charged issues like affirmative action might irrevocably brand them as racists. They understand that what you say can easily become who you are.

That can be particularly problematic in writing classes, where students often read and respond to one another’s work. The size of the discussion group, a lack of familiarity with other students, and the often unspoken rules about participating, including how frequently to speak, and how to achieve a balance between supportive, meaningful, and critical feedback, are among the factors students consider when deciding whether to speak or be silent. Ironically, some of those same issues—voice, identity, authority, and audience—are slippery concepts that writing instructors often struggle to teach effectively. Quiet students understand them in a visceral way and know that they are always being evaluated by their peers and their instructor, even in a student-centered classroom.

In this research, I was most surprised by what had been missing in my conversations with colleagues and had rarely emerged in all the reading I had done about student silence. It came down to this: Student silence isn’t necessarily a problem. 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. Recognizing that silence can be an active, generative space, those students agree with a small group of theorists who argue that silence can invite meditation, contemplation, and engagement. In other words, silence—along with dialogue—fosters learning.



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