Lively classrooms filled with boisterous students make for some very buzzing teaching sessions. But lost among the ‘full of beans’ students are some quieter learners. They may be punctual and diligent, paying attention and completing their work on time, but they never raise their hand for an answer. Ask them a question and they will most likely clam up, becoming reluctant to speak.
There may not be any disciplinary issues, but the ‘withdrawal from communication’ bothers many a teacher hankering for complete class participation! Alternatively, there is the frustrating element of how to gauge knowledge and understanding of the quieter lot. Not to mention the worries of how the reticent will fare in the workplace tomorrow.
Research proves that educators subconsciously harbour negative expectations of the ostensible ‘wallflowers’. They are habitually perceived as less intelligent, less capable, less interested and less enthusiastic than their more vocal counterparts. Inadequate oral responses automatically reflect on low achievement, lack of preparation and even resistance to learning. Teachers also tend to concentrate on more verbal students and ignore the seemingly quiet ones.
Some well-meaning teachers do try to cultivate speaking skills in unusually quiet students, but being ill-equipped, end up doing more harm than good. For instance, the obvious solution to ‘get them talking’ is to give quiet students more opportunities to speak. But forcing oral performance by asking direct questions, verbal testing or marks for participation are indeed counter-productive. The pressure can be exhausting, making them quieter or even interfering with their learning! So, the monumental question is should educators challenge quiet students or are they better left alone?
Drawing them out of their shell
Mrs. Meenal Arora, Executive Director, Shemrock and Shemford Group of Schools cautions, “Ignoring the fact that a child is quiet and withdrawn can have adverse impact on the holistic development. This ignorance can also have serious repercussions on the affective, cognitive and psychomotor development.”
What is imperative is to assess why some students choose to remain quiet and withdrawn. The reasons can range from shy and introverted nature to poor communication skills to low self-esteem to fears or apprehensions of even peer discrimination. Students may not understand the subject matter, dread that their answer might be wrong, struggle with communication or simply not want to communicate.
Skilled observation coupled with private conversation can help educators pinpoint the worries and assess whether the quiet student needs professional help. Keep in mind that forcefully trying to change an introverted personality can create hostility. Further, understand that silence is not always a problem. It can be a personal learning style that should be respected. Some students actually prefer to use the productive space to carefully listen, reflect, process and introspect in a way that fosters learning.
Teachers can help quiet students develop a public voice by cultivating a warm, relaxed, supportive and colloquial classroom environment. Allow students to get to know each other with permissive, unrestricted communication without letting it get out of hand. “In order to help such students, an environment with a sense of security and respect should be developed in the classroom. There is a high tendency to miss out such students amidst the highly verbose student crowd. A successful teacher should be able to look for such quiet students and give them the extra care and attention with a very friendly approach”, suggests Amritha V, Faculty in Soft Skills, Corporate & Industrial Relations, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University, Kerala.
Encourage the withdrawn ones to become more active participants through drama, role-playing or simply reading aloud. Form small groups or panels of two to five students as they may be reluctant to speak individually. Let them speak from their seat when needed, as opposed to standing in front of the whole class! Mind group dynamics where overbearing, verbose students may intimidate others into silence.
Mr. Rajiv Seth, Registrar, Teri University advises, “Very often it is just an initial stimulus which is required on the educator’s part, to draw the ‘quiet’ student into the learning process.
This can come through gauging the areas of strength of the ‘quiet’ student and then structuring a presentation related to the topic on hand, around those areas.”
Ask open-ended questions that persuade quiet students to contemplate or hypothesise aloud as a means to exchange ideas and construct knowledge. Seek participation but sans any threat or pressure to demonstrate their learning/ achievement or penalising lack of involvement.
Mr. R. Sreenivasan, Director, Indus World School of Business adds, “If the learning environment is collaborative and exploratory, rather than directive, in due course of time the positive reinforcements from the process will make an individual open up. The facilitator in the process will have a significant role to play in creating experiences that could be transformational. These processes will give positive feedback that makes an individual realise his or her self worth and gain confidence.”
Never criticise, confront or attempt to grade their performance. But do provide positive reinforcement by valuing and appreciating any verbal contributions. As Mrs. Arora continues, “Provide them with an environment wherein they will feel free to step forward and express themselves in the best possible way. Motivate them to take initiative to participate in group activities. Also, appreciate their efforts so that they feel good about themselves and make such efforts in the future as well.”
Use technology to engage this segment like email, online discussion boards, blogs, wikis or social media and build their confidence. As writer Susan Cain observes in her book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts, “They’ll gain confidence by tweeting their ideas and seeing them recognised by their peers. That confidence will spill over into their ‘real world’ interactions, I predict.
Once they’ve savoured the pleasure of participating in a discussion and seeing their ideas validated, they’ll be hungry for more!”
Finally, “Evaluation should be based upon what a student knows, not how much a student talks.
After all, a student who is listening is more likely to be learning than a student who is talking”, comments Professor of Communications, James McCroskey. Mr. Seth adds, “What is more important is to make all the students ‘intellectually participative’ rather than ‘vociferously participative’!”