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, when before me are averted, nervous and embarrassed expressions from which issue not a word, then I begin to wonder what they are doing in the class—and, indeed, what I am doing there.

Increasingly teachers are guided by buzzwords such as interactive and 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—actively to participate in the classroom. But are we right to focus so heavily on these things, such that those students who resist interaction and are reluctant to be vocal are flagged up as needing support and intervention on the grounds that they are in danger of falling short of the learning outcomes and objectives of their studies?

I started reflecting on this question 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, running back-to-back seminars. The first group ranked among the liveliest, 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 the uplifting feeling I had as I wrapped up this class was 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 resist the uncomfortable absence of contributions, would venture their thoughts, but even they developed a reluctance to speak. Over half the students uttered not a single word in front of the whole class at any stage of the course. Even when divided into smaller groups of three or four, in the hope that this would prompt greater interaction, it was striking how quiet they were. Like the proverbial blood from a stone, drawing out any sort of discussion seemed impossible; only the knowledge that relief from this teaching torture would, however slowly the clock advanced, eventually come.

Aside from the quiet seminar group being the least enjoyable class I have ever taught, I had understandable concerns about the students: whereas the lively group were breezing along, more than meeting expectations of student engagement and progress, the quiet bunch appeared to be advancing hardly at all. But I worried unnecessarily. For when it came to their 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 outperformed the rest of the year by some margin: although they were only one group out of six on the course, they accounted for just over half of all the First class grades. The lively group, on the other hand, returned mediocre results: no Firsts, and several notably weak performances. Moreover, 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.

My teaching experience qualifies, of course, only as anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless I have observed that especially vocal students very rarely performed at the highest academic level, and that many of them ended up with weak grades; in 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 Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Although I have reservations about categorizing people according to the somewhat schematic introversion-extroversion spectrum, Cain presents a vigorous and important defence of the need to value the quiet personality—and 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 accounts for as much as half the American population, ‘is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology’. The Extrovert Ideal, its roots in works such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and the celebration of the successful salesperson as a heroic type, can be seen all around us, most obviously in the plethora of reality television programmes in which putting oneself forward, making oneself heard, embracing attention and celebrity, engaging fully in, and preferably leading, team activities are extolled as unchallenged virtues. Not to speak up, not to participate fully in the group, is regarded as a sign of weakness and a personal deficiency. That many people tend towards quiet reflection and creativity may be accepted; but increasingly there is a shrinking social and cultural place for the quiet personality.

This way of thinking has influenced how university students are taught. The quiet student is in fact no longer quiet to the tutor; instead we are prompted to hear alarm bells warning us that the student is not developing in the right way. We are urged to promote active learning and to move away from 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 draw him or her to a more active learning style. So tutors are encouraged to utilize more group-work assignments and assessment based on class participation (one former colleague would mark a student as present only if they contributed to the class discussion). In this respect education is simply mirroring our present cultural state of the unquestioned virtue of the active individual and the assumed deficiency of the passive individual.

One of the functions of a university education is, of course, to help students prepare for the world outside education. 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. At the same time universities need not mimic this society, particularly when, by doing so, they risk creating a learning environment uncomfortable to a large proportion of students. 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. It would be better to take note of a comment made by Cain in relation to school education but relevant also to university teaching:

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)

When I reflect on my 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 suitable to their personality. Above all, academically they were performing at a good level. But perhaps I should have distributed my concerns more to the lively group. They may have benefited from being steered in the direction of passive and reflective approaches, reining in a little their extrovert qualities.

In an academic discipline such as history, where the foundation of doing well lies in occupying oneself with a great deal of the essentially solitary tasks of reading, thinking and writing—generally the sort of activities extroverts find under-stimulating—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 stressful they may find a focus on active learning in class and in assignments; and secondly—and ironically—by excessively encouraging in extrovert students skills and traits they already possess at the expense of helping them foster other necessary qualities that do not come easily to them.

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