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Lately I’ve been thinking about silence. What does it mean when I ask a question I think is sure to generate conversation only to find the last word I say echoing around the classroom before it is finally swallowed up by the creaking of chairs and the slight rustle of student notebooks? Is it a sign that students lack motivation (whatever that means) to answer the question? Did they even understand the question? On a sunny Friday afternoon last week, I ran a lesson on the US debt ceiling, the chances of a US default on its debt, and what it might mean for the Japanese economy. I had a series of questions I thought would generate some heated discussion (I was particularly fond of, “If you could ask any question you wanted to a US senator or house representative, what would it be”). There were sporadic pockets of conversation during the discussion phase of the lesson. But there was definitely more silence than speaking. So I thought I might review some of the reasons for the silence and some of the things I could have done differently.
Diffusion of Responsibility is the psychological principal that the more people gathered together, the less pressure any particular member of the group will feel to speak up. Here’s a pretty great video clip on YouTube to see how this idea can play out in an experimental setting. Basically, when you got a large group of people (say 15 lower intermediate level high school English students) in a room without any clear definition of what roles and responsibilities they have at any particular moment, you are setting yourself up for long, long periods of silence. If a participant in an experiment is willing to wait 20 minutes to mention clouds of smoke billowing into a room, how much longer will students wait to answer a question pitched at an entire class. That doesn’t mean that questions for generating conversation asked to an entire class are worthless, it just means that first students need to have a pretty good sense of what they are being asked to do. If I had the lesson to do over again, I probably would have clearly delineated the conversation component of the lesson. And I would have started off with a series of questions that, while requiring personal answers, where a bit easier to answer. Things like, “Do you think that Japanese economy has been getting better lately?” and “Do you worry about getting a job after you graduate from university?” I think this section of the class would have worked out better if I had also allowed students to work in pairs and generate potential responses before requiring them to take the next step of sharing that response with the class.
Students are often more aware of group dynamics than I think. Students might not have answered a question because they were genuinely trying to make space for someone else to answer the question, maybe a friend they knew needed a bit more time to get their thoughts together. One way around this is to designate one or two students to have “Teacher’s Rights” for a class. In my lessons, “Teacher’s Rights” means that, after answering two questions themselves, designated students are then allowed to also call on other students and solicit answers. This lets me tap students own, often superior knowledge, of class dynamics and the needs of their fellow students. If I could have a do-over for this lesson, I would difinetly use “Teacher’s Rights” in this class.
Introverts vs. extroverts: Chuck Sandy has a great post on group dynamics up over on the iTDi site touching on the fact that introverts are, “simply people who work best and learn most in quieter low-key environments.” So while I was sweating through the discussion phase of the class, thinking things like, “Why doesn’t A-Chan answer the question, she knows the answer,” A-Chan was most likely intently waiting to hear what another student gave as an answer. From her point of view, listening to the answer and taking notes was perhaps her key learning strategy. When I called on her and pressured her into answering (which is what I did) I might have been steeping on an important chance for her to learn just to get my own immediate needs met. It would have been more productive to create a role that allowed introverts to feel as if they are active and useful members of the class. If I had asked A-Chan to be the official note taker for the discussion, or tasked her with looking up words when asked for a meaning by a speaker. I could have organized the class so that it played more to her strengths.
Perfectionist Inhibition: Students don’t want to answer a question unless they are sure they have the right answer. This is often sighted as one of the biggest obstacles to getting students talking in Japan. I’m not sure it’s quite the problem that many people make it out to be. But when students are struggling with a new concept (and a batch new lexis around government) the anxiety around saying something embarrassing can get bumped up significantly. John Fanselow suggests giving students a certain amount of time before verbally answering a question to write down their response in their notebook. If I did the class over, I would designate two minutes after each question for writing. At the end of two minutes, students would turn over their notebooks and then verbally answer. In general, this step usually leads not only to more answers from a wider variety of students, but more linguistically complex answers as well.
WHITA (Who the Hell am I Talking to Anyway) Syndrome: When do we ever talk to 15 people at a time, anyway? Is this a natural way to use language? I guess it is natural for teachers. But is it fair to expect our students to see spraying the class with buckshot answers as being particulary useful? During the lesson, I had the students sitting in a large circle, but I think I would definitely change the class layout if I were to run this lesson again. For example, the clover classroom layout seems to work pretty well in these kinds of activities. Students often will share opinions in their immediate group of three, or with the adjacent leaf of 3 students. Once the conversation gets rolling, there will be more communication across the room. At least with this set up, there is a sense of whom one is addressing and a greater sense of immediacy in regards to who will be listening to the answers.
Of course, even if I make all of these changes, there’s no gurantee that students are going to actively engage in conversation. Whether a student connects up to a particular topic is very much a personal choice. But at the end of this debt ceiling lesson, A-Chan came up to me and said, “Kevin, if America defaults on it’s debt, the Japanese economy could be hurt? After electing a new prime minister and working so hard to fix our economy, we could have another recession? Don’t the people in America know that it’s not fair?” Here was a 16 year old girl who has lived her whole life in difficult economic times. And she was asking me (who happens to be a US citizen), the question that, most likely, all the students wanted answered. I took a few seconds to compose myself and said, “I don’t know if they are thinking about it. But you are right. It is definitely not fair.” As A-Chan walked out of the room, frowning and head bowed, I actually started to cry. There’s not much I can do about making the world more fair in general. But if I give my lessons a bit more thought, maybe I can create the kind of environment where A-Chan can ask the rest of the class what she only felt comfortable asking me. And maybe by sharing those kinds of questions, she will be able to walk through the rest of her day a little less weighted down by the concerns that she was shouldering alone on that sunny Friday afternoon.