As a student in public school, I got in a lot of trouble for talking. I would talk to other students in my class or I would speak out of turn without raising my hand. It was an exasperating ordeal for my teachers and my mother, who had to hear about it at every parent-teacher conference.
I was frequently told to be quiet and speak when spoken to, but I was hardly ever spoken to. Indeed, few of my grade school teachers did anything to encourage in-class discussion or prompted the asking of questions.
Today, I am applauded by my university professors for speaking out in class and asking questions. Yet I notice all too often that I am one of few students — and sometimes the only student — speaking out in class. Most of my fellow students seem to sit there, passively absorbing information. Or daydreaming. It’s difficult to tell.
There is a paucity of intellectual curiosity at the university level — a scarcity of questioning and discussion — and this is due, in part, to the heavy emphasis in public schools on quietly occupying your seat. Don’t ask questions, don’t speak out. Pass your test and move on.
Teaching our children to speak when spoken to damages their ability to learn. While they should be taught to do so respectfully by raising their hands, children should be encouraged to speak out in class from a very young age. It is by doing so that they develop the faculties and the confidence to engage with their instructors and the course material in a meaningful way.
There are many factors that contribute to the problem of student silence. If you’ve ever been in an elementary school classroom, you know that attempting to get 30 8-year-old kids to sit down and pay attention is like herding cats through a hurricane. On top of that, a culture has developed over the course of the last hundred years that makes intelligent students a target of bullying. Those who do well in class at a young age are ridiculed and called names like “nerd” and “teacher’s pet”.
Furthermore, students who have an abundance of questions to ask feel insecure doing so even in the most positive and encouraging of atmospheres. Personally, I have left questions unasked within the last few weeks because I was worried about holding up my class — who I assumed must have understood the material, considering they had no questions to ask.
Yet that’s never the case. Those students who sit quietly and have no questions to ask don’t understand the material. They are simply victims of the sit-quiet regime. They don’t have questions to ask, because they were never taught to ask them. They simply do not know how.
To my fellow students: As we hurtle toward the end of the spring semester, I encourage you to do yourself a favor and ask a question in class. If you don’t have a question, think of one. Try and ask one per class. Then push yourself to ask two. Any time you have a question, just ask it and see what happens.
Teachers: Push your students to ask questions. Force them into it. If you have to, sit there in silence and wait for someone to crack. I once had a philosophy teacher who did this every class, and it was amazing how long people were willing to wait in dead silence — and how uncomfortable that silence was. Yet in the end, someone always asked a question and the more you do this exercise, the more students in your classes will start asking questions.
Parents: Find out what your children are learning. Encourage them to ask questions. It can seem that your children are asking innocuous questions, but they really aren’t. They are developing their ability to question the world around them.
Don’t stifle that, and don’t let the sit-quiet regime do so either.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @sirshackofford