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Another Take on Silence in the Higher Education Classroom

February 16, 2012

Every instructor has at least one: the student who never says a word in class unless directly asked to. To combat this perceived lack of engagement, often instructors build in a ‘Participation Mark’ to encourage dialogue and participation. Some instructors are sensitive to those who are afraid of public speaking but, especially at the university or graduate level, there is often a demand on these students to overcome their fears (and in the process dismissing all issues as ‘fears’ to be overcome) and to be an able debater.

But what if there’s more to the silence? A short article titled, “The Implications of Silence for Educators in the Multicultural Classroom” argues that the nature of silence is complex but often,

“Instructors sometimes falsely assume that non speaking students are not engaged in the learning. Some studies have reported that instructors incorrectly misinterpret students’ silence as disengagement when using conventional understandings of silence but those silent students were engaging through other means such as paying attention, taking notes, or thinking about the material presented in class”

The article argues that, depending on the culture that the student comes from, silence might be taken as respect or what is expected in traditional learning systems. Beyond this, many other writers have taken a postcolonial or anticolonial stance and looked at how silence is an act of resistance by minoritized students who don’t see themselves as appreciated or represented in the educational systems. It could even be that silence is an act of resistance or purposeful disengagement by students who don’t see their learning styles appreciated or represented in the pedagogy. It can also be a safety mechanism because their history has been one of rejection when they spoke up in class.

As an instructor, we need to be aware of the complexities of silence and not always fall back on the easy answer of disengagement or disinterest.

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