Silence in the classroom
I’d like to share a small story of a student who went to the UK for an exchange this month. What she experienced there is relatable to instances of communication amongst diverse teams at work. Often we miss out on getting a possibly one of the most innovative high value ideas because we do not proactively handle silence in the room.
During my exchange in the UK I had opted to take a module about digital media and two weeks into the semester I realised that our class of twenty or so, were majority Chinese speaking students, besides from one white boy, the white teacher and myself. It was a third year unit, so everyone seemed to know each other already. The other white boy, who I thought of as an outcast comrade, kept to himself and the other students comfortably conversed with each other in their native tongue.
During a morning tutorial, the lecturer tried to engage us in discussion by asking us a simple question, Do you know any female film-makers? When the lecturer asked us that simple question, the whole room was dead silent.
Fed up, the lecturer stood there in the middle waiting and making eye-contact with several students, the lecturer told us that it was a simple question, that we could contribute anything and that they would wait until someone did.
I could see the small glances between students prompting someone to say something. We were all stuck in an excruciatingly silent and awkward stupor, even though the students were chatting and laughing away minutes before during break time. I couldn’t take it anymore and I found myself blurting out ‘Sofia Coppola’. The lecturer seemed relieved and continued with the lecture and the whole class exhaled.
Why was it so hard to speak during discussion? Was it shyness? Was it the lecturer’s approach to discussion? Were the Chinese speaking students conscious of their English abilities and therefore uncomfortable? What made them conscious of their speaking abilities? Did they not contribute to the discussion because they were used to other students speaking out?
Prior to this particular class, the lecturer tirelessly attempted to facilitate discussion, but the responses were always severely lukewarm with the occasional contribution from the only white male student, but he wasn’t present on that particular day.
After we moved on, I personally felt it was easier to contribute since I had already done it once. I also noticed that the other students were taking tiny steps to say something. I highly doubt the reason behind not speaking was because the students were shy or had nothing to say, or that they couldn’t say anything due to language barriers.
There is no concrete reason behind the reluctance to speak out, but what is known is that there’s more to why someone or a group doesn’t contribute. I think it’s up to the person leading the discussion to think about reasons behind people not speaking and then to create an inviting ways where there are initiated opportunities for those who aren’t used to speaking out, because I bet you, those who don’t speak, usually have the most to say.
Rika Asaoka from Language and Culture harmonises and unifies people in the workplace and communities. She provides interactive workshops, trainings, facilitation and mediation on Intercultural Effectiveness. Her facilitation style is known to leave a lasting impression on participants. Also an Intercultural Readiness Check Licensee, Rika is certified to use the IRC, a powerful internationally recognised tool for improving intercultural effectiveness.