Section 4. Responding to a silent class
What do I do if the class is silent?
It's OK. Don't panic. We have to learn to let silence exist without panicking. Don't assume that silence means things are not going well. At the beginning of a discussion, long periods of silence may exist; accept it as a natural process of the discussion phase. As students settle down and get comfortable with the new conversation, there will be less silence.
Introduce a new activity.
After a period of silence, you may lead the class into a new activity. You can say, "Now that you've had a moment to reflect on the question, turn to the person sitting next to you and share." This will allow for some conversation and then bring the class together as a large group to share and discuss. You can then build this reflective silence into future discussions and make it an acceptable normal process.
Own the silence.
You may start out saying, "Nobody seems to have anything to say about this topic, what's going on?" "What's stopping you from participating?" The hard part is trying to figure out why students are not there yet—not ready to participate in this new concept. Is it about the prep time you gave them? Is there trust in the class? Is it habit?
Don't get angry or frustrated and take it out on students if discussions do not go as according to how you have planned. For example, going off on a rant about students not being prepared for class is not going to help the situation. There could be many reasons why students do not participate in discussions. Don't assume the worst. It could be the way you prep the students for discussions or their level of comfort with materials. They may not know more and do not want to say anything that can be taken as ignorance. In addition, students may not have lived long enough or not have the experience to respond to questions at the level we expect of them.
Know that the first couple of times tying discussions may go badly. Expect it, plan for it. It will take students some time to get use to this new concept and get the hang of it.
In the event that no one is speaking and you've tried numerous times to introduce discussions, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) suggest the following checklist:
- Did students complete preparatory tasks, essays, and other reflective assignments before the discussion began?
- Have you built a case for the importance of speaking in discussion by providing examples or modeling?
- Have you created possibilities for students to participate in the discussion through electronic means?
- Have you helped the group set ground rules that deal with hate speech?
- Is the part of the grade given for discussion participation defined by specific indicators that acknowledge silent contributors?
- Is the discussion focused on an open-ended question of sufficient complexity and ambiguity?
- Have you allowed enough time for silence and acknowledge its value in your opening speech policy?
- Have you tried to link the discussion topic to a critical event in students' previous experiences?
In the event that you've answered yes to all these questions and students are still not talking, then a good suggestion at this point is to retreat, for the moment. Perhaps the students are not ready and it's time for the instructor to regroup and rebuild. One take-away from this is not to take the students' silence as a personal failure. Take it as trying something new and that for some reason the students' were not ready to accept discussion as a way of teaching.