Activating One’s Voice… Always a Plus?

I was speaking to the long-serving superintendent of a school district in California, one that primarily serves Hispanic students. Superintendent Murphy (as I’ll call him) spoke proudly about one of his high school graduates—a star football player, who had gone on to Princeton University, the first in his family to attend college. When Jorge (as I’ll call him) had graduated from Princeton, he returned to his hometown and attended a football game with the superintendent, with whom he had remained in contact.

Superintendent Murphy asked him about how well he had been prepared for college. Jorge responded:

Well, in most ways, I was well prepared. I knew how to study, how to apportion my time, and how to take a written exam. But there was one way in which I was not prepared. While at Princeton, when I attended a class, particularly a small seminar, I did not know how to speak up—in fact, I did not even realize that I was supposed to speak up. Back at high school, I saw my role as listening carefully to the teacher, reading the material—more than once, if necessary—and being prepared to take a written examination on it. But I did not realize that I was supposed to have an opinion—an independent opinion—and that I had to be prepared to express it and support it. And so, if I had to make one suggestion about the high school here, I’d recommend that students be helped to formulate their opinions about challenging issues, to speak up in class about what they thought, and then to listen carefully and be prepared to defend their position or, as appropriate, to change their views.

Suppose you have been raised in a Western culture, with family who have also been educated in the West, and have attended a secondary school that regularly sends students to select colleges. In such a case, you probably expect to be called on in class, and you are ready to speak up. (Indeed, if you are not prepared on that particular day, you probably have on hand a number of ploys that may get you off the hook.) But it is a mistake to think that these assumptions are universal—far from it. Indeed, in most corners of the world, and for most of the history of formal education, the classroom has not been a place to speak up, to express, or to defend your own views. It’s been a place to listen and to recite back as faithfully as possible material that you have been asked to study—not a place to volunteer new information, let alone to engage in a discussion, argument, or even a formal debate.

This point came home vividly to me when, in the 1980s, I spent a lot of time visiting classrooms in mainland China. I went to the top schools, where presumably I saw the most talented students, especially those in or headed for higher education in China or, increasingly, in developed countries abroad. These classes were designed like clockwork: the teachers had a strict timetable for each hour and adhered to that schedule without altering course. For all I know, the same agenda was being followed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and points west.

Not that students in China did not speak up. They were asked regularly to recite passages, to answer questions, to recapitulate past assignments, and to describe current obligations. But the discussion was ritualistic—no surprises!

Even in higher education, this seems to have been the norm. Once I sat in a psychology class where the students were asked to state the seven principles that govern the deployment of attention. One after another, students were called upon to recreate the list, and they did so, typically flawlessly (for all I know, literally word for word). As I watched this exercise—a bewildering parroting experience for me—I became increasingly frustrated. And so, after class one day, I confronted the teacher, saying, “The students had the seven principles in their book. They all knew them. They could all recite them. Why didn’t you use this opportunity to get them to critique the principles, or suggest new ones, or see whether they applied to the topic of memory as well as to the topic of attention?”

The discussion went back and forth, with little progress. Finally the teacher—well-meaning though clearly frustrated—cut off the discussion with me, responding, “We’ve been doing it this way for so long that we know it is the right way to educate our students.”

In her recent book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, acclaimed American author Gish Jen talks about this distinction. Having taught in different countries, she poses the question: “Should students be made to talk in class?” Citing a study by psychologist Heejung Kim, Jen points out that students in Asia are typically well-prepared, but when they matriculate at American colleges, they are at a loss when it comes to participating in class. As Jen says, “When asked to talk through a problem as they solve it, these Stanford Asian Americans struggled. Not that they could not talk and think—it turned out that they could recite the alphabet while solving the problem just fine. They were uncomfortable, however, talking about their thinking, while their European American classmates were just the opposite. They performed as well when talking through a problem as when solving it silently. It was being asked to recite the alphabet while solving a problem that they found hard” (pp. 185-186).

Discussing this cultural difference more generally, Jen concludes, “Today, a great many young people have also made this crossing. Yet a great many others resent the endless Western insistence that talking matters… One Chinese student even maintained not only that students not have to speak in class but… they should experience a real Chinese classroom and not be allowed to speak in class” (p. 188).

So we have two very different norms for classroom behavior—and in this particular case, the Hispanic students in California are more similar to Chinese nationals than to their neighbors in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles or San Francisco or San Diego.

Each society takes its norms for granted, and indeed, more often than not, assumes that its norms are universal. The Chinese teacher to whom I spoke in the 1980s was absolutely certain that her methods of teaching and recitation were achieving what was needed and desired. For their part, the teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire are equally certain that their seminar method is the proper norm; I refer to the “Harkness method” in which students are seated around a table and each student in turn is expected to express her views, listen carefully and critically to those offered by other students, and then engage in a general discussion.

As a person born and raised in the West, I find this expectation of speech recitation to be reasonable and indeed well-motivated. Yet my own experience as a student and as a teacher have provided moments for pause. While I have rarely felt hesitant to speak up, I have often noticed that those who speak the most do not necessarily have the most to say—and that, indeed, many of us listen with special care to those who rarely speak up, as if they have been saving their wisdom for just the right moment. And not infrequently, in observing my own students, I have been surprised by the disjunction between oral performance in class on the one hand and written performance in tests and papers on the other. Though the patterns vary, I’m often surprised that a student who is loquacious in class does not write clearly or cogently. And every once in a while, a student who has said little if anything in class turns in written work of exceptionally high quality. In such cases, I have invited the usually silent student to my office, have praised the quality of her written work, and encouraged her to speak up in class. Sometimes this ploy has worked—and in rare cases, the once silent student becomes one of the most active and effective oral participants.

One conclusion that one might draw from this discussion is that all students should be prepared to be classroom participants at Princeton (or seated around the Harkness table). In the study of higher education that Wendy Fischman and I are currently leading, we speak of the importance of acquiring “Capital in the Liberal Arts and Sciences”—or, as we have provisionally nicknamed it, “LAS Capital.” Clearly, one admired attribute of students in a liberal arts setting is their growing ability to give voice to their thoughts and be prepared to engage in conversation about complicated topics. This is the point that Jorge was conveying to Superintendent Murphy.

A different conclusion is that there are different norms for participation (and non-participation), and we should respect norms that are regnant in a particular setting (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). Perhaps the more profound conclusion is that we should understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and be respectful of those norms—unless there are strong reasons for challenging them.

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2 Comments on “Activating One’s Voice… Always a Plus?”

  1. Anu Bhatia August 23, 2017 at 11:40 pm #

    That’s the need of the hour! To have students critically examine theories, or their own as well as others’ views, and broaden their understandings of issues that lend themselves to multiple perspectives. However, in developing countries where each class is packed with 60 some students, it can get challenging. That said, I think every well meaning teacher must ideally aim for this.

  2. Howard Gardner August 25, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    Thanks for your comment. As a teacher, I much prefer to have a class of 15 -20 students, where it is relatively easy to speak up, be heard, react etc. But as you point out , this is much more challenging in large classes. I’m about to conduct a 1.5 hour session with 30 students. If I just leave the floor open for discussion, I know that a few students will dominate. And so I am breaking the class into six groups of five students each, having them discuss various issues as a group, and then calling on a different student in each group to describe what ensued in the small group. This is just one of many ways of encouraging a wider number of voices. And of course, it’s easier to speak up in a group of five students, whom you are getting to know, then in a group of 30 students, most of whom you don’t know…and don’t know what they are thinking. Howard

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