The Ethics of Student Classroom Silence

By Petress, Ken | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Student Classroom Silence


Petress, Ken, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This article claims that students who refuse to actively participate in their own learning are acting unethically. Standards borrowed from Richard L. Johannesen's Ethics in Human Communication 4th ed. are employed as support for this claim. Silence impedes student learning, teacher effectiveness and classmate benefits from learning from silent students' insights, observations, and experiences.

Among the most frustrating classroom phenomena is that of students who will not or can not actively participate in classroom discussions. Student reticence, withdrawal, or fear of interacting not only deprives that student from sharing what they know, it deprives the teacher and classmates from benefiting by what a given student has to offer. This article makes the claim that student reticence has a vital ethical dimension to it and that there is an individual, teacher, classmate, and administrative obligation to reduce or eliminate such reticence for the benefit of all involved in the education arena. Participatory dialogue, according to Martin Buber, forecast "the future of mankind" (Glatzer, 1966).

Student silence in class is not exclusively a problem for students who refuse to or are unable to respond to direct questions. The need for students to ask questions of clarification, exemplification, classification, validation, and curiosity; to be able and willing to provide examples that demonstrate that student's understanding and that will aid others in seeing examples not thought of by others; and to be able and willing to civilly challenge others' ideas and claims are paramount for optimum education to transpire in the classroom. Everyone in the classroom is responsible for pulling their own weight; all need to participate -- by discussing and by listening to others.

Why is an individual's silence deemed undesirable or detrimental? There are multiple responses to this question. One answer is that undo student silence typically indicates any of the following symptoms: (1) apathy toward the topic at hand or to the learning process itself; (2) a student who is not comprehending, is overwhelmed, or is bored; (3) a student who is self- or other isolated from the learning community; and/ or (4) a student who has not learned the value of or strategies of engagement or who does not appreciate or believe in that value. Silent students deprive themselves and classmates from the benefit of their knowledge, their insights, and their thinking. Much learning stems from idea and perception sharing. Often, others' contributions stimulate more and better thinking and sharing from others; dialogue promotes a learning symbiosis. "Except in certain contexts, the meaning of any silence is inherently ambiguous and therefore subject to misinterpretation and misevaluation" (Saville-Troike, 1985). This highlights the need for careful and sensitive handling by teachers of student silences in the classroom.

The reticent student is less likely to apply, extend, or transfer what is learned than are non-reticent students. Application, extension, and transference are indirectly, but cogently, related to dialog since they require cooperation, risk taking, trust, acceptance, and tolerance with others as does dialog. The reticent student is typically self-absorbed and needs compassionate, but insistent, encouragement and enablement to participate.

There are several reasons why students are reticent to actively and equally participate in class discussion; these include: (1) low self esteem -- students who think of themselves as unworthy or unable tend to remain silent out of shame; (2) fear of being ridiculed should they inappropriately or inaccurately respond -- unfortunately, such fears can manifest themselves in self-fulfilling prophesies where a student knowingly answers or responds inappropriately thus validating their fears; (3) fear of success -- this occurs when a student interacts successfully; self-attributes their success to luck or accident; and then is intrepid about others expecting the student to continue to interact with similar or superior success in the future, coupled with doubts such future success can be produced; (4) cultural differences -- various cultures forbid or strongly discourage individuals from speaking up in classroom settings; sometimes for reasons of deference out of respect for teachers' opinions, elder students' or higher status students' contributions, and/or gender/race/ethnicity related factors; (5) "to avoid conflict -- inexperienced, shy, or less competent communicators rely upon silence in avoiding conflict scenarios. …

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