He sat there and never added a word to the conversation. From semester to semester his professors asked him, encouraged him, and even begged him to participate. He was a graduate student. Seminars were about sharing ideas with each other.
He, in turn, was frustrated. He was taking things in, thinking, forming his own thoughts, having insights. But, by the time he was ready to say something, the conversation was already on another subject. Often, two or more subjects had come and gone. His thoughts were ‘old news.’
It didn’t help that he was also shy; almost to the point of feeling mortified by the prospect of jumping into a ‘real-time’ discussion of ideas. Some of the students were confident and did not worry about venturing ideas before even they knew what they meant. Some people, he realized, think out loud (and sometimes not even very well!).
That ‘he,’ of course was me as a student. I found in-class discussions to be some of the most invigorating experiences. Hearing other people’s ideas watered my own creativity. I sat in seminars and other class discussions jotting down notes on ideas, drawing charts and diagrams (I am a visual as well as verbal thinker). But, almost inevitably, a minus was appended to whatever grade I got because I’d said little or nothing out loud during the semester.
When I started teaching, I saw the other side of why it is important to hear your students. Not only does it make a class session ‘fizz’ with more interest — it also gives the teacher a glimpse of the student’s thoughts, understandings, and areas that need further development. Not speaking in class leaves a teacher blind to important aspects of the student’s progress.
Teaching my own classes, I made a point of asking students there thoughts. I didn’t do this to put them on the spot. If they needed more time, I would circle back around to them later in the day or during a subsequent class. Learning needs to make space for the contributions of all students. Many times, my students who needed more time to assemble their thoughts brought entirely new insights that had not come into the earlier conversations. This fact usually negated the problem of returning to ‘old news.’ We were, in fact, coming at the topics for new perspectives.
To make things work for the students and the class as a whole takes the building of trust between the teacher and student. Students need to know you are not going to drag them out into a conversation unprepared to humiliate them. Instead, they need to develop the sense that you are widening the boundaries of the discussion (in terms of time) in order to make sure the whole class participates. From what I’ve experienced, this works well and is more than worth the effort.