There’s More to Class Participation Than Raising Hands

The author, Heidi Kasevich, is Quiet Revolution’s Director of Quiet Education, leading the effort to found Quiet Revolution’s Quiet Schools Network. QSN works to affect change in our education system by promoting diversity in learning and leading through the lens of temperament, and by fostering inclusive teaching and learning communities that leverage the strengths of introverts and extroverts.

When I waltzed in at the start of one of  my middle or high school history classes, I was in the habit of surveying the room. I watched for student expressions, both verbal and nonverbal, that conveyed boredom, enthusiasm, anger, motivation, anxiety. I always took a few moments at the start of class to insist that students switch seats, air their feelings about an upcoming school event, or converse with a buddy about last night’s reading.

What never failed to surprise me during this prelude was the fact that my students were surveying me just as much as I was trying my best to tune into their moods. “Why does Dr. K seem to have a slightly grim expression?” “What does she think about the election results in Myanmar?” I used to give them the opportunity to question me, ever so briefly and appropriately, about the things that ignited my passions: women in the news, historical fiction, regaining fluency in spoken French. During such crucial, yet unstructured time, I made sure to check in with the quiet kids in the room while the others were talking: a quick nod, thumbs up or down gesture, a smile. Oftentimes, these few minutes at the outset of class were more important for the introverts than for the extroverts in the room. Students were able to re-enter the learning space with a refreshed sense of openness, centering, and trust; these few moments paved the way for increased concentration and engagement throughout the lesson.

Teaching is indeed akin to a waltz: the smoothest of dance routines appears simple but actually involves a complicated series of choreographed steps. Teaching takes hours of rehearsal time and a willingness to pivot as needed in the moment. When it looks easy, you know the instructor is practicing her role with expertise. A subtle combination of lesson-planning and improvisation enables all learners, introverted and extroverted alike, to feel empowered to be wholly present, take risks, and authentically connect with the material.

In one incident years ago, I had the sixth sense to freeze time halfway through an extrovert-dominated discussion, long before I had a firm grasp of the differences between introversion and extroversion—the North and South of temperament. During that discussion, I hit “pause” on my plan for the day and invited everyone in the room to raise their hands (silently) and take a look around them. I asked: “Why does Jeannie shoot her hand up straight in the air with her palm extended?” (smiles) “What about Margaret, who simply lifts her hand droopily with her elbow resting on her notebook?” (giggles) “And Carol, who extends two fingers to the right, as if gesturing for the check after enjoying a burger with friends?” (laughter) In the midst of that laughter, they exclaimed, “This is indeed a strange thing we do.”

Possibilities for rethinking classroom participation are forged in the crucible of such student self-realization. When kids are primed to try something new, the teacher has leeway to experiment with novel dance moves. One of my favorite techniques does not involve hands waving in the air at all. I utilize silence—not the silence teachers too often shun as a sign of boredom or willful resistance, but silence as a vital form of human communication, connection, creativity.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman in Wired to Create, solitary reflection serves as a catalyst for innovative insights and original ideas for students of all temperaments. University of Virginia studies show that students would rather face electric shock than sit quietly with their thoughts for six to fifteen minutes; it can indeed be challenging to bring “think slow” techniques into our classrooms. Yet creating a still space to center the mind, daydream, and ponder is enormously beneficial for our multi-tasking students who inhabit noisy worlds. As John Cage so aptly stated, “We had to conceive of silence in order to open our ears.”

I recently experimented with silent participation at the CSPA Convention: I asked a group of eager high school journalists to take a moment to quietly write down their own musings about the “keys to happiness.” The silence was a bit jarring, even for me, as I heard sirens from Broadway that I had not noticed previously. After a minute that seemed like an eternity, I asked students to share ideas in “dynamic trios.” But first, I could not stop myself from inviting comments about that moment of quiet reflection. “It was strange, but in a good way,” they concurred. The small groups moved on to have fascinating and light-hearted discussions about the secret to happiness.

And hands remained down.