Classroom Participation Part 2: What Does Forced Participation Really Teach?

Yesterday, I mentioned an article in which New Hampshire teacher Jessica Lahey argues in support of including “class participation” in grading criteria. Lahey explains that persistent criticism from class parents of “introvert” students lead her to question her methods. According to Lahey, parents complained that their children were unable to ask for the assistance they needed, and that speaking in class caused significant trauma. In the end, Lahey decided that, although introverted students may be uncomfortable participating in class discussions, the skills they learn from being “forced” to speak up will serve them throughout their lives. This series will examine the pros and cons of “forced” class participation as well as the implications for students with anxiety disorders.

Please note: It’s pretty clear that I disagree with her, but I’m not criticising Jessica Lahey’s thought process, nor am I doubting her commitment to serving her students in the best way possible. Lahey admits to being an extrovert and worries that her teaching style is most appropriate for extroverted students. Therefore I should disclose that I’m an introvert. I don’t mean I’m shy, although I sometimes am. I mean that I do not enjoy class discussions, group projects, or big parties, and I learn better alone.

Yesterday, I shared a general example of the flaws inherent in traditional class discussion. Today, I want to share a personal experience I had in which I was given a low grade due to lack of class participation.

In eighth grade, I was a member of student government. I did not run for election because I had little interest in campaigning and less interest in an honorary position, but I “sat on the board” because I lead a community service group based on campus. Within my community service group, which had elected me president two years in a row, I actively participated in discussion and debate, and I took on projects that I felt passionate about. I did these things in spite of my natural introversion, because my participation significantly affected the decisions made by the club, and the projects undertaken by the club were important to me. In student government, on the other hand, we mostly planned dances. We also planned and promoted events intended to increase “school spirit.” I found all of this asinine and potentially offensive in that “school spirit” was, in our affluent neighborhood, a waste. Student government met one hour a day every day, and, despite my polite requests, we never discussed “real” or relevant issues. So I never said anything. The most extroverted students would dominate the conversation by monologuing, debating insignificant details, and restating ideas. If I’d been forced at gunpoint to share with the class, I’d have said, “Yep, those are all fine dance ideas, and you all sure like the sound of your own voices.” In other words, my contribution would also have been useless. So I stayed quiet until the teacher took me aside and told me that my grade was suffering because of my lack of participation.

Let’s just say I lost some respect for the teacher that day. I had been participating in class activities. I did the assignments. I attended the events we planned. I painted and hung banners. I voted in our elections. The only thing I didn’t do was babble the idiotic nonsense this teacher loved to hear: “I think we should have an assembly about self-respect and having a good attitude!” Yeah, that’s exactly what these rich white teenage stoners need to hear! That’ll get them back on track! I’m annoyed thinking about it now, so you can imagine how I felt at 13. (Hint: I made some artistic changes to the student government shirts we were forced to wear every Friday.)

One could easily argue that, by punishing me for my lack of participation, my teacher was encouraging me to share my unique perspective with the class. But the truth is, there was no room for me in the discussion. No matter how many times I brought it up, we weren’t going to change the school spirit assembly to an assembly about identifying and combatting institutionalized discrimination against people of color. Our school dances weren’t going to be sex-positive, and the money we made selling tickets was always going to go toward football uniforms and never toward ending sex trafficking. Bringing these topics up wouldn’t expand anyone’s mind, either, in part because most of the students weren’t ready to care about those issues, and in part because I’d inevitably have been censored by my teacher before I could finish a thought. My teacher wasn’t punishing me for not sharing my opinions; she was punishing me for failing to conform.

I realize that my position is somewhat controversial, but I genuinely believe that many teachers are passionate about class discussion for purely selfish reasons. First, as I’ve said, refusing to engage in discussion is a (passive, in most cases) rejection of conformity, something many people find threatening. The group is talking, so anyone not talking may not be part of the group. Historically, outsiders have been dangerous, so it’s reasonable to feel subtle or subconscious unease when a student separates herself from the group. (This is especially true in the post-Columbine world.) The relationship between class discussion and forced conformity is apparent in the way many teachers (including my student government teacher) grade for participation: anyone who makes a comment that relates to the topic gets credit. The content or worth of the comment is unimportant. Simply the act of participating in the group matters. What a great way to teach students to become inefficient, uncreative adults!

Second, good teachers want to encourage students to generate knowledge and come to their own conclusions, but cultivating and assessing that process can be time-consuming and difficult. Class discussion is an easy and relatively quick way to get students to engage with material, and teachers who require students to participate in discussion can feel good about using interactive lesson plans, even though they haven’t necessarily made a positive contribution to their students’ educations.

Disagree? Let me know!

Coming up in this series:
Does Class Discussion Punish the Smart Kids?
Introversion vs Social Anxiety
The Benefits of Class Discussion and How to Achieve Them (Without Driving Your Students Crazy)


One thought on “Classroom Participation Part 2: What Does Forced Participation Really Teach?

  1. I agree with you, the encouragement to participate no matter how deep or meaningful the content only boosts the already A-type personalities need to be accepted by the teacher. The introspective students may have something to say, or they may not, but they should not be forced to speak either way. Many people, like myself, become bumbling idiots when forced to speak in public. However in a one-on-one conversation or on paper I feel I can express myself clearly. I had a panic attack and nearly passed out the first time I spoke in public, and that was as a young adult. I can see it now… scores of 8 years olds bombarding their local family doctor’s office for xanax so they can have the “confidence” to speak in a classroom conversation. Great post! I look forward to reading more! ~Jackie

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