Why Speak in Class?
Teachers are very familiar with various students who don't speak in class. Some will speak only very selectively, or only in certain classes or with specific teachers. Others will only speak inside the safest circumstances, for example only with their friends and family. And then we have students who pretty much never speak in school. As an education consultant specializing in dialogue, I often get asked about how to get students to participate more, and there numerous strategies that can help.
But I often wonder, have we actually explained to students WHY they should speak in class in the first place? What's the point of talking? What's the purpose of a class discussion or Socratic Seminar? For many students it seems like a losing proposition where right answers in class are glossed over, but wrong answers can lead to potential embarrassment and humiliation. So why speak at all? It's an easy cost-benefit analysis for many students: taking a risk in class is not worth it. (And all it takes is one teacher's classroom in a student's career to make this painfully clear).
Well, here is a line of thinking that might be useful to share with students as they contemplate what it fundamentally means to speak something out.
To Provide Form to the Formless
When we are alone with our thoughts, when it’s just us and our ideas, we have no way of knowing much about them. We don’t know, for example, if they are “good” or not, if they are impactful on other people, if they even make sense. We may not even quite understand them ourselves, which is often revealed when we eventually say or write something only to discover that it “sounded better in my head.” If those thoughts stay in our minds, then they have no outplay, no performance, no form. They are not shaped by words, enacted through movement, or carried by song. So the first purpose in speaking something out is to give form to the ideas in our minds. Once they are given expression, they can then be shaped and shared.
Once the idea is out of our mind and into some kind of form, whether as a poem, a story, a song, a dance, an architectural design, a recipe, etc., then we can examine what we have. Sometimes we don’t even know what we know until it comes out of us, but once it does, we can see what we have to work with. For example, we can begin asking questions: Is this a “good” idea? Is this useful or practical? Experimental? Is this idea worthwhile? Is this similar to something else? Is this a new idea? Is this truly MY idea? Did I just create something entirely new?
During examination, ideas can become clearer. They have form now and that form can be measured against all kinds of external criteria. We can push and pull our ideas until they feel right to us, until they seem to resonate with how we truly think and feel. Does it match what I feel inside? Does it express what I think it is expressing? How will it be received by others? How do these ideas sit within my guiding philosophy and personal belief system? Wait, what exactly is my guiding philosophy? And what DO I believe in? This often takes the form of critical thinking.
To Receive Confirmation
Here is where the classroom or group conversation aspects come into play. When other people are involved in the process, they can provide a very crucial component to our ideas: confirmation. When we seek to “bounce ideas off others” or “see what sticks,” we are really seeking confirmation and reflection. What we want to know is how our ideas "shake out," where they might belong, how they fit into a social context outside of ourselves. Sometimes this is as simple as someone replying, “Yes, that is a poem,” or “Yes, that is a good idea.” The confirmation makes the idea firm.
We first gave it form, now we seek to make the idea firm.
To Strengthen and/or Weaken
The more confirmations we receive for the idea, the stronger it becomes. This is why it so affirming to have people agree with us. They bolster the idea, support it, give energy to it, feed it. Agreement is empowering and encouraging. When people agree with an idea, then we begin to understand that the idea has value to others... that WE are valuable to others.
An idea can also be weakened through disagreement. If enough people disagree with us and our idea, we may feel disempowered, perhaps even to the point of abandoning the idea altogether. Disagreement is often discouraging and weakening, though sometimes people value their idea enough to push back. Strangely enough, with enough resistance and resolution, we can actually strengthen our ideas in opposition to other viewpoints.
To Broaden and/or Deepen
Simply having people agree or disagree with our idea can help strengthen or weaken it, help strengthen or weaken us. But when we find supporting evidence, when other people provide reasons why they agree (or disagree), we can actually broaden and deepen the idea. This is where other people ideas, evidence, and responses can build on our idea (or tear it down). Once we put an idea out there in a Socratic Seminar, for example, then people can help us further construct "the tower of the idea." With wider examples and references, the idea can be broadened, supported. With more specific details and evidence, the idea can be deepened. With a stronger foundation, the tower can be built taller.
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” ~Victor Hugo
To Appeal to a Larger Audience
An idea can spark a revolution. Just look at history to see countless examples. But an idea can only spark a revolution if that idea branches out to a large enough audience. An idea that stays in someone’s mind has no form, and therefore, little or no power to influence other people and events. The larger the audience, the greater the confirmation, the more the strengthening, the greater the breadth and depth. Some ideas expand almost endlessly until they “go viral” and affect millions of people. Some are much smaller and grow like vines along lines of gossip. But the principle at play is much the same at all levels: all things grow or whither. What if we have an idea that could go viral and become a sensation, a phenomenon?
“To have a good idea, have a lot of them.” ~Thomas A. Edison
To Discover New Ideas
In many cases, an idea’s evolution is to finder a larger and larger audience. After all, ideas are living things; they want to grow just as much as anything else alive. But there is another outcome to sharing out an idea and that is to make space for a new idea. When we speak out an idea, when we give an idea form of some kind, we “get it out” of us and, in the process, make space for a new idea to drop in. This is one of the reasons why we want to practice creative thinking. The problem is that many people like to hold on to their ideas so firmly that they are not actually open-minded to new possibilities. When we DON'T speak out our old ideas, we can't receive new ones! Ideas travel together, so having one idea will lead to other ideas and still more ideas. But we must first get the original idea out!
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
~often attributed to Albert Einstein
To Find The Breakthrough Idea
In the classroom or a group setting, what we are searching for as a group is THE Breakthrough Idea, that one amazing idea that leaves everyone speechless and stunned: Whoa! Where did that come from?
What we want to create is an ecology where ideas are freely shared out, built and rebuilt, shaped and reshaped, broadened and strengthened. We want to create an environment where everyone is willing and able to share their ideas so that we can eventually, as a group, find that Eureka! moment idea that is completely new, completely unexpected and original. But it often requires the collective intelligence of the group to find such outlier ideas.
When we are stopped in our tracks as teachers and realize we have never looked at something in that way, never come across an idea like that, never heard anything like it in college or graduate school, then we know we are in the presence of a Breakthrough Idea. And it's the Breakthrough Ideas that are valuable and exciting, that will open up new possibilities and help us find solutions to our various problems around the world.
Image by Gerd Altmann
I am always so impressed with the work you are doing. I also miss our morning “Hey Chuck” greetings. The value of student’s voices being shared and heard, with each other, can not be understated. As I read your piece I thought of two things, and both are just points to consider. The first is not about the fear of speaking to be “wrong,” but the fear that comes from being under-developed physically. What I mean by this is (and this is from personal experience) being a late bloomer for puberty. I lost my elementary school mojo in junior high specifically because I was a boy amongst men. My fear of talking, and the disappearance of my confidence was based mentally on my physicality. I am sure with social media in our current world that similarities exist in students that have little to do with a certain lack of confidence in the classroom setting.
The second point I thought of is closely related, but comes from examining the student’s experience through an adult lens. For example, the distractions in the teenage mind, from excessive hormones to online fears and consumption, cloud the ability to see dialogue in the way we as adults can experience it. Though I am sure you may have delved into these areas, I wanted to share my two cents.
Having two children that will enter junior high in a few years, these are some of the components I consider.
Thanks for the message. Thanks for your kind words! Yes, you are right in that there are other considerations. It’s hard, of course, to include everything. With your considerations, what solutions would you suggest for other teachers? How did some of your teachers get you to participate?