Monday, 16 March 2015


Last week I went to a comedy gig in a small pub. At one point, the comedian, in the middle of a bit about how great drinking is, asked if there was anyone who didn't like alcohol. I could see he needed someone to say they weren't into drinking for the joke to work. And I happen to be a teetotaller. All I had to do was put up my hand and we'd all find out what point he was trying to make. Until then, audience participation had been ticking along nicely. I'd even had the comedian direct a few bits at me earlier. It should have been relatively easy.

Instead, I kept my mouth shut.

Not a terribly significant or interesting story, but it seemed to chime both with a discussion we had on introverts in the classroom over at #eltchinwag and some points made by Hugh Dellar on these classroom management videos.

I would not necessarily label myself an introvert. Like many teachers, I'm fairly mouthy at conferences. But I think there are many solid reasons why I chose not to speak up at that gig. The audience was 80% male and a bit peculiar. I had a bit of a sore throat that night. Overall though, I said nothing because I didn't want to risk embarrassment.

Does the student in the classroom risk embarrassment to the same degree as someone being picked on by a comedian in a bar full of drunk lads? Probably not. But fear of embarrassment, big or small, can cause people to clam up.

So what is embarrassing in the classroom? Not knowing an answer? Getting an answer wrong? Having something patiently explained directly to you by the teacher? Your teacher making a joke about the mistake you made ("You cut your hair! Wow, that's amazing. How did you get the back so straight?....Oh you mean, you had your hair cut!")? Having to talk about something a bit personal (Why don't you drink?) Your teacher making you repeat a word you mispronounced?

It's hard to say. If you don't want to embarrass someone by asking them if they have the answer, what do you do? Ask nobody? Let the same one or two people repeatedly answer while the others avoid eye contact?

I'm not sure about anyone else, but I think in teaching EAP, I've often found myself saying a variation of - Look, when you get to college, you're going to have to speak up in tutorials and give presentations. You should speak up more in class so you get used to it - as a way to encourage the less vocal. Yet, I'm not convinced that this is the best way to motivate someone to speak up - I notice you're very quiet in class so I'm going to make you talk more to help you. 

So what to do?

If I think only about nominating students in some Teacher Student interaction (e.g. checking answers, finding opinions, pair-work feedback) then I've started to question my traditional approach, which can be summed up as - nominate students to answer questions = good.

But why nominate?

If I am checking answers and I just want to make sure all the class knows, who cares if not everyone chips in with an answer?

If I am checking to see if they understood, why wait until everyone else is watching? Why not wander over for a look during the exercise when there is time to do something about it?

If I think they're shy and want them to get involved, why single them out in front of a dozen other people? And how involved is someone if every so often, I make them say True or B. (And do you have to be talking to be involved?)

If I think they have something interesting to say, is there a way that I can give them a bit of a heads up first?

If I am nominating because my experience tells me nobody will answer if I don't name names, then maybe I need to leave a few sticky silences around the place for students to deal with.

Would be very interesting to get students' perspectives on what does or does not embarrass them.


  1. This is a great read! It took me a while to embrace the sticky silences - then I began counting to ten in my head once I'd asked a question so that students were forced to offer ideas just to avoid the embarrassment of it all. They soon got used to it though!

  2. Hi Joanne,

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Great to hear your experience. The counting is a great idea. The silence can often feel a lot longer so your idea means the awkwardness of the silence doesn't warp how much time you think is actually passing. And I suppose what is silence to the teacher might not be that to the learner. If they're working out what to say, then they're not as conscious of the silence as we might be. They might also be working up the courage in that silence. Thanks for sharing. Very much appreciated.