Free speech

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Gererd Dixie on ways of encouraging pupils to join in

You are conducting a class discussion or question and answer session. As usual, it is difficult to keep some of the young people quiet, but several pupils fail to make much of a contribution.

What stops pupils from participating verbally in lessons? It's not always linked with ability. Very often it is the brighter pupils who find it most difficult to speak up.

Conversations with parents during consultation evening, and with the pupils themselves, suggest two main causes. The first relates to the pupils' perception of the value of verbal participation. Why should pupils who are plodding along nicely, or who are already getting excellent grades in their written work, put themselves on the line by volunteering answers in class? The value of such a contribution needs to be made clear to them.

Second, even some of the most able of pupils suffer a crisis of confidence when it comes to speaking out in class. They are afraid of getting things wrong and making fools of themselves. They tend to ignore the fact that most of the time the responses they give are acceptable. Many pupils also hold back for fear of being labelled "boffs" by their peers. They perceive the working culture of the classroom to be focused on the individual and to be competitive and threatening.

We need to change their perception and to create a more collaborative and non-threatening climate. A wrong answer in class should not invite ridicule or be dismissed by staff or fellow pupils, but should be seen as an important step towards the objectives of that lesson.

I have put together a number of strategies. You will probably be able to devise more of your own.

The processes of absorbing information from written or verbal stimuli, of synthesising this material, of formulating a hypothesis and then organising their thoughts into coherent language, give pupils ownership of the topic.

Teachers should get this message across in their first lesson and reinforce it during the year. I use a diagram when trying to explain the processes to my classes. I explain that each wrong answer given in class acts as a stimulus (or building block) for another pupil to take the thought process further. Every part-correct response also brings us closer to the required answer.

I have a poster on the wall which reinforces the view that it is "OK to be wrong" and I point out that, without full-class contribution, real learning is the property of a minority of pupils.

If you know that a lesson is going to be dominated by oral work, give your questions a currency. Tell the class that you expect every pupil to answer a question during the lesson but that the earlier questions are going to be easier. Then the more reluctant or less able pupils are more likely to respond quickly.

Try limiting each pupil to one answer. They then have to think very carefully when to "spend their answer". Advise the more able to wait for the more challenging questions.

Before you start, explain that you will be asking a specified number of pupils a question on the topic. This usually gets their full attention.

Praise can be offered. After all, it takes a lot of courage for some pupils. Full pupil involvement is one of the most effective methods of class control.

Gererd Dixie teaches humanities and is induction co-ordinator at Copleston High School, Ipswich, Suffolk

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