Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.

A Meaningful Reflection Paper

The best moments in my teaching career come from reading meaningful reflection papers. This semester one student’s paper resonated very strongly with me. I’m so heartened that she has gained so much from my classes.

Here’s what she wrote:

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“What did I learn?” is a phrase that I would often avoid asking or answering in my life. The fact that I might not really know or not knowing what I don’t know makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. However, knowing that we are the only species that ask questions, I am now changing my opinion and instead[, I now] ask questions every time I feel comfortable about a situation. The fear of feeling ashamed should not be the blocking stone to knowing more about myself and the world. The desire to be right could be the driving force in life, nonetheless, it is sometimes a double-edged sword that blocks us [from moving] forward in knowing more about the world. Asking good questions, identifying confirmation bias, disconfirmation, etc., mastering all these cocneptual tools require continuous training and practising. An active learning environment is important for questioning [in order for it] to become an active habit. Life changes when we step out from our comfort zone.

I think there’s something from this reflection that’s worth learning and remembering.