Listen Up: talking isn’t the only form of participation

When teachers stand in front of the class on the first day of school and remind us of the importance of participation, they are usually referring to verbal participation. The notes I’ve received from teachers since preschool confirm this idea. With each note I get, I wonder why people rarely consider the other side of effective communication: listening.

After 17 years of quietly thinking about my frustration, the time has come for me to talk about it. Yes – my preschool teachers would be proud, because I’ve decided to participate. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, put my thoughts best when she said, “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”

By stressing the importance of verbal participation in class, we feed into the idea that active listening is not as important as talking. I understand that developing the ability to express my ideas and opinions out loud is necessary. And obviously, discussion-based classes couldn’t function without student participation. But, in order for it to be more valuable, the act of participating should come from our internal desire to contribute, not some external pressure.

Take in-class debates or graded discussions, for example. When I’m required to

Staff Illustrator Emma Kopelowicz

speak in class during a specific time, the purpose of the discussion is lost for me. Instead of engaging with my peers by listening to what they have to say, I spend more time worrying about saying something (saying anything, really) than I do actually listening. This process tends to result in poorly thought-out comments that don’t help move the discussion forward. Or worse, comments that start with the phrase, “This is pretty much what [previous speaker] said, but…”

One of the best qualities of listeners is that we allow for silence in a discussion. This silence, though often seen as a sign of disengagement, is a useful tool for all people — not just quiet ones — to think and reflect.

I’m not quiet because I feel the need to suppress my opinions. I’m not quiet because I don’t feel confident in my ability to express myself. I simply decide to contribute only when I have something important to say.

As a school community, we should try to embrace the different ways in which others contribute to conversations and focus on the value of being surrounded by people who think and interact with the world in different ways.

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