Helping quiet pupils to find their voices

Written by: Jason Buckley | Published:
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In each class, half a dozen children dominate and half a dozen are rarely heard. Jason Buckley advises on how we can help the ‘silent six’ to find their voices

Imagine you’re at a major conference. A speaker fails to show up. You find yourself being ushered towards the stage to deliver their talk, on a subject you know very little about.

For most people, the fear of looking a fool in front of a large audience is the stuff of nightmares. For some children, that fear extends to answering simple questions about things they know well, and their own class of 30 counts as a large audience. How can the classroom be less intimidating so that these children speak up?

Stretch and exposure

A first step is to clarify the factors that make speaking intimidating. One is “stretch”. Do I know what I’m talking about? Can I be sure I’ve got the right answer? Will the words come out right? Stretch is about how difficult it will be to succeed.

The other factor is “exposure”. How many people are listening? How important are they? Will people think I’m stupid? Exposure is about how bad it will be if you fail.

Without careful management of stretch and exposure, in each class half a dozen children dominate and half a dozen are rarely heard. Helping your “silent six” to find their voices may mean reducing exposure when stretch is greatest, or using opportunities when stretch is lower to coax them towards the greater exposure of whole class talk. Of course, some children face special challenges to speaking that are beyond the scope of this article, but these techniques are effective for the majority of children.

In this article, I’ll share three principles to make classroom talk more inviting for the silent six: Y-Questions, Get Moving and Take a Back Seat. These have emerged from eight years of work on cross-curricular philosophy for children, but they are relevant to most classroom talk. I’ll finish with a discussion template showing all three principles.

Y-Questions

The hardest questions to answer can be the easiest to talk about. If you ask a basic arithmetical question, a child may fear getting the answer wrong. If you ask: “Which is more important if you want to be a good person? Following the rules, or trying to make other people happy?” most children will happily volunteer an answer and a reason for it – even though this question has occupied ethicists for hundreds of years.

I don’t agree that “in philosophy there are no right or wrong answers”. However, that’s how it feels to children at first, which is a powerful incentive for less confident speakers to have a go. I call such questions, where reasonable people can be found on either side of the argument, “Y-Questions”, after the beautiful Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, in which a traveller at a junction attempts to choose between two equally appealing paths.

Y-Questions reduce exposure. They remove the fear that failing to produce the answer the teacher wants will make you look like a fool. Even though such questions are cognitively challenging, the perceived stretch is lower because it feels as though you are being asked about yourself – your opinion and the reasons for it – rather than being expected to demonstrate expert knowledge about the outside world.

Y-Questions can be found across the curriculum, in all sorts of texts and topics – for example:

  • You arrive on an alien planet but with no social media. Would you tell them about it?
  • Should Christopher Columbus be remembered as a hero or villain?
  • Is it possible to call some music “better” than others?
  • Is democracy the same as decision by the majority?
  • Is mathematics invented or discovered?
  • Macbeth says: “Evil be thou my good.” Is this what happens to him?

Get Moving

Most real-world paired talk is not speaking to people who are sat beside you. The only times pairs of people talk sideways-on are on public transport or a sofa. For children especially, much of their social talk takes place standing up. Yet most classroom talk happens sat side-by-side at tables.

Simply getting children to stand up and face one another lifts the energy and volume of their talk. Moving more freely and facing one another properly makes it easier to focus on their partners, and talking with a background of lots of other energetic conversations going on simultaneously reduces self-consciousness.

You can go further and make the thinking physical with a Thinkers’ Game such as Dividing Line. Ask a Y-Question and, after some paired talk, get them to stand on one side or the other to show their opinions. Ask someone to defend their side, and to then choose someone from the other side to respond, starting a chain. Delegating the choosing of who speaks allows you to fade into the background – an example of the final principle.

Take a Back Seat

When a teacher is listening, the talk changes. Some children clam up for fear of being judged, some seek attention through disruptive behaviours, some, the waving palm trees, are desperate to speak – even if they have nothing to say! What you get is talk for the teacher instead of talk to each other. Teachers increase exposure. A rough exchange rate is one teacher = 10 children. As a headteacher, you listening to a child speak might add as much to their sense of exposure as a whole extra class of children. How can you reduce the inhibiting impact of adults on children’s conversation?

I have found that the best move to make is to change my physical position in the room – to sit outside the circle, make myself small, make my gaze unavailable. When you let go of being the most important person in the room, and the strong, central physicality that goes with that, the children begin to look to one another for the answers instead of to you.

Bringing the techniques together

“Starting Positions” is an activity I often use, which shows all three principles at work. It starts with the lowest levels of stretch and exposure and builds up gradually.

Children pair up, then face their partners in two long lines (like a guard of honour). Start with a light, silly question to discuss in pairs. Then the pairs pair up for a more serious question in fours, and lastly they form eights to discuss the question that is the main focus of the activity. For each question, assign which side will argue for which point of view. For example, if you’ve been studying the Tudors:

  • (2s) Which would make a better leader – a lion or an eagle? You’re lions, you’re eagles.
  • (4s) Was Sir Thomas More wrong to go against the King? You’re arguing yes, you’re no.
  • (8s) Can a bad man make a good king? You’re arguing no, you’re yes.

It reduces exposure if you let them choose their initial partners, as talk is more lively and natural between friends, but choose sides for them, as that bypasses the anxiety of getting the wrong answer or being out of step with their friends.

You can ask afterwards what people really think, for example through the Dividing Line activity. They have had time to become familiar with both sides of the argument, making it an ideal time to invite one of your silent six to be the first to speak.

Why does it matter?

We would never accept that a child was “naturally illiterate”, however much they hate writing, because we know how much they would lose out. Yet we sometimes accept reluctance to speak as a fixed aspect of personality, when in reality we can make a difference by changing the levels of stretch and exposure in the classroom.

Enjoy experimenting, and I hope you succeed in helping your silent sixes to find their voices.

  • Jason Buckley is founder of The Philosophy Man, which provides workshops, training and resources for P4C. A free, weekly bulletin of resources for philosophy for children and classroom talk is available at www.thephilosophyman.com. Email jason@thephilosophyman.com


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