I was talking to my friend Diana on the weekend, about the passing rule. She had read my post, “Just say Pass!” and it made her think about her experience in post secondary courses.
“It’s not good when people always pass,” she said. “In all my classes, most people hardly said anything. Two or three white men did all the talking, and the other students said nothing. Most people passed all the time.”
I could agree that from a student’s point of view, this was not a good situation, especially since the students who take up all the airspace are not necessarily knowledgeable or interesting.
But I did get a little clarification from Diana. Her classes did not have the “Just say Pass!” rule. They were typical college classes where teachers sometimes tried, with little success, to get class participation.
From a teacher’s perspective, trying to control three people who want to talk all the time, while being polite, is not easy. Cutting them off does not encourage others to open up.
And then there’s that embarrassing moment when you do interrupt one of the talkers with, “Thanks, Joe, for your ideas about this subject. I’d like to get some other points of view. Does someone else have something to add?” You stand there in the silence and no one says anything. Because to leap in after you have (however nicely) shut Joe up would be to risk being shut up themselves. And to talk in this situation is siding with the teacher against another student. Then how does the teacher move on from this silence?
Diana’s comment made me realize that I had been so busy talking about how the “Just say Pass!” rule is good for students–helps them feel less anxious about being put on the spot, lets them decide when to take the risks that go with learning–that I forgot to talk about how it makes the teacher’s life easier. (Alright, I did say that it meant I didn’t have to worry about embarrassing students–they take care of that themselves.)
The classroom has to be a good learning environment, but it also has to be a good working environment for the teachers and other people who work there. I need job satisfaction. And believe me, it’s hard to get satisfaction when you are struggling with a class where one or two students talk way too much (want to answer every question, want to express an opinion about everything) and make it hard for anyone else to get a word in.
The “Just say Pass!” rule means that there is an expectation that everyone will have an opportunity to participate, and that most people will participate most of the time. (If I’m teaching a lesson and nearly everyone is passing on answering questions or making comments, I know there is something wrong with the lesson, so I back up until I find out what it is.)
The “Just say Pass!” rule means that I don’t often just ask a question and let it fall into the centre of the room to be picked up by anyone, especially if I know that three people who monopolize the airtime are just waiting to pounce. Instead, I can call on individuals by name, control the contributions of the three talkers, and tailor the questions to suit each student. If I’ve misjudged the situation, the student can pass, and I can quickly move on.
It means I can work in rounds for general discussions, and again people can talk or pass, but the rules are quite strict about not interrupting others and waiting for your turn in the round. It’s easy for me to interrupt someone talking out of turn by reminding him of the rules of a round.
I think the students Diana described in her college classes were not passing–they were passive. The “Just say Pass!” rule requires students to actively decide whether or not to take the plunge, risk being wrong, in short, engage in learning. And because it’s quick and easy to pass, it leaves the focus in the room on the people who are actively learning. Now that’s a great atmosphere to work in, for teachers and students.
(Thanks, Diana, for stretching my thinking. I hope I caught the gist of what you were saying, and didn’t just go off on some tangent of my own.)