The studious, always-prepared Hermione of Harry Potter fame is often disparaged (even if often with grudging admiration) or resented for her constant “hand-waving” in class, for being the default respondent (usually with the correct answer) when the Hogwarts teacher asks a question. She’s certainly among a minority in the student world. When the teacher drops a question into the classroom, there’s usually a hush. The silence signifies that no one wants to take the bait, that each one is waiting for the other to answer or for the teacher to force the issue by calling on someone. Basically, we react to the question with a range of emotions — hostility, resignation, fear, boredom, anxiety… and, very occasionally, curiosity and eagerness.
Excitement to resignation
If we think about our journey through school, however, it’s clear that this hasn’t always been the case. Most primary classrooms are places bursting with curiosity and excitement to learn, and to display knowledge. Ask a six or seven-year-old a question that relates to something she has just been taught, and she can’t wait to give you the answer, if she knows it, or to push for further explanation, if she doesn’t. Fast forward to twelve years later, in a college classroom, and you’ll find the excitement has given way to something that resembles dull resignation. And that’s perhaps part of the reason why there is a general reluctance to answer questions.
But sometimes it’s not so much about the act of answering the question, but about being the first to respond, and there may be a number of reasons for this — those emotions that I mentioned earlier, for starters. These emotions, singly and in combination, keep us from initiating participation.
Hostility: Sometimes we feel put upon, or challenged, when the teacher asks questions, and we react by clamming up, refusing to respond. This happens most often if the question aims to “test” understanding, or if the answer is so obvious that it seems unnecessary to say it out loud.
Boredom: Nobody wants to call attention to themselves or to appear too eager to please the teacher. There’s a lot of peer pressure to appear laconic, laid back, and just plain uninterested. It’s not “cool” to care too much about what is going on in class. Connected to this is the sense of resignation, a feeling that prolonging the class interaction with questions and answers is a waste of time.
We get used to the notion that this Q&A is nothing more than a formality, and that teachers (and our fellow students) are not really interested in what we have to say.
Fear or anxiety: Some of us are genuinely nervous about speaking up in front of a group, however familiar we are with members of the group.
We are not sure whether we have anything of importance or interest to say, and we are afraid of being laughed at or dismissed or even worse, ignored completely. Often, we have to use a language we are not completely fluent or comfortable in, and so we hesitate to speak even when we know the answer, because we cannot put it into words as well as we might like to.
I’m sure most of us has felt one or the other of these when confronted with questions in a classroom. Usually, all it takes is one brave (or foolhardy) person to break the impasse and venture an answer for others to feel encouraged to speak up. The good thing is that most classrooms have a couple of such students. But sometimes even they are affected by the mood of reluctance and choose to stay silent.
So let’s switch to the other side — the teacher’s — and think about what it feels like to ask a question and be met by silence.
A silence that is often not friendly, that is heavy with anxiety or boredom or resentment or indifference. I’m sure you’ll agree it can’t be pleasant. Or productive. From this side of the table, there are usually specific reasons for the questions, and it might help you to consider these.