Talking Privilege

Commenter Jo, in response to my post on participation grades, brought to my attention an article by Heejung Kim in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called “We Talk Therefore We Think? A Cultural Analysis of the Effect of Talking on Thinking.”  The overall point of the article is so salient to the issue of how we use discussion and participation in class that I decided it needed its own post.

Kim set out to discover if differences in cultural attitudes about the relationship between talking and thinking had any effect on people’s preferred modes of cognitive problem solving.  She takes as her jumping off point an article from the San Jose Mercury News, which stated that:

[M]any colleges in the United States with a large population of Asian and Asian American students are concerned about the students’ silence in class. The silence of Asian students is a concern for universities who want their students to be “independent thinkers.” Motivating this concern is the notion that getting students to talk is a way to make them “better” thinkers. In discussing this issue, the news article details the concern of many educators who are trying to make silent students more vocal, and at the same time, reveals a number of educational assumptions about the relationship between talking and thinking.

As I’ve said before, educators socialized according to a Western model that privileges verbal assertiveness tend to treat (non-disruptive, on topic) vocal classroom participation as an objective good and as an essential educational tool.  As Kim’s summary of the newspaper article aptly indicates, Westerners tend to treat talking as a sign of independent thought, a sign that the student is processing and assimilating the information in an individualized manner rather than passively taking it in.  East Asian cultures, however, favor an internalized, reflective model of thinking, such that children socialized in this mode tend to be less verbally expressive and teachers tend to “see quietness as a means of control, rather than passivity, and appreciate silence more than American teachers.”  Obviously these are pretty big generalizations (I know plenty of American teachers who wish their students would shut up), but as broad descriptions of cultural attitudes toward verbal expressiveness, Kim’s study raises some important questions about whether or not talking really is a sign of “better” thinking.

In three separate studies (with an admittedly small sample of college students), Kim found that the performance of East Asian students (second generation immigrants who had spoken English since childhood) was adversely affected when they were asked to “think aloud” while solving a problem.  Similarly, European American students were distracted when they were asked to suppress articulation while trying to solve the same problem.  In one study, it was revealed that student’s attitudes toward the relationship between talking and thinking were significantly associated with this performance difference, and Kim found that parental approaches did have some impact on those attitudes.  In short, Kim points to the need for further research in this particular area but also suggests that we educators should examine the degree to which our expectations about what constitutes a healthy learning environment are a product of socialization and how we may be disregarding the learning preferences of certain members of a multi-cultural classroom.

Of course, one can’t essentialize about this.  There are plenty of outspoken persons of East Asian extraction just as there are numerous introverted European Americans.  While Kim chose to organize her study samples along ethnic lines, it’s clear that acculturation is the much bigger issue here.  Those of us teaching in the U.S. American system need to be aware of the extent to which both extroversion privilege and racial/cultural stereotyping mediates our classroom policies and interactions with students.

Recently, my partner wandered into my office while I was working and expressed bewilderment at how quiet I am when I write, expressing a clear preference for “thinking out loud.”  I do catch him nattering to himself while he creates lesson plans from time to time, but perhaps it’s ironic that he is, in fact, the child of a Japanese immigrant and my ancestors have been in North America since the 1700s.  I have been a pretty textbook introvert since my personality first began to emerge, preferring to work and play quietly by myself, to talk less than my peers, and to withdraw into solitude when I need my batteries recharged.  And I know from first hand experience that children who are quieter and more self-contained tend to raise eyebrows among parents and teachers.  I was held back a year in elementary school at the recommendation of teachers because I didn’t seem to have the social skills or “emotional maturity” to handle first grade (no, I did not fail kindergarten).  My introversion was frequently treated as a mental illness, and throughout middle and high school, I had to develop the skills for “passing” as an extrovert.  How much more frustrating this experience must be when one’s personality or learning style intersects with cultural and racial stereotypes about “quiet Asians,” who really may be quite gregarious and extroverted but trained to keep quiet in class. As Kim says,

In American education and work settings, talking is strongly emphasized and communicative assertiveness is generally regarded as a sign of a healthy personality (e.g., Cook & St. Lawrence, 1990; Henderson & Furnham, 1982), and anyone who keeps silent tends to be devalued as shy, passive, or lacking independent opinions (e.g., Jones et al., 1986; Zimbardo, 1977). The consequence of the collective silence of East Asians in America is that they are associated with some of these culturally negative traits of people who do not raise their voice.

This isn’t to say that classroom discussion isn’t a valuable educational tool and important classroom practice, but information like this does demand that we explore better ways to accommodate cultural and personality differences in the classroom.  At the very least, we should recognize that while many of us in higher education see lively discussion and debate as a good in and of itself (and I admit, even as an introvert, that I do), ours are culturally specific values that not everyone will share.  If encouraging discussion is still one of your pedagogical goals, then consider making the objectives of discussion transparent and teaching students how to actually hold the kinds of discussions you expect.

Participation grades are still a non-starter for me, though, and this study just helps confirm my position.

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3 thoughts on “Talking Privilege

  1. this is an interesting post, which possibly most of us can relate to one way or another from our own experience.

    i know i’ve been in classes, where the extrovert attitude to class participation has received a more favourable reception. some of the stereotypes associated with learning, despite evidence to the contrary have unfortunately become the accepted ‘norm’ in the teaching field.

    it’s quite easy to generalise students (because it suits the teacher’s needs?) and actually more challenging to discern the nuances of cultural and ethnic factors which skew our ‘thinking/ talking’ approach.

    once this is distilled and understood, it’ll harness the different learning strengths of each individual and make teaching a more effective experience for all concerned.

  2. Thank you. I’m bookmarking this post, because I have been that teacher who asks quiet students outside of class what I can do to make it easier to talk in class. (This despite being an introvert everywhere but in the classroom.)

    1. Rachel,

      I just want to be clear that I don’t think there’s anything horribly wrong with asking students how you can create a safe environment for discussion if you think that discussion is pedagogically important. I was hoping to raise some awareness among the instructors (and I’ve been guilty of this myself, to be honest) who don’t ask and who assume that quietness is a sign of apathy or recalcitrance and take for granted that students know how to participate in discussion effectively. I’ve internalized those assumptions and acted on them in not so productive ways despite being an introvert myself, and this post is about examining how that may be a product of socialization and should be taken into consideration if we want to run truly inclusive classrooms.

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