The Quiet Ones


After a lesson observation earlier this year I was given an action point requiring me to focus on quieter members of the group who, in spite on perhaps not wanting to, should be helped to address communication skills for employability. The students identified were those who were able to reflect and make notes in a starter activity, demonstrating that they had understood a key point, but then when asked to share their thoughts with the group just refused with a polite ‘I don’t know’. They clearly did know. They just didn’t want to share. Or didn’t want to speak out. In front of other people.

These students were very bright, but just held back by their preference not to speak in front of or to the group. This tendency wasn’t just restricted to behaviour in my group. It had also been observed in the observer’s own class, in which he was also trying to push these students beyond their boundaries a bit.

My response, “But I don’t get time to focus on employability issues – I barely get time to deliver on the spec’ for GCSE English. There’s no room for anything else!”

Observer’s response, “But we are in FE, we have wider educational aims. What will happen if this student is out in the workplace next year and we haven’t helped them with this?”

At that moment in time I just thought, “It’s not my job – someone in some other class on a vocational course can deal with that learning outcome – I haven’t got time.”

However, since then the seed of the problem that was planted has taken root a bit, germinated, and I relented. I thought about all those times in my class this last year when the quiet ones in each group just sat there and hoarded their own brilliant hoard of thoughts, didn’t share and kept quiet, never helping the weaker ones with their brilliance. Brilliantly quiet. And then the quietness catches on and before you know it you have lack of engagement with group discussions in general. People get lazy and know they can get away with the lowest effort possible.

So there was an impact on my class and not just issues pertaining to employability at stake. As a result of mulling over these ruminations I decided to think about how I might address this in the forthcoming academic year.

Some teachers I spoke to in the staffroom and on Twitter said that the first thing you do with the quiet students is help to build their confidence and self-esteem by giving lots of praise and encouragement for everything they do, with the assumption that the reason they are quiet is through lack of confidence and fear of speaking out in front of others. But is that always the case? Another teacher in the staffroom suggested there could be a plethora of reasons for a student keeping quiet, including safeguarding issues, and that this should be handled with care. Another school of thought is that some people just prefer being quiet, and why should they be changed? Why should we want them to be something they are not?

All things considered, and a google session on the topic under my belt too, I put this together: It’s a student self evaluation tool, which is intended to be used as a tool for communication on these very topics, where the student can self assess, and make any comments they feel relevant, as regularly as necessary. I think I’m going to try to get students to keep this in a learner file next year, kept in the classroom. I’ll see what students think about this form and the statements for reflection on it. And I’m going to update and adapt it as necessary. At the same time, presuming each statement has some measure of validity, I would like to explore strategies for addressing each of the underlying issues, over time, with individual students, and tie this in with my differentiation planner ( see this at: )

Then, I’ll perhaps be able to reflect on whether it helps the student or the class to focus on this at all, and perhaps in the long run whether communication skills are improved. I guess I’d also be able to research destination data to see if there was any link with employability over time, if this could be tied to a larger research project with a control group. But would we ever use a control group? Could there ever be one? Would we ever consciously ‘not’ help one group with communication skills but do so for another? Where would the ethics of that be? Could we ever derive any meaningfully valid and reliable results? Would we care about doing that or is it better to just try and help each student that comes through our door one at a time, with the assumption that we can only do so much?

All thoughts and feedback welcome in comments 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Quiet Ones

  1. Writing as a quiet one (I am at best politely monosyllabic in training sessions, meetings, etc.) I have some sympathy for your students’ feelings! One thing, however, that I absolutely have to deal with as a teacher of ESOL is that students not only need to speak for employability etc., but because it is absolutely essential in the development of second language. However, this is influenced by issues not just of personality shyness but also of cultural expectations, where younger people may not feel comfortable speaking out in front of the elders, or where a man may feel embarrassed in a class full of women, and vice versa. The quietness might also be about saving face amongst your peers, or a fear of being seen as the clever, geeky one amongst possibly less able but “cooler” peers. As a teenager I was absolutely in that latter group at school, and being forced to speak out in front of the class by well meaning, enthusiastic teachers anxious for me to demonstrate my learning created anxiety, resentment and made me even less inclined to speak out.

    One of my main tactics is to cut down on large group interactions and whole group discussions. Instead of having a class discussion with, say, 15 students, I break them into smaller groups of 3 and let them discuss and come up with their ideas then. Speaking to two of your peers is far less intimidating than speaking to a whole class. It’s also worth exploring non-spoken interactions, like polling ideas on a google doc and then bringing that up at the front of the class for comments, and eliciting comments.

    The other things that helps me with shyness is knowing my role and being clear with what I want to say. It’s one of the things I like about being a teacher because I can on a bit of a mask and pretend to be far more confident than I generally am. When I started running teacher training sessions for colleagues I used to mentally fix them in my mind as “students” and with me as “teacher”. So for students, if they are working in a group, if the quiet ones have a defined role they might find it much easier to speak. I’d start them as note takers, for example, and “progress” them to being group leaders and feedback givers as things went on.

    I think the link to employability here doesn’t have to be made explicit to students, and certainly I wouldn’t want to use it as a goad to get the quiet ones engaged. But you would link it to employability on the lesson plan for an observer. Although I reckon you could more or less link anything to employability if you could spin it carefully enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brilliant response there Sam. In great depth. Much appreciated. I’ve taught TEFL, and international summer schools etc so I get you on cultural issues.


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