Less is more

Painfully aware as I am that I’m writing this in the 11th year of almost weekly blog posts, it’s still worth considering when the best thing you can do is nothing.

This is going to be focused on the classroom, but you can draw your logical extensions to whatever arena you like.

Given we talk and write a lot about increasing participation, it might seem odd to even raise the question of participating less, but the two are necessarily interlinked, in three key ways.

Firstly, drawing back on your participation as an instructor leaves more space for your students to participate more.

No one likes a silence and I’m guessing you’ve noticed this in class. I’m also guessing you went to fill it, because that’s a natural thing to do and because you’re the person ‘in control’: it feels like your duty.

But holding back will encourage your students to step forward and do the filling for you. If they see that you aren’t going to fill the empty void, then they are more likely to do it instead. The moral hazard that comes with you always being the chatty one is that there’s no need to participate as a student.

At the most extreme, you can absent yourself completely from the teaching space, but even just holding back for a few seconds in a seminar might be enough to get students to open up.

Secondly, don’t talk if you’ve nothing to say.

Again, you’ve noticed when other people talk a lot without saying much/anything. Some of them might be in your class; others in meetings you’ve attended. Don’t be that person.

Think about whether your interjection is adding value to the discussion or not. That might be about new substantive information, or about resolving misunderstandings, or about different solutions to issues, or something else that moves things along. But it should always be about purposeful intention.

Again, this is practice that can help students too: they learn from your practice as much as from your discourse, so model the kind of debate you want to get out of them. Signal where there is more to be extracted from a discussion and when it’s time to move on.

Finally, there is a developmental aspect to this as well. As your class progresses, you might want to redraw the line of where to hold back, to give more space to them and less to you.

Behind all of this is a model of student learning that places them in the centre of things: you adjust to them as much as – if not more – them to you. Knowledge, ability and confidence all should be growing through their time with you, so your teaching interactions should usefully reflect that.

Ultimately, this is yet another post about being a reflective educator; thinking about what you do, why and how you do it. Thinking about when silence might be the best choice is certainly part of that process.