Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices

reviewed by Mary M. Reda - March 15, 2010

coverTitle: Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices
Author(s): Katherine Schultz
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750174, Pages: 192, Year: 2009
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Readers drawn to books about student silence may anticipate that such volumes will provide strategies for getting the quiet students in our classrooms talking.  In Rethinking Classroom Participation:  Listening to Silent Voices, Katherine Schultz investigates broader, more fundamental questions about classroom talk and silence.  That is, she deftly problematizes a generally agreed upon principle in the American education system:  that “student participation” should be equated with students’ verbal contributions to topics initiated by the teacher.  She asks, “Can students participate without speaking out loud?... How might silence be reframed as a ‘productive’ or useful contribution to classroom discourse?” (p. 3)

By exploring how we might re-conceptualize student silence and more usefully understand participation as “connection and contribution” (p. 6), Schultz argues that teachers should find new avenues for student engagement—including the aural, visual, and written.  In a 2-year period, Schultz and a group of graduate students investigated how silence works in 10 classrooms.  Her extensive research in literacy and classroom practices, as well as discursive practices, make Schultz ideally suited to examine the hotly contested issue of silent students.  

Detailed observations, interviews, and a wide range of external sources invite readers into a deep analysis of classroom silence as we are challenged to reconsider silence not as an individual characteristic, but as a situated, contextualized response.  Indeed, silence in classrooms “can be usefully understood as a product of interactions located in a particular time and location” (p. 19).

In order to accept Schultz’s argument, readers may need to put aside both their own teacher-training, which often focuses on strategies for “increasing participation” (specifically, students speaking in appropriate ways) or their assumptions about student compliance and resistance.  However, making this shift opens up new, and ultimately more productive, ways of understanding talk, silence, and “participation” in the classroom.

Perhaps the most challenging argument for readers who equate participation with speaking will be Chapter 2, in which Schultz examines 5 specific ways that silence functions in the classroom.  The first, the most common in discussions of silent students, is a consideration of silence as resistance; we are repeatedly cautioned that the silences of disengagement cannot be tolerated.  However, through two specific examples—a Mexican-American student who rarely spoke, but when he did made “consequential” contributions and a nearly-graduating student who refused to give a public presentation—Schultz helps us to understand that such silent students are not “lazy.”  She reminds us, “Neither silence nor resistance is an individual act chosen by a student.  Rather they are collaborative activities constructed in relation to a complex set of classroom and larger societal dynamics” (p. 32).


Schultz demonstrates through detailed portraits of students other functions of silence: as power; as a means of self-protection (for example, against particular institutional practices or enforced self-revelation); as a response to trauma, when one may lack language to represent the “unspeakable”; and as a crucial space for creativity and thinking, in which students can learn both content and social norms.  I would suggest that the forms and functions of silence may overlap more than this taxonomy suggests, but as Schultz concludes, “… it is critical to read or understand silence through a social and interactional lens, and through such understandings, learn how and why a student might decide to enact a particular form of silence at a particular time and place” (p. 56).

When student silence is understood to have a range of forms and functions, responsive teachers are implicitly asked to assume a new role in the classroom.  Rather than focusing on how to “get students talking,” Schultz persuasively argues that we need to adjust our daily classroom practices, curricula, and ultimately, our definitions of “participation.”  Through the examination of one particularly successful class, Schultz suggests various ways teachers can enact a new understanding of silence as a form of participation.  Careful structuring of talk and silence will allow us to develop more engaged, inclusive practices that provide students with additional opportunities for success and learning.  While Schultz focuses on the practices of a first-grade class, the underlying principles described can be adapted for students across the curriculum, from elementary school through college.  For example, Schultz explores a number of routines including silent reflection and various participation structures in which students work with each other to support their learning.  In this way, the teacher models collaborative learning and the importance of students learning from—and respecting—the knowledge each brings to the classroom.  At the heart of such practices are both the teacher’s explicit instructions about “participation” as well as her modeling of democratic, participatory behaviors.

Schultz also skillfully takes on issues of assessment and curriculum development.   She persuasively argues that test scores (particularly standardized tests that currently drive much curriculum development) and assessment of verbal participation are not adequate measures of student achievement.  Though the shift toward multicultural education provides an important way to connect curriculum to students’ lived experience, this is not enough.  That is, without providing tools for critiquing power structures, these methods ultimately fall short of their potential.  Through the example of another classroom, Schultz demonstrates that multimodal projects—those that include textual, visual, and aural models of composition—can be incorporated into the curriculum to help us reach the promise of multicultural education.  She offers narratives of three students, who developed a new way of “participating” through projects that relied on written and recorded texts, music, photographs, videos, and other visual texts.  While Schultz focuses here on ESL and immigrant students, such projects would clearly offer new ways of participating for students whose learning styles are not served in more traditional educational paradigms.

Finally, Schultz calls on teachers to take seriously the project of investigating their own classrooms.  I suspect many teachers may initially find this call to an inquiry stance daunting.  Balancing numerous subjects or hundreds of students might make the kind of in-depth investigation Schultz’s work so adeptly demonstrates seem impossible.  She offers that there are indeed a number of ways that teachers can respond to student silence: to ignore it (which she repeatedly reminds us is ineffective for those students who are silent as a way of opting out of their educational experiences) or to raise questions about and analyze both the talk and silence in their classrooms.  She provides a sample of models for this type of inquiry, including recording or re-enacting a classroom interaction or carefully framing questions to individuals or groups of students about the ways that silence and talk function in the classroom.  We are reminded that as teachers, we must learn to read both talk and silence in the classroom.  While some readers may hold that rigidly prescribed curricula prevent such innovative investigation, Schultz ultimately argues that it is our responsibility to listen for the silent voices in our classrooms and to adapt our curricula and our pedagogies to acknowledge, encourage, and reward those different modes of “participation” in order to provide more inclusive and democratic learning opportunities for all of our students.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2010 ID Number: 15938, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:32:23 PM

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