Why Are Students at All Levels Reluctant to Speak Up?

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As schools embrace new ways to engage kids, an old question returns: Why don't they feel comfortable raising their hands in the first place?

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Tulane Public Relations/flickr

The New York Times reports of teachers' experiments with social media sites as "backchannels" during class:

Instead of being a distraction -- an electronic version of note-passing -- the chatter echoed and fed into the main discourse, said Mrs. Olson, who monitored the stream and tried to absorb it into the lesson. She and others say social media, once kept outside the school door, can entice students who rarely raise a hand to express themselves via a medium they find as natural as breathing.

"When we have class discussions, I don't really feel the need to speak up or anything," said one of her students, Justin Lansink, 17. "When you type something down, it's a lot easier to say what I feel."

And the piece ends: "'I agree with Katie!' someone added. 'This class has given us a voice!'"

Yet none of the school or college teachers (or students) brought up what may be the real question: Why are students at all levels so reluctant to, literally, speak up? Why do they feel more comfortable with a lower-bandwidth message to their peers than in using all the resources of the voice, not to mention the face? Is it related to recent handwriting phobia?

One possible explanation: Maybe not that much has changed. Possibly the new technology just meets a perennial need to get more students involved. Well into the 19th century, students were dragooned into talking by recitation sections. Education was so vocal that as late as the 1850s, the College of New Jersey (Princeton) admitted students by oral examination by the college president himself. The high point of teaching oratory was the 1890s. As higher education expanded, written essays and examinations started to displace voice. So maybe texting is just an extension of a long-term trend.

But there's another possibility. Young people seem to prefer texting and social media, even after (or perhaps indirectly because) reduced-rate unlimited mobile voice service and Skype have slashed the price of traditional calls.

The question remains, for many adults as well as kids: What's leaving us speechless?

Image: Tulane Public Relations/Flickr.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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