How to support diverse learners and motivate reluctant students to speak up and join in

How (and when) to encourage reluctant talkers to join in

[header in print: Speak up!]

An image showing a shy female student wearing school uniform with a yellow satchel walking with her head down on a corridor lined by blue and grey lockers

Source: © Getty Images

Shy students needn’t walk alone, you can help them to participate and integrate

Pupils who never speak up and don’t readily talk to their peers present a challenge. How do you include them and ensure they’re learning? So much of science education involves working in groups and, just generally, joining in. It can be too easy and tempting to medicalise a reluctance to speak, making an off-the-cuff diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. While being hesitant to speak up can be sign of an underlying condition, it might not be.

Regardless of the reason, we need to manage diversity in our learners, to ensure quality learning. So why are some students shy and reluctant to speak up? And what practical strategies can we use to help them?

Possible causes of shyness

Like all other behaviours, it pays to understand why pupils are shy. You may need to carefully observe pupils over several lessons and liaise with colleagues, including those in pastoral and learning support, to get an idea of the cause.

Communication problems, such as a speech impediment or English being an additional language, can contribute to shyness. As can autism. This condition affects learners’ ability to deal well with social situations; they frequently lack the ability to understand how others feel and so may be disliked by their peers. The same students may do well academically when social interaction isn’t required. The shift over the last 50 years or so towards social interaction and social context for attainment (social constructivism) may have helped the majority of learners, but may, inadvertently, penalise those with high-functioning autism.

Make it very clear that ‘there are no stupid questions’ 

Other common causes of shyness include fear of being wrong and peers ridiculing them, social exclusion and bullying. Where fear and ridicule are concerned, you should make it very clear that ‘there are no stupid questions’ and that everyone’s ideas are valued. Simple devices such as a feedback wall, on which children can put sticky notes with any questions or comments they may have, and to which you respond regularly and constructively, are ideal.

During adolescence many learners identify strongly with their peers and this can make them unsympathetic to those who are different. When trainers were a hallmark of fashion, we saw trainer bullying. Those who didn’t wear the ‘right’ footwear were subjected to ridicule and ostracisation. Young people who are living in poverty, or whose crowded living conditions make personal hygiene difficult, may experience social exclusion. They then learn not to engage in social situations where they are prone to bullying.

You should always be vigilant for bullying, including exclusion, and should work with your school’s pastoral staff to tackle the causes of it. Personally, I would sooner stop a lesson to respond to bullying than to permit learning to proceed in an environment of antagonism and hostility.

Inclusive strategies

  • Demonstrate acceptance of, and respect for, difference. Modelling acceptance of learners who exhibit shyness, and highlighting other aspects of their attainment will boost their self-esteem and send a clear message of ‘different but equal’ to other pupils.
  • Observe ‘trigger’ conditions carefully. Are there pupils with whom the shy students work more confidently? Arrange for them to be placed together as far as possible and gradually extend the circle of contacts, perhaps by putting the shy pupil with a favoured work mate and an additional student. Are there tasks or subjects that improve their confidence at speaking? Incorporate these into your lessons.
  • Give pupils control over their working environment by giving them choices and respecting them. For example, would you prefer to discuss the presentation with your group, or would you prefer to be assigned specific slides to prepare independently.
  • Reflect on why their shyness challenges you. If you feel they are missing out on valuable learning experiences or that it will affect an assessment, you need to respond. But otherwise, think about accommodating and accepting it.
  • Balance challenge and support. Create an environment in which barriers are lowered, eg students prepare and view each other’s posters as an alternative to a spoken presentation but have to talk about the poster with you. Popular activities that enhance non-oral co-operative learning activities include hot potato, flat chat or graffiti walls. They also enhance metacognition so will benefit all pupils, not just the shy ones.

Conclusion

Shy pupils challenge common beliefs about what makes for effective learning. They remind us that what works for most pupils won’t work for all. They are also an indication of how classrooms have changed; in days gone by, they would have been seen as model pupils precisely because they didn’t talk during lessons. We can’t go back to Victorian days, but we can work to include all our learners and ensure they are all provided with suitable learning activities.

Social constructivism in science lessons

Social constructivism is a theory of learning and states that knowledge depends on social context and is created by social interactions. Direct instruction is an approach to teaching that offsets the difficulties faced by reluctant contributors, but the potential advantage for this minority has to be carefully balanced against the learning benefits of group work for others. In school this is commonly manifest as the setting of group work on tasks; it is a powerful way for learners to expose their thinking and learn from others. In science, which is often very content driven, it is used as a mechanism to expose misconceptions but students are aware there is a correct, that is to say assessment acceptable answer. This is in marked contrast to many other subjects where different opinions can be of equal validity.