The quiet one in the corner of the room

26 Mar

Take a moment to think about one of your classes.  Think back to the very last lesson you had with them.  Have you got them clearly in your mind?  Are they sitting in a horseshoe or are they at desks or tables?  Who’s sitting at the front?  Who’s at the back?  OK – now take a mental snapshot of the class in 3… 2… 1… CLICK.

Freeze that frame and sketch it out on a bit of paper – drawing a rough plan of the room and who’s sitting where.  Now think back again to that last lesson and give each student a mark out of ten for the following two things:  (1)  Contribution to the class  (2)  Amount of interaction.  I’m differentiating between the two here because the interaction that takes place in a classroom doesn’t always contribute to the lesson.  There’s gossip and catching up that goes on that may be off topic and while better teachers than I might take that gossip and develop it into something  pedagogically meaningful, I often just find it distracting.  But anyway….  have you given those learners a mark yet? Good.

Did any of your learners get a pair of tens?  Did anyone get zeros?  Should anyone have been given zeros but you didn’t give them the zeros because you felt a bit sorry for them?

Not every learner feels the need to contribute  to the level that we as teachers might feel is desirable.  Conversely, a lot of teachers probably feel that it isn’t desirable for every learner to contribute!  (I joke – but I bet you had a student in mind when you read that!)  The degree of interaction or contribution that we require from our learners might well vary depending on the lesson content, participants and our experience of that classroom.  I’ve had the fortune to observe lessons where the learners might not have said very much, but where they were clearly enjoying the experience and appeared to be benefiting from it.  I’ve also observed lessons where half the class were interacting very vocally, but not contributing at all, and where the rest of the class were doing their best to learn, but to stay out of the firing line…

The reason why I’ve been thinking about this lately is because of a learner in one of my classes.  “M” joined my class earlier this year, having transferred from another school, “M” was friends with another learner in the class and they would sit together, skip class together, be late together and snatch whispered snippets of chat together.  As a substantial number of the other members of the class were brasher, more confident, less focused and generally livelier and more difficult to keep on track – “M” didn’t stand out as particularly different – just quieter and less prone to making a contribution unless directly asked a question.  It turns out, via a discovery process that I won’t go into here, that “M” accidentally skipped a level, joining a group that was approximately one academic year ahead of where she should have been placed.  It only took me two months to notice…

I guess the point is that learners may well have good reasons for keeping quiet and not putting their heads over the parapet.  But one of those reasons might well be lack of understanding.  So, in an attempt to shut the door after the horse has bolted (“M” has now switched into a more appropriate class), I’m going to try auditing my classes for Interaction and Contribution – just to see who else might be sitting quietly in the corner – and why that might be.


If you’d like to try auditing your own classes, you can download a “self observation” task handout by clicking on the pdf link here:

teflgeek – Self Observation Learner Interaction & Contributions

It includes a basic procedure and two handouts to help with data gathering and results interpretation.


4 Responses to “The quiet one in the corner of the room”

  1. Christopher Wilson (@MrChrisJWilson) Sunday 1 April 2012 at 06:58 #

    Thanks for this Dave, it’s really good to think about. I can think of one student who is certainly quite because she is at the wrong level. However, in this situation, for a variety of reasons, It can’t be changed. I try and put her with other students that bring the best out of her and pay extra attention and offer help over issues. However, I’m still not sure what the best way to go is.

    • David Petrie Thursday 5 April 2012 at 10:57 #

      Hi Chris,
      It’s difficult when you have classes of mixed ability – particularly when there’s only one learner who is not in sync with the others, and especially when this is with young learners, who have less tolerance of any lack of understanding.
      With learners who are much stronger, it’s easier because you can just take in a few extra bits and pieces for them to do while they wait for the others to catch up – but the only thing I’ve found that helps with weaker students is to tell them in advance what the material will be in the next lesson. This gives them a chance to try and process the language and material before class, so that they have a bit of a headstart.
      Hope it helps!


  1. Checking contribution and interaction levels | - Tuesday 27 March 2012

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