Implications of Silence for Educators in the Multicultural Classroom

Editor’s Note: In part one of this article, the author shared some of his first experiences as a Nepali student in a U.S. classroom. Here he offers some guidance to faculty teaching in a multicultural classroom.

There are a number of ways of dealing with silent students in multicultural classroom setting. For instructors of international students, it is important to note cross cultural perspectives in course readings and grading the classroom discussion. Because of lack of language proficiency or being unfamiliar with the American classroom culture, some students from other countries feel stressed and frustrated. To bridge this gap of international students, instructors could adopt strategies such as e-mailing study questions beforehand, giving clear directions and asking specific questions or summarizing important points of the discussions (Tatar, 2005).

Brookfield (2006) suggested teacher should research what students know, speak and experience as a part of understanding the classroom so that the lessons would be inclusive for both native and foreign students.

In a traditional classroom, a teacher speaks more than his or her students. Sometimes, instructors should be silent and observe how it affects students or encourage speaking up. The balance of the class would be when both domestic students and international students get an equal opportunity to share their thoughts and perspectives as a part of class discussion. A skillful teacher always allows enough time to her/his students to respond instead of expecting immediate responses to every question. Svinivki and McKeachie (2011) recommended a silence for 5 to 30 seconds for better outcomes in discussion. Instructors are expected to know the significance of cultural values and meanings in foreign cultures. Sometimes no eye contact or being silent does not necessary mean non participation.

The U.S. students would benefit from the active participation of foreign students in the class. As they understand diverse social, cultural and linguistic experiences and perceptions of foreign students, the U.S. students should encourage and let foreign students speak in the class.

Instead of being bound with home culture and educational experiences, international students also should look for ways to familiarize themselves with the host culture. Since their main goal of overseas study is to earn a foreign education, they should expose themselves to various social norms, cultures, and beliefs in the U.S. They should speak up in the class discussion because their voices and experiences are required as much as their American counterparts.

The nature of silence is complex in any classroom with foreign or domestic students. However, the American classroom requires them to participate as this phenomenon is graded. For those international students who come from distinct social and cultural backgrounds, they always face a challenge when speaking in class.

Instructors sometimes falsely assume that non speaking students are not engaged in the learning. Some studies have reported that instructors incorrectly misinterpret students’ silence as disengagement when using conventional understandings of silence but those silent students were engaging through other means such as paying attention, taking notes, or thinking about the material presented in class (Meyer, 2009; Meyer & Hunt, 2004). It appears, therefore, that a closer inspection of how international students engage in the classroom is essential. The relationship between silence and classroom expectations should be carefully examined. Consequently, nowhere is it more important to study silence than in a classroom context.

Given that some students prefer to remain silent in various situations, while others are more willing to talk in class, it is reasonable to speculate that students have different preferences for participation in the classroom. For both international and domestic students, teachers should evaluate the classroom participation and the nature of silence with the knowledge of their ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Armstrong, P. (2007, July). Cultures of silence: Giving voice to marginalized communities. Paper presented at the meeting of the Standing Conference on University Research and Teaching in the Education of Adults, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher: On Techniques, Trust, and Tesponsiveness in the
Classroom (2nd edition)
, Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Jaworski, A. (2005). Introduction: Silence in institutional and intercultural contexts. Multilingua, 24, 1–6.

Harumi, S. (2010). Classroom Silence: Voices from Japanese EFL Learners. English Language
Teaching Journal,
65 (1), 1-10.

Liu, J. (2001). Asian students’ classroom communication patterns in U.S. universities: An emic
perspective. Westport, Conn: Ablex Publishing House.

Meyer, K. R. (2009, November). Student classroom participation: Exploring student definitions
of, motivations for, and recommendations regarding participation. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL.

Meyer, K. R., & Hunt, S. K. (2004, April). Rethinking evaluation strategies for student participation. Paper presented at the meeting of the Central States Communication Association, Cleveland, OH.

Nakane, I. (2005). Negotiating Silence and Speech in the Classroom. Multilingua, 24, 75-100.
Petress, K. (2001). The Ethics of Student Classroom Silence. Journal of Instructional
28, 104-107.

Ping, W. (2010). A Case Study of an In-class Silent Postgraduate Chinese Student in London
Metropolitan University: A Journey of Learning. TESOL Journal, 2, 207-214.

Svinivki, M., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and
theory for college and university teachers. (13th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Tatar, S. (2008). Classroom Participation by International Students: The Case of Turkish
Graduate Students. Journal of Studies in International Education, 12, 204-221.

Krishna Bista is an international graduate student from Nepal at Arkansas State University. His e-mail is