THE lack of confidence among students to speak up grabbed the attention of many recently, inviting comments and generating discussions online.
At the annual English Speaking Union of Malaysia (ESU Malaysia) lunch talk last week, Institute For Democracy And Economic Affairs founding president Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Tuanku Muhriz said when he tried to engage students in a discussion, the concern was not only the way they expressed themselves, but also their knowledge on the subject.
This was based on his observation during speaking engagements at educational institutions, including government secondary schools, as well as public and private universities.
He said students across the country were unable, or unwilling, to speak at all, let alone in English.
Although the “English language crisis” has been, for many years, the hottest topic of discussion among Malaysians, it is not a new revelation.
Of course, we cannot deny that any language — whether English or Bahasa Malaysia — is important. Language is our operating system, a representation of thinking where we process information.
We develop thinking into words in a number of phases, moving from inner speech to speaking.
While we always point to the lack of English language proficiency as the reason for the problems among our students, we seldom focus and look upon what takes place in the classroom.
The lack of classroom engagement could also be a result of an overzealous focus on standardised testing and curricula.
The drive for higher test scores and stricter adherence to standardised teaching gives teachers less time and flexibility to delve into topics that engage students.
Are our teaching and learning activities as engaging as they should be for our students?
Are our teachers reluctant to engage students in discussion in the classroom? Are academic discourses a part of the classroom?
Perhaps, it is still the norm for students to not talk in class, but instead, to memorise facts and recite them?
If you have set your foot in a room to teach or deliver a talk that requires you to get feedback, you would be familiar with the situation of having a sceptical audience not yet ready to speak up.
“What is your take on this issue?” is a question that is usually followed by silence, so quiet that you can hear a pin drop.
However, it can also be just as challenging to have one or two students who talk too much in your classroom, and are always ready to raise their hands or blurt out answers.
During a newspaper-in-education workshop I conducted at an international school recently, I had nearly 75 per cent of students in the room who raised their hands, wanting to ask questions and share their opinions. If I were to allow all of them to speak, I would not be able to complete my workshop.
For a start, that student who would be willing to talk would seem to be the saviour: one who actually listens to what you are saying and, most importantly, confident enough to want to test out his ideas in the public space of the room.
But soon, you may start to suspect that this overeager person may be hurting more than helping. He dominates discussions, always jumping in before anyone else gets a chance, sucking all the air out of the room.
It becomes a self-sustaining pattern that sometimes it doesn’t matter if his answers are correct, or whether you encourage him. The others in the same room will quickly realise that they don’t need to respond; if they hold back long enough, they know that the dominant person will speak up.
In this situation, it can end up crippling class debate and cutting off a wide-ranging discussion involving the whole class, too. So, to be fair to the teachers, motivating students to speak up is not as easy as we think and can take a lot of work.
Teachers must be skilled on how to introduce and negotiate discussions while, at the same time, getting quiet or uncooperative students to contribute and participate in class discussions.
To be challenged and supported, these students must first be engaged in meaningful activities that capture their imagination and ignite a thirst for learning.
Of course, students, too, need the knowledge and confidence in their ability to discuss topics, especially when they are controversial. The danger is sometimes they can become more emotional than intellectual in such instances.
It is then important that students learn how to listen to others’ opinions, critically think about these issues, and engage in healthy discussions in an atmosphere where everyone has mutual respect and tolerance for each other.
Undeniably, the challenge with today’s students will be greater with the change of the classroom in recent years. Verbal expression has been lost in a culture dominated by technology.
At the tertiary level, getting students to speak can become more challenging with students hiding behind their laptops taking notes.
But, if we want to look at this positively, there is a chance that students can be much more comfortable expressing themselves in a digital environment than in a classroom. Probably, giving them the opportunity to communicate digitally, educators might be able to unleash a freedom of expression among them, definitely a start to speak up about their opinions.
Hazlina Aziz left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom