Monday, March 24, 2014

{Silence}, Yes/No, So-So What, and It Depends--Intellectual and Ethical Stages in the Classroom


          How we think and how we value, together, shape classroom experiences. I have distilled and nicknamed four stages of epistemic and ethical stances, drawing on William Perry's 1970 study of white Harvard males, Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, and Mary Belenky, et al's response to Perry in Women's Ways of Knowing: (1) {Silence}, (2) Yes/No Dualism, (3) So-So What? Relativism, and (4) It Depends Contextualism.  Although Perry did not focus on teacher stances and Belenky, et al studied women in a broad range of communities, they saw the stages of development as progressive.  Here, I will explore how teachers and students both contribute to the intellectual and ethical dynamics of learning.


This is one of the first lessons that students learn from an early age—how to be silent:  sit still, fold your hands, listen.  If you want to speak, raise your hands.  Wait for permission.  Be quiet when the teacher speaks. Too often, the teacher’s prejudices come to bear as to who will speak.  Experiment with this—take a gender tally.  You will notice that boys/men tend to be called on more frequently than girls/women.  In social situations, it’s not uncommon for the women to be silent when men are telling (and retelling) their stories.  Jokes out of context?  That’s the men’s specialty.  More lessons:  males own air space.  Notice how these dynamics function when it comes to race, age, beauty, sartorial preferences. 

          Yes, there is something to be said for how silence bespeaks of courtesy and listening in the classroom, but really—why must the teacher be the recipient of most of the courtesy and listening-to? Teachers talk/talk/talk.  Students learn what they do—shut up when the teacher is speaking. Let’s not be surprised when they don’t instantly jump into impassioned discussion when they’ve been veggying in their seats, practicing silence.

          As teachers, let’s say less.  Say nothing.  Treat silence as Japanese artists do space—something to create and shape.


Yes/No Dualism

At this stage, we buy into a bipolar cosmology—the world neatly divided into clearly defined extremes: Teacher/Student, Powerful/Powerless, God/Man, Man/Woman (gays and trannies aren’t real), Black/White—remember George W. Bush’s swagger when he bragged “I don’t do gray”?—and, of course, the almighty Right/Wrong.  Children, insecure teenagers, and stunted adults yearn to live in this universe—it’s safe, solid, permanent—please, it has to be.  And in this world we get to have someone—the person or deity in charge—to take care of us.

Symptoms of Yes/No dualism in the classroom?  Teachers who specialize in “I’m right/you’re wrong,” devising paintball hunts to splotch student “errors” with the favored color of ink or highlight—the better to grade you, my dear. Such a great way to serve (as administrators are delighted to call it) “the needs of assessment”!  Let’s wheedle yes/no answers from students.  Hooray for Multiple Choice!  Hooray for rote! Hooray for quantification of qualities!  Ask them questions they are likely to get “wrong” so we can tug-of-war them back to the sunshine of “right”!

Students in the Yes/No classroom acquire a mechanical attitude toward learning.  They can become anxious, bored, competitive, combative, and non-responsive in response. A polarizing atmosphere fosters hierarchies and animosities between students and breeds prejudice.

Students learn to ask teachers the most foolish of questions when they are forced to live in or aren’t guided out of the false security and therefore terrors of Yes/No dualism:  Can I ask a question?  What do you want?  How many pages?  (I’ll elaborate on those in another post.)


So-So What? Relativism

So-So What? Relativism is also known as “sophomoritis.” No longer a hazed and vulnerable newcomer needing the certainties of a bipolar universe, once sophomores pay backward the humiliations they suffered onto new freshmen, they may swing to the safety of solipsism: I live in my universe—you live in yours.  Don’t bother me with your point of view. With apologies to Descartes, this translates to I think it—therefore it is.

So-So What? Relativism in the classroom?  Teachers who specialize in being popular, anything goes, and coasting.  In writing classes, these teachers will praise everything—challenge no one. 

Students learn little when they aren’t drawn out of the So-So What? Relativism stage. They go slack.  They can’t focus.  They become entrenched in whatever, and are likely to revert to Yes/No.


It Depends  Contextualism

It Depends Contextualism embraces ambiguity, flexibility, democracy, and uncertainty.  It’s what John Keats said William Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  This is the danger zone of scholarly adventure, creativity, experimentation.  It cannot be easily assessed.
In this stage, truth and morality are treated as a function of context.  It challenges Kant’s categorical imperative, which I translate as “what if everyone were to do this?”  Well, if someone came into my classroom in a rage and asked, let’s say, for Terrence—I would instantly lie that there was no Terrence present.  I would, of course, be breaking the categorical imperative for honesty.  So be it!!!
Students who are encouraged to contextualize may baulk at having to abandon the certainties, prejudices, and arrogance of the Yes/No and So-So What? stages.  But the benefits of It Depends Contextualism—freedom of thought, creativity, flexibility, new experiences, depth of ideas, friendship, collegiality, and community—are immeasurable.  Contextualism fosters What If?—which is the foundation of civilization. It is to be lead forth from the shadows of Plato’s cave.  It’s what “education” means—“leading out.”


          How do you move among these stages?

© 2014 Susanna Rich



  1. hum.. how do I move among these stages is when I was little girl I was silent, very quit but then something happen to me that changed that silence in me to a no/yes. my no to life and my yes to death and everything in it. and then when I came to college I started to say so what, so what I am alone, so what ive been hurt in ways that no one could understand, so what this person don't like me so what! It was that so what and my move back to Christ that I found my voice again and it was because of Dr. Rich class that I realized that my so what mattered in poetry. my so what can change and help someone. that I will live and not die!! helping me to never reach it Depends Contextualism because I know what I want and what I need in Christ., and in poetry thanks to God and Dr. Rich teaching me to have a voice and not hide it anymore.

  2. I agree with these stages that we were taught since birth. I really mean I agree that I was taught these stages since birth like raise your hand if you want to be heard by the teacher. And I think it is just proper manners to raise your hand. I mean I understand that men are called on a lot more than girls, and that is not fair. So how do I move through these stages is I just roll with the punches, and I do what is best for me at the time. That is how I move through these stages everyday.

  3. Growing up. especially in Elementary School we were taught to stay silent, fold our hands, and only speak when spoken to. It was almost heartbreaking in the younger grades to raise your hand to be heard, and not get chosen to speak. We all have a voice that needs to be heard. Everyone has their own opinions, and ideas that need to be expressed. I learned as I got older to use my voice to show my power.

  4. Nearing the end of my undergraduate career, I find myself most often in the It Depends stage. Beyond a simple fact, like this year is 2014, there is little incontrovertible certainty. Any understanding of a thought/situation depends on context, mood, culture, past, future, etc.--much more than one could possibly consider all of. But, I revert to prior stages from time to time. Like if I'm feeling stubborn, I might fall into solipsism. I do find that teachers, whether consciously or not, encourage one stage or another in their students.

  5. I find that teachers who teach on a K-12 level seem to feel that the only way to implement structure within a classroom is to create a "Black or White" environment. These teachers create authority in determining whether interpretations, answers, behaviors, or the like are "right or wrong". By doing this, students are taught at a young age to regurgitate material solely to please the authority figure of the room. Some professors, continue to create a "Black or White" environment within their college classrooms. These professors, both value their authority, and also understand that the "Black and White" system, is a system in which students have become accustomed to. When students are given the opportunity to explore the gray-areas, many are lost. Students are not taught that they have the freedom to formulate thoughts and ideas that do not meet the status-quo expectations of the professor. These students feel that the class lacks structure. In reality, professors who allow for exploration of the gray-area seek for students to find structure within themselves.

  6. I was always the child that had a question for everything. Why can't I answer a question this way? Why MUST I conform to a specific method of math? What makes his/her idea better than mine? Why can't I develop my idea, make it better, support it and transform it. It is what I believe. Why is something I believe in wrong to a teacher because it is not what they believe?

    I have encountered teachers, professors and bosses that are persistent in telling me that I am wrong and they are right and the way they do something is the Ideal way to do something.

    I was the student that had a question for everything (it is the Deaf culture in me which I was raised by). I was the student that had educators rolling their eyes at my ideas because they did not fit into the "perfect mold" and standards that they preset for the class. I am always silenced, shut down from giving my opinion as if it wasn't good enough because of my age. maybe if my ideas came out of the mouth of an older man with nice clothes and a reputable career my idea would be "a work of genius". But education has born and bred society to be quiet, conform, follow the ideas of others. Silence is the same method that Hilter had instilled in an entire nation to perform mass genocide. Can that be right?
    No/yes questions on standardized testing judges my MEMORIZATION of material, not the comprehension. Yes the water cycle is evaporation,condensation, precipitation, in that order but can these students explain it past their memorization of these three stages? Most educators do not ask open ended questions that stimulate thought and critical thinking that is vital to create original thought. Not everything in life is black or white, the world is full of gray area which requires intellectual thought to solve a problem.
    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" - Aristotle

  7. Growing up, kids are taught to conform and follow the cookie cutter way of being in the classroom. Raise your hand, dont get up, you can only use the bathroom during this time or that time. Yes we want our kids to be respectful to the teacher and adults, but at what cost is this limiting our students to being vibrant individual beings. There is no room for grey space in the classroom, only black and white.
    I say that we should encourage students to move around and speak up. Now a days so many children have IEPs and special alterations to their life in the classroom. If Timmy can stand up because it says in his IEP that it helps him do his work, then why can't all students do things that help their brains grow and mature into free thinkers? Why is Timmy the only one allowed to do something out of the norm?

  8. As a upcoming teacher and apart of my class two days out of the week maybe mondays morning and fridays morning the children will have to express about what they have planned in details about their weekend and on Mondays retell what they had planned or what they did and how did it go. I want to get children to be more comfortable with ecpressing them selves and being able to speak in front of othes. Alot of teachers not creating that past.

  9. Here's part 1 of a post from Mary Ellen Banfield:
    Like most students going to a public school, I was taught to respect the teacher & do what I was told. If that meant staying in my seat & raising my hand to speak, then I did it. There were plenty of chances to speak in front of the class during show & tell when I was young, though not graded for it. Once I got to the 6th grade, standing up in front of the class to speak was now being graded. I was given a project to do an oral report on a country—I had chosen Canada—& I was only allowed to use note cards with an outline; these were the rules. At the start of the reports, I was the second one to present…I would have volunteered to go first. I had a few pictures to show with my report, one I drew—a map. I had a Canadian $1 and a couple of novelties from Montreal—from my parent’s trip there when I was 5. It took a few days for everyone to do their reports …it was a big class. When the last one was done, the teacher stood & surveyed the room. She was a foreboding woman with gray hair & a chipped front tooth, but I liked her very much. She was looking around the room and started to talk about the overall feeling she got from all of the reports. She said what she was looking for in the presentations—things like details pertaining to the country’s history, geography, etc. (all on the assignment sheet)—& the way each student presented, like if we made eye contact with members of the class & what our body language looked like. She didn't point out any particular student with regards to good or bad¸ just that she noticed this or that. She did point out that only one student in the class had poise. She was pointing at me! I looked at her with the biggest wide-eyed stare, like my eyes were going to pop out of my head & with my mouth hanging open. Was I ever surprised! First of all I had no idea what poise meant. It sounded like poison, so I was getting a little upset. She smiled that chipped tooth smile at me, a little sinister this time with one corner of her mouth going up, & she stood over me with her arms crossed. What did I do to deserve this? I followed all of the rules. I didn't talk during the other presentations & I felt that I should’ve gotten a good grade. So what was wrong? I’m sure that my face was beet red.
    The day was over, I gathered my stuff, got on the bus, didn't talk to anyone, & as soon as my stop came, I got off & ran all the way home, which was so unlike me. As soon as I got inside the kitchen door, I burst into tears & ran to my mother’s comforting arms. She asked me what had happened. I told her about having poise & what does my mother do? She bursts out laughing, which only made me cry harder & run up to my room. I slammed the door. My mother gently knocked on my door before opening it. She was smiling & told me the teacher was giving me a compliment. I told her she must be wrong, because my teacher pointed at me & then crossed her arms & looked down at me with that sinister smile, chipped tooth & all. Now Mom leads me down to the bookcase in the living room, where the dictionary is kept. She told me to look up the word poise, so that I would know what my teacher was talking about. My mother was right—wasn't she always right? It appears that from the age of 12, I had poise; that self-assured confidence & composure when doing an oral presentation.

  10. Here's part 2 of Mary Ellen's story:

    I’m telling you this tale to let you know that through all of the standardized tests, raising of hands, rote memorization, oral presentations, following the rules, & other teacher tactics through the years, I survived it & made it to grad school—for an English degree, no less—because I didn't know the meaning of a word & was upset by it. I also didn't ask the teacher what it meant. Now I have my own tactics for dealing with words (& teachers)—1st I look up a word in the dictionary, then check the Thesaurus for synonyms. I still tend to follow the rules, but will ask more questions, for clarification & the enjoyment of asking. I‘ve learned that I need to be my own advocate if I want to succeed at anything. I have a brain, & I intend to use it!

  11. I had poise; that self-assured confidence & composure when doing an oral presentation.