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!

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  12. Dr Rich,

    As a women and as a student these are the three stages I have learned and experienced my whole life. When you're younger and you're a girl, you're taught differently than the way boys are. We are always taught to be silent (because a man knows everything or the adult does), we are taught the "yes" and the no's" and we are taught the "so-so what?" It's all in a lack of better words, BS. We should always learn to be respectful when it comes to others, their opinons, and in social settings. But we are taught way more than just that. Why are we not teaching children that respect and being silent are two different things? Because they are and they are both used differently yet they grow up and they don't know that they shouldn't always be silent. I move among the stages by always doing the opposite of what is expected of me (which is how I have always been). But not everyone does this. We have to learn the differences in each stages and how they should be used for us to be able to move among them.

  13. While attending school in a public school teachers still looked at students differently if they had a completely distinct opinion regarding a topic. It was looked down upon to have thoughts that were outside the norm. Some teachers felt at ease knowing that some students had similar mentalities because they were getting their point across. But in actuality this was not the case, students were forced to learned similarly and think similarly as well because you were considered the "oddball." As a future educator, I should be alert when addressing sensitive topics, but a topic isn't effective unless there is discussion and contradiction, because this allows us to reason with others and expand our views. While keeping in mind that respecting everyone's opinion is not the equivalence of remaining silent.


  14. Dr. Rich,
    Back in September one of the first lines in my journal read “I hate silence.” The reason for it was my setting. I had just walked into a silent classroom full of students just waiting for the professor to enter and lecture at us. The only thing at that point that was missing was the hand folding. The lines proceeding in my journal described how the silence made me fearful, just like it would for a student in the classroom. When I got to college I couldn’t stop talking and contributing to my classes, but when I think back to elementary or middle school I couldn’t do that. I was afraid to jump into the discussion because I had been trained to be silent. Therefore, I agree. As a future educator, I plan to say less, let the children talk and have MY silence be their fuel to the conversation.
    Yes/No Dualism
    After reading this section I finally see where my usual question, “Can I ask a question?” derived from. I remember in the beginning of the semester I asked you this and you just stared at me. I was confused and changed my mind about asking the question. You saw this and you told me to just ask it, rather than asking if I can ask it. It’s silly to think that I was trained to ask a question when I want to ask a question. I plan to NEVER be the “I’m right/you’re wrong” brain flooding teacher that leads their students to ask crazy questions, like myself.
    So-So What? Relativism
    This is the scary stage of learning where students forget that there are no absolute truths. I look back to when I was a sophomore and “don’t bother me with your point of view” was way too relevant. Whenever I was challenged by a teacher I didn’t take it seriously, “they’re annoying,” I’d say to my friends. But yet the ones who gave extra praise and didn’t question anything I said, “they’re my favorite.” Luckily, I can thankfully say that today it’s the opposite. Whenever I don’t have a professor that challenges me, I get bored. Suddenly the teachers I once hated, became the ones I appreciated.
    It Depends Contextualism
    I can finally see myself somewhere in these educational stages! I feel that this year, my final year of college sadly, I can relate my knowledge and my education to some kind of context. I do agree, this is the danger zone of education. I feel this particular section of the post relates a lot to the reason why you’re great at the senior capstone for English. Trying to assess someone on their creativity or depth of ideas in a story, is in fact immeasurable. That is exactly why we are never graded on the context of what we wrote, but the growth of us getting there. Like you always say, you can’t grade us on a poem of our dead grandmother. But you can take into account everything that came over us through the course of the semester to create that poem. Like the risk we took writing about the topic, or the expansion of language, and intensified use of images.

    -Alessandra Finis

  15. Dr. Rich,
    This blog is so relatable. It gave me the chills. Growing up, I was always the shy and quiet little girl who hid behind my mom. I did not really mind the silence in my classrooms, but eventually, I knew I would have to work up my courage to speak more. I really need to applaud my public speaking teacher who I had at Middlesex County College because she really took the time to get me to come out of my shell, and express myself. Now, I feel like I never shut up! I don't like classrooms now in college where I cannot talk or express how I feel. Luckily, my classes this semester allow me to use my voice and share as much as I want. I feel that there is one class this semester where I'm in the so/so what stage, and its algebra. I have never been a fan of math, and these lectures just seem to drag within the 50 minutes I have of this class. I feel as though these stages really bring stress throughout our school years. We go from not being able to talk or move at all, to teachers wanting us to voice our opinions, and do things that we were not used to in our other schools/classrooms. It's all about adjustment. As a future educator, I want my future students to express their opinions, to give me feedback, and not be silent.Of course, I will not push them if they are uncomfortable, but I strongly accept any or all commentary from my students, and will do my best to create a positive environment in which my students will enjoy, and feel welcomed to share as much as they would like.
    -Valentina Quesada

  16. Dr. Rich

    Out of the entire blog post, I specifically enjoyed reading about silence. I find this quite interesting as I see myself as an extremely dominate woman who stands with her chin up, and mouth open – to speak her mind. When I am in a classroom, I like to have a voice for myself. However, when I was growing up in elementary school, this always put me at a disadvantage come parent-teacher conferences. “Oh, Paige does so well in class, BUT she is extremely distracting to the other students as she talks A LOT.” So my parents would hurry home to explain to me that I was a loud mouth. Go figure! I knew this about myself already and I think it’s because I was given a voice in my home. Both of my parents always encouraged me to speak my mind and have a voice for myself. I think this has helped me become the confident woman I am today when speaking to someone in public. I often start conversations with strangers, or pass a smile to others on the street, because I am confident with my voice and social cues. I like to believe that my voice makes a difference to people. I also like to think that I can dominate this world as equally as men. For my future, I will help young women have a voice too.

    - Paige Bollman

  17. I have always wondered why was Education fun but not school. Our leaders have imprisoned Education into some kind of system to dismantle creativity and the drive to explore the unknown. As you so perfectly described those stages that make education go south, I am realizing how many time that I would start an academic year, excited about the new subject to learn and explore; only to end up feeling drained, almost zombie like, toward the end of that year because my brain would no longer take the disappointment from not using my creativity in favor of the education system. Every child learns differently, and so should be our education system; where it's not based on, for example, Standardized tests to determine a child's level of intelligence. It should be based on creativity, drive, sense of exploration, and etc... Art for example should be more included in school subjects; like math, Bio, language, etc.. We live on a colorful world. So why not make these school subject more colorful and fun than strategic

  18. Dr. Rich,

    Looking at some of the ethical and intellectual practices that occur in the classroom I can relate some of these practices to my life. In western society, silence is seen as uncomfortable, and very unlike how the Japanese see it. Looking at silence and gender as well as race, there seems to a huge power shift connected to those who speak and those who remain silent. This is seen in classrooms when teachers speak, when men tend to take up air space and also when people of color aren't as visible as their white counterparts. I think we should redefine the meaning of silence and stop making it a sign of discomfort. Sometimes silence is necessary. I also agree that many classrooms live in the “Yes/No” duality. It’s become the norm to ask what is the minimum to do in the classroom and just hope to reach that. I think I have come a long way from an education system that chips away at originality to the authentic person I am today. I still struggle sometimes to voice my opinions and my feelings, but I no longer have the “So-So What’ attitude. I want to bring more to the classroom then just me being there physically. I have a voice that I should share with all who would listen.

  19. Hi Dr. Rich,

    As I am getting closer to the end of my college career and moving into my teaching career, I am beginning to think about the classroom rules and expectations I will be setting for my students. This post brings a lot of my undecided-ness to clarity because it simplified the necessities for me as a student teacher. First and foremost, what is the point of silence in a classroom? Obviously, students need to establish a relaxing work place and respectful to one another environment, but why the dead the silence, hands folded on the desk, head straight forward? What does this promote? Why did teachers expect that? What was the point? I realize that, because thats how it was when I was in elementary school, that somehow I figured it was "right," but through recent exposure to the teacher world, I recognize that its pointless. In a transforming face-to-screen world, why would I make my classroom an environment that doesn't promote interaction. There is no point in silence, however, there is meaning in interaction and that is something I do appreciate and WILL implement.

    Here is a rough draft of my classroom rules:
    1. Be respectful to classmates and teachers in conversations and interactions.
    2. Speak your mind. I always want to hear about new ideas and aspirations.
    3. Be excited to learn from your peers.

  20. since I started school, ( Catholic School from grades Pre-K - 8th) I was always silent unless a question was asked, then i was the first one with my hand raised. However, i learned as soon as school begun how to be a "good student," Literally! Teachers would praise my behavior and point to me as the example for other students. I was the epitome of an obedient student.

    In high school is when I really experienced the Yes/No Dualism. I was fine with it, as I'd been complacent in playing the role of the obedient student until a teacher really tried me on a bad day and I flipped out on her. I was not disrespectful but very rude and frustrated. However, I couldn't help but feel remorse (though she deserved the lashout ) because of my hard wired programming/

    I never experienced the So-So What or It Depends classroom environment until I entered college. College education flipped everything I knew about school and discipline on its head. The number one thing that threw me off was professors requesting that you call them by their first name. that was something i'd never even fathomed.

  21. Dr. Rich,
    Ever since a young age children have been told what they can and can't do. What the right way to do something is and the wrong. The majority of my school career teachers have only let the students be in the silent stage or the yes/no stage. There was no room for open thought. Students didn't want to ask questions because they thought it would be considered dumb. We often found ourselves saying:Can I ask a question? What do you want? How many pages? Just as you had pointed out in your blog. We found ourselves trying to do/ ask what the teacher wanted instead of for ourselves. When I first came to your class, I was surprised and honestly a little overwhelmed by the amount of freedom we had to write in your class. You were open to any and all questions, which was surprising because I've never had that experience with a teacher before.

  22. Dr. Rich,

    Each of the phases that you mention are present in different phases of learning. Most students who are just beginning elementary school experience the "silent" phase. They are taught to raise their hand if they wish to speak. They must be silent at all times when the teacher demands their attention while he or she is addressing the class. It starts out as a way to show students to be respectful when others are speaking, but I agree that it creates an awkward tension when the teachers demanding silence all of a sudden want students to be vocal and engaging in conversation.

    I see the yes/no phase more relevant in a middle school setting. The students are taught that life and the world is either one thing or the other. They are told that they are right or wrong and that there are no grey areas.

    High school is when the so-so indifference comes into play in terms of education. There is such a disconnect between students and teachers by this point that some students show up simply because they have to and cannot wait to leave.

    The few students who still willingly want to go to school and learn on a deeper level move onto the "it depends" phase of a true meaning and sense of morality. The world of a classroom seems more relatable to the world and vice versa. They seem to interconnect to the student and he or she grows to enjoy the information at hand. I never thought of any of this until now. Now that you have laid this all out, it is pretty obvi9ous that every student goes through each of these phases and it should not be this way.