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Classroom engagement – What to do about the ‘seven silent students’

The ‘seven silent students’ will typically behave well and pay attention, but never speak up – so what can you do to elicit more responses from them?

Femi Adeniran
by Femi Adeniran
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Have you ever been to a wedding and been placed on a table with strangers? If, like me, you’re a people watcher, this is a dream scenario.

There’s the confident one who leads the table with tall tales and humour. The monotonous one, who thinks nothing of boring the entire table with stories of their nephew’s plans for his gap year. And let’s not forget the softly spoken great aunt to your left, who once travelled the world saving lives, but has no intention of sharing this as nobody’s asked her about it. 

Some people love to volunteer their wisdom, while others are happy to simply observe the world around them and wait until they’re spoken to. Teenagers are no different.

A fantastic deputy headteacher who once mentored me used to talk about ‘the seven silent students’. Her theory was that in any average class, there will be seven students who, unless directly spoken to, will choose to not speak.

There’s nothing wrong with them – they may well enjoy your lessons, and will probably express themselves freely when amongst family and friends,. They just don’t see the need to do so in class.

15 years later, I think my friendly mentor was probably on to something, and that effective teachers know it too. Indeed, they expect to encounter the seven silent students, and will be actively finding ways of engaging them and making sure they’re both challenged and catered to.

These teachers will cold call those reticent students, and create a safe enough space for them to answer. They’ll receive them at the door with a smile and warm greeting. Most importantly, during independent work – which students should do frequently – the teacher will circulate the room, giving the seven silent students the same amount of attention as those who, if allowed to, would dominate everything.

Why does the teacher do that? Because these students deserve it.

What the best educators don’t do, however, is sit down at parents’ evening and concede that the child should become something they’re not. If we want to hear from all pupils in our classroom, then it’s up to us to create the right conditions needed for that to happen.

Femi Adeniran is currently head of mathematics at a large independent school in Sussex, after many years of working in the state sector. He is also one half of ‘Beyond Good’ – a podcast about teaching he hosts with one of his oldest friends and fellow HoD/SLT member Matt Findlay; for more details, follow @BeyondGoodPod

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