Should Class Participation be Judged by Verbal Exchanges?

This is the last in a series of posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first four truths.

Truth #5: “Class participation is all about talking in class discussions and group activities. All kids must learn to share their ideas verbally, and ensure that their voices get heard.”

At the end of my first semester of teaching, I gave an East-Asian student in my class a low score for class participation. In every way possible, this kid was a model student: she worked very hard, she did all her homework, her essays were fantastic, and she was always polite and well-behaved. Yet, she was quiet and reserved in class discussions. As a result, I gave her an ‘insufficient’ for class participation.

She came to see me later with tears in her eyes. I said, ‘But you don’t speak up in our class discussions.’ She looked at me confused. She then explained to me that in her old school, class participation involved being prepared for class and listening very carefully to what the teacher said. Class participation involved listening, not talking.

In Singapore, and across East Asia, kids are taught to listen, and listening seems to be valued more than talking. I still expect my students to speak up and share their ideas in class discussions, but now I do things differently: I explain what I mean by participation more specifically, and I also value listening a whole lot more. Our kids need to learn to listen to each other and to adults. And when we assume that participation is all about talking, we devalue listening unfairly.

Two criteria for judging class participation

In these paragraphs, perhaps more important than the specific issue of criteria for judging class participation, are these two elements: (1) the importance of listening, and (2) the importance of understanding the perspectives of others.

The importance of listening

One of my favorite books about relationships is Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the relationship principles Mr. Covey teaches is “Seek to understand, then to be understood.” This principle emphasizes the importance of listening–listening before speaking and listening with the intent to genuinely understand.  Every teacher knows how badly most of our students lack this skill. Too often we lack this skill ourselves. I have been on a multi-year quest to improve my listening skills, too often with inadequate success. But what a worthwhile effort it is, for ourselves and for our students.

The importance of understanding the perspectives of others

This is the point of Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, than to be understood” principle. A teacher’s success must be built on relationships with students and parents. Positive relationships require that we learn to see from another’s perspective. The key to learning to see from another’s perspective is listening. Ask questions, and listen. An effective tool for improving your listening skills is to “say back” in a paraphrased form the statements made by others. This is most effective when it is done verbally, but often when I find my thoughts racing ahead in a conversation I begin internally to practice this, and I listen better by doing so.

I expect that Maya Thiagarajan is a very effective teacher, and not so much because she developed a better rubric for class participation, but because she practices listening to understand her students.


Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.