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Do you know how to say what you think?

Today, I'd like to share a true story of one of my teaching experiences in China..... I once worked with a group of first-year university students. The class had reasonably good English and were smart kids but they were terribly shy and hated to be asked questions. One day, I asked them a simple question, one that I was sure they could answer. Their response was complete silence. I knew that my question had been an easy one so I decided not to 'help' them by giving them the answer. Instead, the room stayed absolutely silent for a very, very long time. The students looked at anything but me; slowly their faces turned red with embarrassment. They fidgeted and wriggled on their chairs but still would not answer the question. Eventually, after at least two whole minutes of uncomfortable silence, one girl stood up, bright red in the face and gave the correct answer to the question. Much praise from me and much relief and laughter in the classroom! If I had broken the horrible silence with the correct answer to the question, that girl would never have learnt that she had the courage to stand up and give her opinions. The rest of the students would not have learnt that it is safe to speak out. Although I was not aware of the Thinking Environment back then, with hindsight I can see that I provided one for those students.

How a Thinking Environment can help language learners

"The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first." Nancy Kline What is a Thinking Environment? Essentially, a Thinking Environment is an environment that allows us to think creatively and independently. It is the opposite of group think or a herd mentality where people are discouraged from having or expressing their own opinions. In China, students are not often expected to give, or possibly even have, an opinion. This is why being asked a question can be so frightening - what if the opinion is 'wrong' or is different to the teacher's? I suspect that there are many organisations where people have similar doubts when they are asked questions, for example:

  • how will my boss react if I tell her what I think?

  • my opinion is different to everyone else's, it's safer to say nothing

  • Maria is the cleverest student in the class and even she can't answer that question. I'd better just say nothing

  • I really don't agree with what Luis just said but he's the manager so I guess he must be right

In all of these examples, the would-be speaker has chosen to hide their thoughts or opinions because it feels safer than expressing them. The problem with hiding our thoughts is that it leads to negative feelings such as frustration or boredom within ourselves and it also means that the organisation where we work or learn does not learn from our wisdom and experience. Helping people to feel safe about voicing their thoughts, feelings and ideas is part of what the Thinking Environment does. When organisations, whether they are companies, classes or couples, allow everyone to say what they need to say, the organisation is able to draw strength and inspiration from a much wider, richer range of opinions. This in turn gives strength and awareness to the organisation, much more so than if it relies on a narrow range of opinion.

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