When faces turn red, no one is learning [Inclusive Pedagogy]

panda covering face in shame

There seems to be an unspoken right for professors to call on students without warning. This I actually understand and sometimes do because volunteers sometimes take 5 minutes to push through silence (and there really isn’t time for that). While I have been told by a few students in comments over the years that this was awkward for them at first, they also tended to follow up with a self-reflection on how they got used to this dynamic. This is, however, one pedagogical tool that may cause embarrassment and shame.

Another pedagogical tool that might cause faces to burn is assuming a students ethnicity, gender identity, citizenship, ability, sexual orientation, and other identity markers. I actually sat in a class where the professor took it upon himself to go around the room and categorize each of us based on what he thought was our gender and ability level. It was extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. This was made worse by the fact that a queer woman was in the class and had made a point of not revealing her pronouns to us. While some might chalk this up to an old man being out of touch, this incident did serious damage to the learning environment and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had a difficult time listening to anything the professor said for the rest of that class.

Students need to feel safe in order to learn. This is not just about the safety of the physical environment (though that is super important too) but the emotional environment as well. Instructors that are in the habit of shaming and calling out their students are actually creating traumatic memories of learning for their students. I say “habit” because I think every instructor, including myself, has had a moment where they regretted saying something or calling on a student who apparently did not want to be called on. For example, calling right away on a student whose second language is English and who needs more time to process the information. Knowing what students are comfortable with might be a matter or giving them a survey at the beginning of class but it could also be learned over time by observing the classroom dynamics.

All of this supports my thesis here that when faces turn red, no one is learning. When we as instructors fail to tread carefully and use pedagogical tools appropriately, we risk not only alienating our students but also causing them emotional trauma. From conversation had in the past week, it has become clear that anyone who has been in higher education for a few semesters probably has a good “you wouldn’t believe” about a professor. This shows that traumatic moments are quite common in academia, and much of this comes from instructors not communicating respectfully and generously with their students.


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3 Responses to When faces turn red, no one is learning [Inclusive Pedagogy]

  1. Zhenyu Yao

    Could not agree more. When faces turn red, no one is learning. Also, international students soemtimes need more time to deal with information provided in the class and it is appropriate to leave more time for international students to react to instructors. As a instructor, I always warn myself to have more patience with students whose native language is not English so that students can express themselves well.

  2. shoagland

    Thank you for your post. The panda gif at the top is perfect for this topic.

    I like how at the beginning of the post you mention that the teacher has ‘the right’ to call on students in the class. I would agree with this statement. Teachers are the figures of authority in the classroom (regardless of whether or not the students like the concept of authority) and have the right to teach in whatever way they think is best for the students.

    However, while I think that the thesis you present is true, I would suggest a slight rewording. Instead of saying that “no one is learning” when faces turn red, I would change this statement to read “no one is learning the course subject material” when faces are red. This small change in wording is important. Let me explain further.

    What if the professor is not only teaching students the course content, but is also trying to teach students how to engage in public discourse, how to state and defend their position, how to handle pressure, and how to be prepared to give a response when called on by an authority figure, in order to prepare them for their careers? Some might argue that the other goals mentioned above are just as important for the students to learn as the course content itself. If the professor calls on a student and asks them a question, perhaps the professor is helping the student prepare for the real world. In this instance, although the students may not be learning the course content, there is still learning taking place – the students are just learning different content, and learning through experience and practice.

    Of course there is a line between trying to embarrass/humiliate the students and trying to push them to be better individuals. Professors ought never to cross this line, but they should be willing to push their students to prepare them for their careers. Not pushing them would be a greater disservice.

  3. austingarren01

    While I agree with you that the teacher has the right to call on students for answers or to participate in the discussion, I also agree that it often causes discomfort and embarrassment for the students. For me personally, it is extremely frustrating to be randomly called upon during class, because I prefer to listen to others’ opinions and thoughts and/or learn more about the subject before responding. I am not comfortable giving an answer that I have not had time to completely think through. If, after this period of reflection, I feel that I have enough information on a topic to have a well-formed thought or opinion, I will then share that thought. While I understand there are certain circumstances where quick initial thoughts are required, I think that there is also something to be said for developing a well-formed thought or opinion rather than just responding with the first answer that pops into our heads.

    Austin Garren

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