Fear changes classroom into uncomfortable place

Lack of confidence among causes

While classrooms are meant to be an open learning environment, social fears have shaped the classroom atmosphere into a tense and uncomfortable place. 

The common question of  “Do you understand?” asked by teachers often is faced with clueless and confused faces nodding in fear. Even in a classroom where no one knows the answer, many students are afraid to admit they don’t know a concept because they don’t want to be “that one kid” who never understands anything. 

A variety of reasons may contribute to this fear, including a lack of confidence and wanting to maintain a presentable image and a fixed mindset. Anthony Peña, a math teacher at Monte Vista High School, believes this can stem from a cultural misconception of fixed intelligence.

“You hear people all the time say, ‘Oh I’m just not a math person,’ or something like, ‘my brain is just not built that way,’” Peña said. “People have slightly different strengths and weaknesses upon entering the world and based upon their early experiences, but those things are far more changeable than people think.”

While some people find certain subjects easier and others more difficult, everyone can train their brain to the level they desire. Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” 

The brain is just like any other muscle: you need to train it, work it, and hit roadblocks to acquire more knowledge. 

Freshman Humza Mahmood believes that many classrooms, in contrast, are not welcoming environments for students to make mistakes.

“Our school system somewhat expects everyone to be perfect,” Mahmood said. “There are grading scales, and the peer pressure that [makes] people just want to always get it right, and that’s why very few people raise their hand and ask questions.”

Peña believes that the simple lack of confidence is the major reason that students are hesitant to admit wrong answers.

Students don’t want to reveal to others that they don’t understand a concept, despite the fact that not filling in learning gaps can be highly detrimental. However, the peer pressure students feel is justified. A student’s activity in the classroom can often negatively affect their relationships. Peña suggests that students build slowly into asking questions.

“If you are worried about your relationships with friends, you don’t need to ask one every time you have one,” Peña said. “But start to do it and you’ll notice that maybe it’s not as bad as you feared, and maybe people actually appreciate it.”

Achieving the opposite effect of a strained relationship, asking a question that someone else was uncomfortable asking could result in heavy appreciation from the other student. Despite this however, it’s still hard to exclude others’ perceptions of you from your thoughts. What if it really is just me that doesn’t understand? Sophomore Madeleine Kan, for example, is one of these students, although she said she doesn’t let those thoughts interfere with raising questions in class.

“On one hand, my image is pretty important to me because I’m very interested in being perceived and I constantly need validation,” Kan said. “But that being said, I know it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things so I don’t do all that much to try to control how I’m seen.”

For Mahmood, it is a very different story.

“Being outspoken has affected me pretty horribly,” Mahmood said. “For me personally, I have very few friends. But I’m very close with them. I’ve known all my friends for several years and I trust them completely. And that’s worked for me because they know who I am. They know that I’m able to get things wrong sometimes, and they’re okay with that.”

Mahmood believes that these types of strong friendships mitigate the fear of being judged in the classroom. When people understand and accept mistakes that you make, there’s no reason to hide them. However, he claims that many people don’t invest in these stronger friendships. 

“What a lot of people do is just go for superficial friendships,” Mahmood said. “For that, you have to always be right and be like that perfect person even though you might not be.”

Mahmood said he thinks that teachers and course structures are catalysts to why students are unwilling to ask questions and make mistakes.

“Most teachers just want to get the test scores and move on with the lesson,” Mahmood said. “There’s this quote from Khan Academy which says, ‘Teach from mastery not from understanding.’ There’s a difference between just understanding something enough to pass the test versus actually mastering it and being able to move forward.”

Mahmood said he wants our school system to allow second chances more.

“In many classes you just take the test and you’re done,” Mahmood said. “If you fail it you just move on, and then that’s not very good because then you don’t understand that and you have to be able to have other methods of supplementation to learn that.”

While complaints about teachers and their methods aren’t uncommon, Mahmood acknowledges that students are responsible for their own work ethic and motivation, which can contribute to their problems.

“If you take tests and you get, for example, a 30 percent, then you’re not going to try and get better because the test has already been taken,” Mahmood said. “But you need to because otherwise if you move on and don’t understand that subject, then you’re going to fail in the future.”

Peña said he is striving to improve the culture in the classroom for students to feel welcomed.

“I try to make sure that people have individual time to ask the questions where they do feel comfortable,” Peña said. “While I wish people were okay asking when they don’t understand something, that’s not the reality and you have to make stuff that works for where people are actually at.”

He said the change needs to come from people’s mindsets universally in order for it to be successful. It’s important to show people that it’s acceptable to be wrong and make mistakes.

“I might believe in it, but if your peers, parents or anyone else don’t believe in it, you’re not going to do it,” Peña said. “You need that supportive environment in order to take risks. You have to know that you will not be shamed with it. And to do that, everybody has to be on board.”