Friday, February 26, 2016

The Power of No

I teach a lot of students from China. Sometimes I ask them "Why?" and they reply, "No why." It's a mysterious thing, but it's a great answer as far as they're concerned. They can pretty much use it anytime, and it sounds a lot better than my standby, "I don't know." Of course a lot of people have trouble saying that, for reasons that I will never quite fathom.

But once my students get started in the negative, it's tough to turn them around. My afternoon class is usually pretty cooperative, though a little quiet for my taste. Yesterday I wanted to do an activity in which they get up and ask each other questions.  I improvised a lead-in that, in retrospect, was an absolute disaster. I said, "How come I always stand up and you always sit down? Let's do an activity where I sit down and you stand up."

They were having none of it. "No," came the response, from various corners of the room. Heads shook in resolute refusal. I decided to explain that I would stand too, but at that point it no longer made any difference. It was no, no, and no, and that was that.

In the midst of this, someone determined the room was too cold. "Close the window," she said. I told her she could close the window if she wanted it closed that bad. "No," she replied. All of a sudden, everyone wanted the window closed. "Close the window," demanded the shyest girl in the class, the one who almost never says anything.

"Listen, you are all healthy and 15 years old, and I'm an old man with one foot in the grave," I said. "If you want the window closed, get up and close it."

"No," said many voices, though not quite in unison.

The shy girl repeatedly demanded I close the window. I had finally gotten her to talk, and just for this. I said, "OK, I'll close the window if you guys get up and talk."

I closed the window. "Okay, now get up and start asking questions."


I should have known. I said, "OK fine. Don't get up. You can shout at one another. But there are 12 questions and you have to ask 12 different people. Good luck."

Several of my students started shouting at one another. Some actually got up, eventually, and started asking each other questions. But it was pretty scary standing there with all those kids in full mutiny. Who would've thunk a bunch of relatively quiet kids could muster such determination?
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