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How Body Language Affects Class Participation

Bored School Student

How your student is sitting at their desk, or not, really matters.

As teachers, it's easy to get a lot of use out of educational TED Talks. But what about a Talk about psychology? With "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are," social psychologist Amy Cuddy's insights on how we hold ourselves has profound implications for teachers who hope to improve class participation, especially among shy and reticent students.

Further reading: A Dozen Things Your ELL Student Wishes You Knew About Them    

Our Nonverbal Language and Power

Cuddy points out that nonverbal communication governs how people think and feel about each other. We make sweeping judgments and inferences about body language, and our nonverbals also govern how we think and feel about ourselves, which can translate who does and doesn't participate in a classroom.

Power dynamics, which Cuddy explains are our physical expressions of power and dominance, are part of our nonverbal language. These can be seen in every classroom. For example, some students come into the room exhibiting power. They get right into the middle of the room, and they immediately occupy space; when they sit down, they spread out. These students readily answer questions and contribute to class discussions. Other students virtually collapse when they come in. They make themselves tiny, and they rarely speak.

Can You Fake Having "It"?

Cuddy pondered whether it's possible to fake power and confidence, and experience a behavioral outcome that makes you seem more powerful. "Forcing ourselves to smile makes us feel happy," she explained, and she soon discovered that when you pretend to feel powerful, you're more likely to actually feel powerful.

Look at this: Less than $6,500 a year for your teaching degree    

How does the mind of the powerful work, exactly? Powerful people are, not surprisingly, more confident, assertive, and optimistic. They always feel like they're going to win. They think abstractly and take more risks. Powerful people also exhibit their power to others in very specific ways. In his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of the modern improvisational movement, lists the physical changes that can affect a person's perceived power and status. He says people who want to appear authoritative and in charge "play high"—they use great, sweeping gestures and occupy maximum space.

Johnstone's work may be in the theater, but his observations have significant implications for the classroom. If teachers can help students feel more powerful, even if they initially have to fake it, class participation may improve.

Putting It to the Test

Cuddy decided to see how well "fake it 'til you make it" actually works. She brought her subjects into the lab, and for two minutes, they were asked to adopt either high power poses—hands behind their head, feet on the desk, hands on the desk in front, or hands on hips—or low power poses—arms folded in front, bent over in a chair, or hands touching the neck.

She found that in high power poses, risk tolerance goes up. Subjects were more confident, passionate, authentic, enthusiastic, captivating, and comfortable. This didn't happen with low power poses. The evidence was clear: Our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about each other and, most importantly, ourselves. Our bodies can change our minds.

Utilizing Body Language in the Classroom

Using power poses in social threat situations like public speaking and important class discussions can help students gain power in the classroom. For example, if students go into the bathroom and practice power poses before any of these situations, they are likely to feel more confident and powerful, and fake their way to success. As they practice this behavior more and more, they'll no longer have to fake it—it will become part of their repertoire.

As teachers, we need to understand the verbal and nonverbal behavior that goes on in the classroom and how it influences learning. By doing so, we can work to make adjustments that help ensure each and every student participates. Meeting with shy students and sharing this science, and teaching them techniques to access their power, can help increase students' confidence in the classroom. In fact, I'd like to run school-wide workshops using the information from Cuddy's TED Talk and techniques from Mr. Johnstone's book. Limiting the workshops to five or six students for maximum comfort and effect, we'd practice using power poses during high-stress scenarios.

Further reading: Encouraging Students to Participate    

With these helpful techniques, everyone can be more assertive and confident, whether applying for a job, speaking up during class discussions, or negotiating a raise. Taking control of body language can help ensure that we're sending the messages we want, even if we have to fake it till we make it.