The Filling-the-Void Dance

Filling the void is an example of fitting together. Kind of an interesting one, because void filling can feel like such an individual move. But here’s how the filling-the-void dance works:

  • Teacher asks a question.

  • Student falls silent (or says he doesn’t know).

  • Teacher becomes impatient (anxious about the silence? about the student’s not knowing? about internalized pressure to keep up the pace? or to make students know? or to just cover the content? about the suspicion that the student’s silence or not knowing means something bad about the teacher? What is it?)

  • Teacher does the work for the student (by answering the question herself or doing the requested task).

  • Student learns that playing the passive role invites the teacher to play the active role. (That’s the fit: the passive one locks into the active one, who ultimately does the work.)

Filling the void isn’t necessarily bad. Getting the work done can be a good thing. The problem with the filling-the-void dance is when the way the work gets done is not good for one or both of the dancers involved.

In the case of the silent student, it’s quite likely that the passive role will not lead to learning. At least, not academic learning. Unless the silent student is really working to fit with the teacher’s question by thinking about it, looking for a way to connect with it (in which case it would be much better for the teacher to let the silence stretch out, to give the student time to think), simply hearing the teacher answer her own question probably won’t matter much to the student. It will just end the immediate ordeal. Or end whatever attempts he was making to answer the question. Either way, not good for the student.

Successfully playing the passive role, though, does lead to relational learning.

That is, if I can tolerate the anxiety between us longer than you can, you will do the work. If I pause long enough before taking the next step in our dance, you will take the step for me. If this happens over and over again, I’ve got me a fit. Effective. Comfortable. And lockstep. But it’s a dead-end dance.

So the filling-the-void dance can be a double-whammy: It teaches your partner to be passive (or incompetent or untalented or unthinking) and it prevents growth and learning.

A dead-end dance.

If you’re a void filler, watch your partners. How do they manifest passivity? When do you start feeling anxious or impatient or uncomfortable or impelled to take action? What are those feelings potentially about? What happens if you wait just a beat, or two, or twenty longer? What happens inside you? What happens outside you?

Betsy BurrisComment