I’ve always needed silence to think productively. Background music always seemed to disrupt my train of thought; In my teens, I escaped to my grandparents’ place in the Welsh countryside to revise for my A-levels, and my current home office is in our converted attic, away from the albeit adorable chatter of my excitable 2 and 4 year old kids! I’ve been known to pause films and say to my wife ‘Wait, I need to think, let me work this out.‘ Yes, I’m one of those people!
As for learning anything, often at school, teachers and lecturers’ points seemed to wash over me, and it wasn’t until I got home and reflected carefully, away from my mates, away from the classroom discussion, that the lesson ideas seemed to become clear, and I ‘got it’.
I’ve been struck by the power of silent work in the classroom over recent years, and decided to do a little research this week around the area regarding its productive use, and the misconceptions we might have as teachers concerning it.
I’m indebted to the following two research articles which have helped me consider this fascinating area further and I would highly recommend reading:
Hamelock and Friesen 2012 ‘One student’s experience of silence in the classroom’
Claire Deans 2012 ‘Pupil Perspectives on Silence’
I arrived at 8 main points on the topic:
1.There is an unfair negativity around silence.
Some students view silence as dull and unhelpful, and is often associated as an oppressive last resort from the teacher who wants to establish discipline by ‘silencing us’. @DrHelenELees, in her book ‘Silence in Schools’ draws a distinction, however, between “strong” and “weak” silence. ‘While the former is a deliberate stillness, where pupils are encouraged to sit and reflect, the latter is an enforced quiet, where teachers impose silence.’
2. The all powerful social aspect is removed through silence, creating the conditions for unrestricted, focused thinking.
Lyndsey Caldwell spoke at Researched Oxford of the ‘heightened teenage sense of self’ which basically means that, without fail, students will prioritise acknowledging a peer’s comment or look, over thinking hard almost every time. Daniel T Willingham reminds us that ‘Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking’.
It follows that if our job is to create the conditions to enable thinking and learning to occur, we need to remove the all powerful social burden from students’ shoulders, by asking for silence. They will ‘silently'(!) thank us for it, I’m sure.
Additionally, the social pressure of a class discussion can be immense too. By giving a period of silence, we remove the demands and potential anxiety around quick fire responses -something that often would hugely benefit from an opportunity to silently think and reflect before the discussion.
3. The illusion of the ‘productive working/learning environment’ and the vast difference in productivity during silent work.
During many observations of teachers over the years, I have commented on a ‘productive working environment’. This meant, in essence, that students were behaving, talking about the task (well those closest to my ear-shot were and they might have been talking cluelessly with a lack of prior knowledge to guide them in the task but I digress…), and writing stuff down. I may have even replaced ‘working’ with ‘learning’ now and again. I’m pretty certain 90% of the time, I would have been wrong to go as far as the ‘L’ word.
I never cease to be amazed at the way students can cover 2 questions with vague, muddled answers in 30 minutes sometimes in these ‘productive working environments’, then answer 6 questions sharply in the next 20 minutes of silent work.
It is clear then, that we have an obligation to create periods of silence in every lesson we teach if we are setting high expectations.
4. Resist attempts to break the silence. Stay strong!
It’s so easy to feel unnerved, awful as a teacher, cruel even during these periods of silence. No-one’s smiling! Hell, they’re not enjoying your lesson! Andy Tharby talks of an anecdote where he gently waves a student’s hand down, angling for more resilience from them. Students will ask questions, ask you to check their work, ask to go to the toilet… RESIST! They’re testing you! If your task is a good one, they’ll be required to recall, think, produce, reflect on the process of what they’re doing, and refine, all beautifully uninterrupted. And that includes US! During silent time, we need to resist the urge to interrupt their thinking with a ‘Just one more thing, guys!’ reminder.
5. Talk to articulate and refine learning, not to learn.
‘When we talk, I’m not learning’ -So said a student in the study covered by Deans. This isn’t always true though. We do often need to refine and adapt our understanding of concepts based on articulating what we know already with our peers. This is a useful process. But so is silence in allowing the chance to reflect and internalise learning in the FIRST instance. This first instance would greatly benefit from silence I believe – perhaps after an important instruction, model or explanation.
6. Call it thinking time rather than ‘silent work’.
Simple really – less negative connotations, and justifies it nicely!
“When it is quiet, I can think more clearly. It helps me to get my thoughts about what I am going to write or say next”. (From one of the Year 5 students in the research covered by Claire Deans)
In addition ‘time to think’ seems to have consistency with Vygotsky’s work on thought and language (1962), particularly the stage of maturation, where speech goes ‘underground’ and becomes inner-speech. If we can therefore assume similarities between inner-speech and time to think, then for these processes to take place most effectively, a silent environment on occasion could be conducive to more thoughtful reflective responses.
7. Silence offers the opportunity for the learner to control the pace.
Don’t we all want this chance at times in life? Silence grants it!
Slow-time is defined as time where learners can think at their own pace rather than the pace of the rest of the class. This time was characterised as private time or space free from intrusion, interaction or demand for an immediate response (Ollin, 2008).
8. Reconsider our perception of the silent student.
I have a mental checklist at parents’ evenings: Behaviour, Contributions, Effort, Data, Next steps. I often end up commenting on Contributions – they don’t speak much – they need to contribute more in lessons. It is even one of our prerequisites of a ‘Highly motivated’ learner in my school, but is silence always a sign of disengagement, of apathy, of not being an ‘active learner‘?
Check this out from Hamelock and Friesen:
In “some cultures silence…can be viewed as a sign of complex thought” (Bosacki, 2005, p. 86). I recall various situations of my own silences as a student and know that my experiences were not all the same. Sometimes I remained silent because I agreed with what was being said and chose not to speak. In other situations, I was deep in thought and was using the time to make sense of my thoughts and gather a response.
What might we ask for then from students in these periods of silence?
To think before a discussion, to think after a question, to allow reflection time after an activity, to concentrate/focus on an activity, to reflect on the process involved in completing an activity.
It’s all sharpened, I believe, through silence -as a powerful weapon in the teacher’s arsenal.
I’m not advocating silent classrooms all the time. My own target is around 30% of the lesson -short bursts of anything between 5 & 20 mins -that should utilise productive learning. I shouldn’t admit this, but I often also give an incentive of 10% – 2 mins free talk time following the silence. This works well as a reward!
Join Club Silencio today! It’s a pivotal scene in one of David Lynch’s finest films ‘Mulholland Drive’. If that’s not a good enough reason to try it out more, I don’t know what is!
Thanks for reading.