The use of silence in teaching

iStock_000018020135XSmallSilence is often seen as a negative in the typical classroom and the silent student viewed as timid, fearful or disengaged, writes a British researcher in a recent issue of the Cambridge Journal of Education. But use of silence is a neglected aspect of teaching, one that can serve productive purposes in the learning process and that also should be taken into greater account in classroom observations and teacher evaluations, writes Ros Ollin.

“Classroom observations, currently geared towards overt teacher behaviors such as initiating learning activities and intervening to maintain control, would be enriched by an awareness of different types and uses of silence,” the researcher writes. “This could lead to closer attention to the more subtle skills of good teaching–the often complex decisions on abstaining from talking, moving or intervening–and could provide a fruitful basis for a deeper understanding of classroom practice and an aid to the professional development of teachers.”

In this qualitative study on uses of silence in the classroom, the researcher interviewed 25 teachers, many of them teachers of adult students in a range of subject areas such as performing and visual arts, photography, music, science, sport, occupational therapy, yoga, English as a second language, fire safety training, etc. A few participants who expressed a strong dislike of silence were included in the group.

Teachers in the study reported using silence for the following purposes:

  • Dramatic impact;
  • relaxation, slowing down at the beginning or end of class;
  • focus, discipline and control;
  • inner reflection;
  • creative space–to give students time to form own thoughts and dreams; and
  • freedom from intrusion, from classmates, teachers, etc.

Communal silence in class, due to concentration and absorption was seen as a positive indicator of comfort and security, Ollin reports.

One art teacher remarked, “Silence can very naturally occur when people start getting really into their painting or drawing or making something and I think it’s because they’ve got so absorbed in it.” Teachers sometimes make the mistake of intruding on that type of positive communal silence by comments like “Isn’t everyone being quiet?”

If there is a child in class who does not talk, typically, teachers feel unease and they make great efforts to get the student to talk using a variety of techniques, Ollin notes. But, there are three possible reasons why students are silent, the researcher writes:

  • They may be shy.
  • They may be resistant to the dominant discourse.
  • They may be involved in a reflective and engaged silence.

When learners are silent they might be engaged in a variety of activities–listening, thinking, feeling, withdrawing. They may be actively
participating, even though they are quiet. The research article has a list of 21 questions to consider in evaluating teachers in their use of silence in classroom observations. They include the following:

  • What instances are there of non-verbal communication used productively so as
    not to interrupt learners’ thinking?
  • How often does the teacher demonstrate productive abstention from
  • How effectively does the teacher use changes in position or changes in
    physical activity to give learners an opportunity to absorb what has gone
    before, or to enable a shift in perspective?
  • How does the teacher deal with the learner who does not talk?

Other evaluation questions addressed the use of writing and visuals as silent activities for students. Writing allows for more measured thought and a more permanent record of thinking, the researcher writes. It is a “slow time” rather than “fast-time” activity. Visuals can often be allowed to speak for themselves. Teachers reported not speaking at all during a PowerPoint presentation or showing images without text so that students could think for themselves rather than being told or guided by words.

Movement and activity can also be described in terms of silence. Activities such as sculpting in clay or drawing can be a means of developing a fresh perspective. Drawing your problems or ideas rather than talking about them might lead to a less conventional solution, Ollin writes. One teacher mentioned that students and teachers could get a fresh perspective simply by moving from one
space to another.

Talking and silence can be viewed as fast time or slow time. During silence or “slow time”, students have time to think at their own pace rather than on the teacher’s time or at the pace of the rest of the class. Sometimes silence can be a negative. It can signify a breakdown in communication or a behavioral situation. A skilled teacher should be able to differentiate between productive and unproductive silences.

Educators who conduct classroom observations should rethink some of their attitudes towards silence in the classroom, the researchers note.”Silence, as an absence of speech ,is often problematised in a classroom situation, with the underlying implication that classrooms are for talking–as long as the talking is under the control of the teacher.”

“Silent pedagogy and rethinking classroom practice; structuring teaching through silence rather than talk,” by Ros Ollin, Cambridge Journal of Education, Volume 38, Number 2, June 2008, pp. 265-280. 

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