Reflections upon the role of silence in the classroom.

In this new series of blog posts I am going to reflect on a different issue each week. These reflections will form part of my preparation for our weekly Teaching and Learning Breakfast. I’ll need to pick something to discuss each week and make sure I’m prepared for the session, so I may as well share my thoughts at the same time.

For this session I will be sharing with my colleagues extracts from Jamie Thom’s A Quiet Education and Tom Bennett’s Running the Room Companion. Re-reading these today I reflected on the role of silence in my teaching, both now and in the past. Chapter 6 of A Quiet Education ‘The Case for Silence’ opens with a classroom scenario which seems all too familiar. The teacher, completely fed up with the class not getting on with what they should be reaches the end of her tether ’Right, that’s it. We’re working in silence for the rest of the lesson!’ and of course, this lasts for all of about 10 seconds before they start talking again… I so wish this wasn’t familiar, but I can see myself having said it on a number of occasions. Of course, in doing this we are turning silence into punishment.

Silence isn’t easy, so why bother?

We have to acknowledge that silence isn’t an easy thing for many people, let alone a room of young people. It’s not something they’re used to doing at all, with mobile phones and video games constantly on the go there is always noise around them or some kind of social interaction with others, be that face to face or virtually. So that’s our first challenge, it’s difficult and doesn’t seem immediately appealing to many of our students. But this isn’t a reason not to do it, after all there are many things that don’t seem appealing to us but which are worth doing.

So why is silence worth striving for in our classrooms? First of all both of the books discuss our ability to multitask, or more accurately our inability to do so. We’re reminded that we can’t truly do two things at once and focus on both to the same standard as if we were doing them one at a time. Talking whilst learning is no exception to this. If the conversation is not about the work in hand it is likely to be causing a distraction and will lead to poorer learning of the content at hand. So whilst insisting upon silence whilst students are working may seem harsh to some, we really are just considering what will be best for their learning.

Reflecting on this personally I know that silent working is something I’ve not often been good at. In the past with (the very rare) classes I’ve had who have fallen into working silently I have uncomfortably wandered around the room feeling like a spare part as they quietly got on. As an NQT I remember even commenting to one class about how quiet they were and how eerie it was for me! What I would give now for the majority of classes to quietly get on like they did. What I wasn’t appreciating at the time was that it was allowing me to really support them the best I could. I could get in and spot misconceptions, live mark the work and really adapt the course of my lesson to those students in front of me. I didn’t take full advantage of it back then though.

I also have the bad habit of what Thom refers to as overnarrating. To fill the silence I praise the class for working quietly, I give more frequent than necessary reminders of the remaining time. Something I’m really going to focus on is not doing this and keeping my interjections for addressing misconceptions as opposed to filling the air with words students don’t actually need to hear there and then.

Silent working – how do we achieve it?

On the other hand I’ve had many classes who I would like to work silently but I’ve never achieved it. Bennett and Thom put this down to a number of reasons. Did I teach the students how to be silent? Behaviour needs to be taught, not just told. Did I rationalise it and explain the reasons for requiring silence? No, I didn’t do either of these things. I just expected it. When considering if I’ve explained to students why I need silence I’ve concluded that perhaps I don’t do it enough. This week I started explaining to a class that I was asking for silence as it would allow all students to learn and for me to be able to teach and support those who needed it quicker. I made reference back to the school’s values, something which is also mentioned in A Quiet Education. I plan to do this more often and also explain how so-called multitasking really works, or doesn’t.

School policies, systems and culture have a massive role to play here. I’ve just changed schools and part of our new classroom expectations is that students will be silent as default. To clarify, as there will always be those who wilfully misunderstand, this isn’t to say that students will be silent throughout the lesson. Just that they will be silent unless told otherwise, which could be quite a lot if the teacher says they may discuss their work with their partner for example. Having only just started this we aren’t there yet but being supported by a system that expects this is certainly empowering for teachers, especially speaking as a new member of staff who can confidently insist on their expectations knowing the same will be happening up and down every corridor.

But of course, silence isn’t always golden.

Of course we do not need silence the entire time, in fact as a language teacher there are many times when silence is the complete opposite of what I am looking for! The important thing is that in the lesson there are periods of time where students are expected to work in silence, not only for their concentration but also for the good of those students who may need some quiet time for many reasons. Entering the room and getting on with their first activity, the silence is useful for settling and taking the register. When packing away and leaving silence is useful for a calm exit and supporting colleagues teaching the next lesson. Not forgetting the many times in between when we need students to fully focus on the task at hand. My feeling is that we shouldn’t be scared of silence, we shouldn’t see it as a punishment but something to be learned and embraced.

Equally though, we need a balance for me I think the most difficult thing is where I actually happy for students to discuss the work but many take this as an opportunity for off task chatter. What do you do in this situation? Do you then insist upon silence instead? Do you follow school behaviour systems of warnings and sanctions for those not talking about the work? Considering that could just be those in ear shot at the time… I think this is part of the tricky balance and I’m really interested in this so please do comment here or tweet me @BexN91.

I highly recommend the two books I’ve mentioned and have even got an episode of From Page to Practice on A Quiet Education for those who are interested in exploring this issue, and others, further.

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