Is there a sound reason for silence in school corridors?

Students may miss some important life lessons if schools enforce silence as they travel between classes, says Ann Mroz

Is a rule demanding silence in school corridors really a good idea, asks Ann Mroz

Silence. For something seemingly so benign, it is very powerful. It can be calming or oppressive, peaceful or aggressive. A silent area can be a Zen den full of tranquillity or an isolation room full of anger. The meaning a space takes on often stems from whether you are there by choice or have been sent there by someone else.

Unlike in the East, culturally, we are uncomfortable with silence. How many of us can sit in a room with others for long periods without saying a word? And when teaching is all about disseminating knowledge and generating dialogue and activity, silence in class, unless demanded, can be concerning and disconcerting.

So it’s unsurprising that one of the big recent divides in education has been over whether pupils should be quiet in corridors as they go between lessons. This is, of course, nothing new: it was often the norm in certain schools in the 1950s and ’60s, along with thick gym knickers, berets and indoor shoes.

And like strict uniform policies, it’s all about control and showing who is in charge.

A dictatorial approach?

Supporters say silent corridors regulate behaviour and create an environment conducive to learning. Critics, however, say it’s just a dictatorial practice and point out that it isn’t really controlling behaviour if lots of staff are required to enforce it.

It’s said to be about preventing bullying and rowdiness, and ensuring a calm start to lessons (see pages 44-51). But if some children are behaving this way, is silencing them really the best way to tackle it? If the behaviour is not being addressed, aren’t we just deferring it? And if it’s only some children, why are we punishing all of them?

The same is also true of the phone ban the minister for school standards wants. How can children learn to use a phone responsibly if they are not shown how to? In a school I visited recently, the children all had phones in their pockets, switched off. They knew the rules on when they could use them and articulated them to me clearly. They didn’t need a ban.

Silence is also said to benefit pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. But this assumes all such children seek quiet, calm environments. SEND is hugely diverse, as are the preferences of those with that label.

We also do not know whether enforced silence actually creates calmness. For some it may; in others, it may cause agitation or anger. The absence of a cognitive break between lessons – a Pomodoro-timed reward – could cause anxiety and a lack of focus. More importantly, do we know that it does no harm? If teaching is to be truly research-informed, we need to know that what we are doing is backed up by the science.

If what we are seeking is a calm, orderly environment, then why are we not plugging into the copious research around mindfulness, trauma and anxiety, and around the impact of being active on wellbeing and learning?

The problem, as with all these things, is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Of course, we want schools to be a place where all children feel safe and are able to learn unhindered. But we also want pupils to know when they need to be quiet and why, and be able to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

School, for most young people, is the safe space in which they can make mistakes and mature at their own pace. It is also a training ground for social interaction. The times between lessons are when children rehearse the workplace and public scenarios they will face in later life. This is the way they work out how to read and approach different situations and threats. If we prevent them from doing so, we may get a short-term benefit but it could well cause long-term pain.

The information we have indicates that this generation is better behaved and has lower rates of unwanted pregnancy, and drug and alcohol abuse, than those who went before. In sum, they’re pretty sensible. Shouldn’t we learn to trust them a little more?

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 8 February 2019 issue under the headline “Read me loud and clear: we must trust pupils on when to be silent”