It is golden. It is the mother of truth. Its sound was eulogised by Simon and Garfunkel. But silence is still grossly underused in schools, according to new research.
Helen Lees, of Birmingham University, claims school noise levels regularly exceed the World Health Organization's (WHO) standards. And she says this lack of meaningful silence is having an adverse effect on pupils' reading ability, language skills and sense of wellbeing.
Ms Lees believes there are two types of silence in schools: weak and strong. Weak silence includes the authoritarian quiet imposed on pupils when the teacher is talking, or during assembly or registration.
"Such moments of enforced silence . are legion in a school day, often causing significant oppression of the child's naturalness," she said.
Silence often becomes a punishment: pupils are sent out of class if they misbehave. And punishments are imposed without discussion, creating a silence around the original misdemeanour.
Authoritarian silence is compounded by other forms of weak silence, such as when a pupil does not know the answer to a question.
By contrast, strong silence is a deliberate stillness. Ms Lees believes such silence allows space for pupils to develop interests about the world around them "with a gaze of considered, slow and silent profundity". Instead of imposing instruction, teachers facilitate discovery.
Strong silence is also found during meditation. When pupils are given regular time for reflection, their ability to focus improves significantly. Their stress levels reduce and ability to express sympathy is enhanced. This, ultimately, has a positive effect on academic work.
But such silences are rare in schools and made more elusive by the poor design of many buildings.
The WHO suggests daytime noise should not exceed 50-55 decibels, but normal classroom noise is usually between 55 and 90 decibels.
"A lack of awareness, and lack of respect for a need for acoustic strong silence in schools, can directly and adversely affect reading levels and language ability, as well as induce forms of helplessness," Ms Lees said.
The predominance of weak silence in schools, she added, "says much about current schooling as a deficient institutional system for humans". Without proper use of silence, sessions such as circle time become merely government-imposed measures, rather than space to reflect and to discover oneself.
Unless an atmosphere of strong silence is in place, she said, "any attempts to personalise education in line with a changing society will fail because they do not leave aural, psychological and spiritual room for the self to think its way to its own personalised development".
TIME FOR TRANQUILLITY
- Quaker schools use communal silence in assembly and before meals. At least once a week, the whole school gathers for about 15 minutes of quietude.
- Neohumanist schools use yoga and meditation during the school day. They claim it helps to calm and focus the mind and free pupils from distractions.
- Lancashire's Maharishi School practises transcendental meditation twice a day for between five and 20 minutes.
- Krishnamurti schools believe education should "bring about a transformation of consciousness" using strong silences.
- Bilton School in Rugby recently created a peace garden for quiet reflection.