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Silence is golden

Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it.

Silence is meant to be an absolute, but in primary classrooms it is more usually a relative term. I'm now in my fourth year of open plan bays and I don't think there has ever been a moment in my classroom that you could call truly silent.

When asked about silent times however, pupils use words such as stillness, space, calm and peace because in our classroom, silence is not an absence of decibels, it's a state of mind. Like many other teachers in classrooms where most of the children have English as a second language, talk has become a major feature of my lessons. I rarely ask questions without giving opportunities for sharing an answer.

One day though, I was brought up short by Sohan who had no reply to offer.

I asked why not, knowing he was a brainy young man who should certainly have an answer. "You had a chance to talk about it," I said. "Yes," he replied, "But I didn't have a chance to think about it." I began to see how without time to think, whatever pupils shared with each other and with me would never have time to develop.

So in came silence. I know how awkward silence can be. Along with countless other colleagues, I have had thoughtful times ruined by a burp from a giggling pupil. I confess to using silence more as a weapon than a tool at times. To be comfortable with it as a creative force, I need to start very small.

Once I have asked a question, instead of launching straight into talk, I give the class thinking time. I'll begin the year by saying, "Take 10 seconds to think about it" and then extend it through the year.

The key to success seems to be persuading the class that silence is active, not passive. Whiteboards or jotting books suit some pupils, allowing them to pour their thoughts out, organising them in the space that silence gives. This record becomes a point of reference for the conversations that follow and some pupils develop sophisticated methods of extending and recording their thoughts in a systematic way only understood by them. It also means fewer pupils fall asleep - which wouldn't matter if the snoring didn't defeat the object of the exercise.

Once the class is comfortable with it, silence can precede group discussions, plenaries and assessments. It often concludes lessons as well, allowing pupils to "capture" a snapshot of learning. No pupil can be original if the idea has not been conceived in their mind. Once established in the routine, silence can be the springboard for these thoughts and quickly becomes a crucial step in the creative process, valued as part of work, not a break from it.

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School, Leicester

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