The Behaviour Question
This might seem trivial, but I have become really good at getting my classes to work in silence. However, I do not always want silence, so I am looking for tips on how to keep a class quiet, but not silent. I find that, as soon as I allow them to talk, the noise level just keeps on rising until it is unbearable.
What you said
I've come to the conclusion that if you want a "reasonable level of working noise" instead of silence, that works so long as you have a good relationship with the class, they respect you and you provide them with interesting work and well-planned lessons. Without this, silence often ends up being the least stressful scenario.
I find that sometimes a little bit of quiet background music can help keep a class settled but not silent.
Try saying (and repeating) "quieter". Start loud enough to be heard. Wait a few seconds, then repeat at a lower volume.
The expert view
This is tricky: you have got silence when you need it. Believe me when I say that many teachers would see that as reaching the top of Everest and doing a little jig. But you, understandably, want more - you want pupils to be able to talk quietly about their work. A tall order, but try one of the following approaches.
Approach 1: Do not tell them that they are allowed to talk. Instead, just let them do so and see what happens. You could warn them that you will keep anyone who talks too loudly or off-task behind. Then you have to patrol, constantly cutting the heads off the tall poppies. This will require vigilance, time and effort, and you may not have the patience for it. However, it could train your pupils into tacitly understanding the new paradigm in the classroom.
Approach 2: Accept that getting silence is the battle nearly won, and simply drive conversation by being the instigator of it - ask directed questions and set short talking tasks with neighbours that are ruthlessly timed and stewarded, so that they learn to talk in a moderated manner. Make sure that, when you assess the task, there is some way that you can ascertain whether the talk has been directed. Then you can punishpraise as you see fit and the pupils will learn that, when you set a talking task, you mean that it is a task and not just talk.
It takes time to achieve either approach, but if you are serious about driving the behaviour towards engagement and learning, then you will no doubt relish the task. There is, of course, a third alternative ...
Approach 3: Silence is great, much of the time. If the class is quiet, it is a hell of a lot better for them than if it is rowdy. If I have to choose between a class that is too quiet and a class that is too noisy, give me quiet any time. Not for me - for them, for their learning. You are right to worry that silence can mean boredom, lack of engagement and so on. But believe me, this is a much lesser evil than chaos. Perhaps you should count your blessings.
Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. http:behaviourguru.blogspot.com
Post your questions at www.tes.co.ukbehaviour.