Embrace the sound of silence

11th January 2013 at 00:00

Longer ago than I care to remember, my constant talking caused my primary school class to be banned from attending a mid-week church service. The nuns were furious but the punishment briefly elevated me to champion status with my peers, who considered the removal of an hour-long Mass, during which we all had to stay quiet, as something of a triumph.

For if continuous noise - the cacophony of modern life - is a torment, silence is also a challenge for both pupils and teachers, the latter of whom sometimes fear that even pausing for breath will cause them to lose control of their class.

Yet keeping quiet has distinct and proven benefits. In her book Silence in Schools, Dr Helen E. Lees advocates techniques that can improve classroom management and learning. Around the world, silence as a pedagogical tool is steadily gaining currency.

We are not talking about the sort of suppressive silence so common in classrooms until the 1960s, nor the silence imposed during detention as a punishment. These, according to Lees, are negative "enforced silences", which serve only to restrain a child's creativity and ability.

Instead she emphasises the benefits of "strong silence" - deliberate stillness - pointing out ways it can dramatically improve pupil concentration, learning and behaviour.

It has been more than a decade since a study by London South Bank University and the University of London's Institute of Education found that exam performance fell by as much as a third if children were taught in noisy classrooms. Since then, dozens of schools across the UK have introduced periods of meditation and "reflective silence".

No one is suggesting we rid classrooms of the productive chatter of child-centred learning or, for older pupils, the buzz of fierce debate. But, as Lees says, silence is far more than an absence of sound, it is "a state of mind, a space, a feeling, an experience. While talk and debate must always be a part of democracy in a school, silence enhances the atmosphere within which debate occurs."

It's a lesson that has taken me decades to learn.

Jo Knowsley is acting editor of TESpro jo.knowsley@tes.co.uk @tes.

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