Reflection mat must not replace naughty stool

18th July 2008 at 01:00
I imagine one of the pleasures of the summer break for many teachers is the relative peace and quiet it offers

I imagine one of the pleasures of the summer break for many teachers is the relative peace and quiet it offers. Schools are inevitably noisy places, full of exuberant young people who are required to move around in groups as they change classes, go to assembly or head for the dining hall. It would be surprising if this movement was not accompanied by chat, laughter and occasional mayhem. There is not much scope for quiet, thoughtful moments.

Constant noise seems to be a feature of modern society. In pubs and restaurants there is "background" music to contend with, which often forces customers to shout to be heard. Traffic noise and congestion in the city are major sources of stress. Complaints about neighbours, who seem to find it necessary to air their disputes in public, are on the increase. The courtesy of switching off the television set when visitors arrive is regarded as a quaint custom from the past. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous mobile phone which ensures that non-stop conversations are ever-present.

In schools, requiring children to be silent is sometimes seen as retribution. At a recent conference, one of the delegates told me of this exchange - Grandmother to three-year-old: "Do you have a naughty stool at your nursery?" Three year-old: "Don't be silly, Granny. We have a reflection mat."

Silent reflection is thus used as a punishment for bad behaviour rather than a break from noise and bustle. That child, incidentally, should go far since she has a good grasp of euphemism and political correctness.

For many folk, coping with silence is difficult. What does this signify about our culture? It is ironic that, in an age which is sometimes characterised as one of rampant individualism, some people find it impossible to put up with their own company without the "reassurance" of noisy chatter or loud music. This suggests a deep insecurity about their identity, a fear which may also help to explain why significant numbers of men and women would rather continue in an unsatisfactory relationship than face life on their own.

I visited a friend in south-west Scotland recently. She lives at the end of a lane in a small village tucked away from the main road (which is a delight to drive to because of the surrounding landscape and the absence of traffic). The only sounds are natural ones - cattle and sheep in nearby fields, chickens that are free to wander about, and birds which have an ideal habitat in which to nest and rear their young. From the porch is a stunning view of rolling farmland and the Galloway Hills.

I was reminded of the lines from the poem by William Henry Davies:

"What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?"

I am not recommending a retreat into some form of rural romanticism. My point is simply that we need contrast in our lives to appreciate the richness of experience. If all we encounter is frenetic, noisy activity, our humanity will be diminished. That has implications for adults and children.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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