Science of silence is not for the weak of heart

6th November 2009 at 00:00

I'll begin this with a moment for quiet, reflective silence, something all teachers need. Bearing in mind the practicalities, I will make do with a new paragraph. Take longer than usual to proceed to the next line ...

Hello again. Did you enjoy your brief respite? I did. Actually, I went off for coffee, a flapjack and a short nap. Sorry if I left you hanging.

Moments of quiet are rare for teachers, particularly during the school day. Classrooms are noisy places. That's what Helen Lees of Birmingham University found, too, in her recent research on two types of silence experienced by pupils. She calls those imposed for discipline purposes "weak" silences and those which allow for learning, meditation and thought "strong". Lees reckons there are too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

I particularly like her warning that if there isn't enough "strong" silence for pupils, this can "induce feelings of helplessness" in them. Ah, feelings of helplessness. Now we're talking. But not just about the pupils.

Classroom noise isn't always a bad thing. If pupils are working purposefully in groups or debating issues, fine; if they're on the phone, eating crisps or brawling with compasses, not so good. So, the issue isn't whether it's too noisy, but who's in control of the noise? And if the answer is "They are", bring on the feelings of helplessness.

Also, some of Ms Lees' conclusions seem wishy-washy. She says strong silence gets pupils indulging in a "gaze of silent profundity". I wonder how many pre-lunch or post-games lessons she has sat in on lately. Protest and procrastination, sure. Profundity? Pff.

She also warns against frequent weak, authoritarian silences, such as those we impose in assemblies, claiming they are a "significant oppression of the child's naturalness". Now, if the naturalness she's thinking of is the naturalness I'm thinking of, I'm all for suppressing it, thanks, and as significantly as possible.

I don't agree that there are only two types of silence, either. I have experienced other kinds. I call them all "weak", or maybe that's just how they make me feel.

One is the "plenary" silence. This is the pit of silence that greets you when you say at the end of a lesson, "So, what have we learned?" If there's a member of the senior management team (SMT) observing, that pit deepens into a Grand Canyon of silence, a cavernous echoing emptiness rebounding off the walls, turning each second into eternity.

Another is the "technology" silence. This is when everyone waits patiently for a DVD to begin and there's no response. Ironically, the longer the technology stays mute, the quicker the classroom noise escalates. Ditto above if this occurs with the SMT present.

Worst, though, is the "teacher has nodded off" silence. This strikes at around 2.30pm, then ends abruptly at 2.33pm when your head hits the desk or you fall off the chair. The resulting class noise may need quelling with a large dose of weak, authoritarian silence. Ditto above with SMT scenario, but that won't be the end of it.

At least, while you're unemployed, there'll be plenty of opportunities for strong, reflective silences, this time outside the classroom.

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school, Warwickshire.

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