A school is a busy place. There is much to achieve. Much to do. Lots to say, write about, read about. But what if all this just stopped for a moment and silence prevailed? A space of nothing that is something. Would classrooms be better for learning? Would children and staff be happier?
I have been working with the material of silence for a while now as a researcher of educational theory and alternative practices. What is clear is that silence is the new improvement tool for schools. And it is free to use. No charge. Just a breath away for everyone.
But is it really that easy? Of course not. The reasons are multiple. They stretch across the history of schooling and beyond into psychology, power, politics, health, sociology, families and more.
Achieving silence in schools is a demanding and difficult process at first but then it becomes, well, simple.
Negative weak silence
Silence has historically been used in schools for negative reasons: to keep control of unruly children, to allow the teacher to speak and be heard (at the cost of pupil participation), to bring order to the institutional functions of a school. All this has been achieved through coercion.
Children have traditionally been made to be silent because it suits the adult. Not conforming, through silence, to the adult's wishes brings recrimination, punishment and sadness for the child. The result is that children learn to associate silence with fear, repression, authority and a lack of freedom that hurts them.
In the school setting such silence is not helpful if the aim is to work in a positive way with pupils. It weakens relationships; it weakens trust in the belief that schooling is beneficial and enjoyable. It is a weak educational tool.
But there is another way for silence to be experienced.
Positive strong silence
Silence can be strong. This is different from weak silence because it requires democratically agreed participation. If children are consulted and agree, entering into a silent state can bring many powerful benefits. It can:
- Offer calm to the mind.
- Put a person in touch with their body.
- Show up dominant thoughts, offering a chance to address concerns.
- Create a space to relax in.
- Rebalance a tense atmosphere.
- Create a moment for a change in direction, like pulling a lever on a train track.
- Allow re-energising.
Positive silence is always chosen. It is this that makes it a strong force.
Choosing something gives it strength and permission to emerge. Because silence is a powerful aspect of human experience, choosing it allows its power to enter a person's world - and, of course, the world of others. It is, however, an active and constantly renewed choice. Most of us tend to like to speak.
In fact, it is hard work to be in and stay in silence. For children, short bursts are best. Those who use silence every day in schools suggest that for a deliberate act of meditation or classroom stillness, one minute for every year of age is a good guide. Stilling oneself and being with others who are also choosing to still themselves is best done on a regular basis. This allows the cumulative effects to be felt.
Sometimes, however, deciding to integrate silence into a classroom can highlight interpersonal and individual difficulties. Ros Ollin, an academic at the University of Huddersfield, found that teachers can spoil silences. In fact, anyone can spoil a silence. So the trick is to get agreement that even if silence is not for us personally we will not spoil the silence for anyone else. Of course, that means that everyone is silent. But it doesn't mean that they have been coerced into it.
This "hard work" to set silence up together - dependent as it is on agreement - shows how using strong silence works with people to create tolerance, sensitivity, understanding and a kind of ethics of non-interference, freedom and openness. It makes a school more democratic because, to achieve an agreed silence, everyone has to first talk together and reach agreement.
Because of this, strong silence is a challenge to the way that many schools function. It highlights hierarchical relationships that may be operating to exclude interpersonal equality between people. It breaks down a lack of intimacy and puts in its place an experience of having shared something. In the communal agreement to be silent and not spoil one another's silence there is something loving and restorative for relationships. No hassle, some gratitude and no bad experiences. All shared on an equal basis in a school.
So how can it work?
Here are some examples from schools and teachers who have already used silence over long periods of time and report that it can create effective and enjoyable classroom experiences:
In the English department of one secondary school, lessons were used every Friday for silent reading, ie, reading without any talking. The teacher also read silently. As a result, reading habits widened to incorporate "serious" books, such as works by Leo Tolstoy, and books beyond "expected horizons". A special atmosphere of peace and reading enjoyment developed.
In one primary school, the teacher paused at the start and end of lessons and sometimes within the lesson. There was an expectation of the opening and closing pause in a lesson rooted in a whole-school culture of respecting silence. Sometimes, according to her professional judgement about what was going on in the classroom, the teacher would say "listen" and the children knew that signalled a pause: "Well, they just do it. I just say 'listen' and as soon as you say it there's this amazing space." The teacher directed the length of the pause with a known word signalling its end. This was used over many years and was said to be an indispensable teaching tool at that school.
Weekly meetings for silent sitting
All the pupils in the upper half of another secondary school met in assembly once a week to sit in silence for about 15 minutes. Not all of them closed their eyes and meditated formally with a mantra or other techniques, but some did. Those who chose to just sit in the silence created became used to this experience and some used it to think through their plans or reflect on their experiences. Many took their silent "practice" on to university where they reported it helped them to deal with post-school life.
Meditation and mindfulness techniques
Many schools use techniques to offer children silent experiences within the school day. Reports from these say that it calms, focuses and enlivens the pupils.
Some schools provide sanctuary rooms or buildings where children (hopefully staff also) can go to be still and silent as a restorative tool. Perhaps replacing the formerly common use of a church building for peace and prayer, these spaces offer a secular and interdenominational chance to dwell in a similar stillness alone and with others.
Because yoga requires attention to the breath, it can have a similar calming effect to silent sitting.
These are a few examples of how silence has been and is being used in schools. The variety of practices is huge. Many schools have understood that silent moments in the day are not only not bad, but very beneficial for educational and social outcomes. Research into the correlative effects of silence for improvement of exam grades and other assessment outcomes remains to be done on a large scale. But many reports from teachers with years of experience using silence suggest that schoolwork standards improve and stress levels before and during exam times are helped. So what's the catch? There really do not seem to be any serious issues or difficulties with strong silence, entered into freely. It just helps. Practitioners praise it highly; researchers make comments to the effect that a downside is not perceivable. People who have used it or investigated it and reported back on experiences and effects cannot find anything amiss.
There are, however, a number of questions about bringing silence into schools that need to be addressed, around training and permissions. For instance, do teachers need to go on a course to learn how to bring silence into their classrooms? Do you need qualifications? How can you get agreement?
First, any teacher who wants to act as an advocate for silence in schools ought to be a practitioner of silence in their personal life. Working with silence is a journey and the longer one is on that journey the more experience one gains. It is a type of experience that cannot be taught but only known first-hand.
For example, sometimes the mind finds it really hard to hear (outer) silence. The reason for this might not be clear. Experience alone teaches that this is part of a bigger picture where sometimes (inner) silence is golden and at other times it is elusive. Knowing how silence works as a personal and social tool can enable people to connect with it as a "something" at times when an environment is noisy. The noise does not disturb. A calm state of mind, caused by exposure to silence, is in action.
While learning techniques through fee-paying courses can be helpful, it must also be borne in mind that silence is a natural, free resource. Therefore, if agreement in a classroom can be reached, simple silence is instant.
Getting agreement relies on listening to any concerns, explaining possible benefits and asking permission from pupils to give it a go. The key to enjoying silence in schools is believing that it is important.
Dr Helen E. Lees is a research fellow at the laboratory for educational theory, School of Education, University of Stirling and author of Silence in Schools
Meditation and mindfulness resources:
PEACE AND QUIET
In what ways can it be introduced for free?
- Not talking to see what happens.
- Waiting longer after asking a question.
- Creating agreed silent events.
- Introducing silent tasks.
- Introducing opening and closing silent pauses.
- Listening more.
- Modelling silent and calm behaviour.
- Taking oneself away from talk and busy action into still silence.
- Encouraging silence, not frowning upon it.
- Talking to others about how to achieve it.
- Dedicating a silent space for sitting in.
- Noticing the silence in the midst of busyness.
- Looking at nature and its rhythms with silence in mind.
What are the benefits?
- Focused learning.
- A sense of well-being.
- Interpersonal tolerance.
- A calmer approach and atmosphere.
- More self-awareness.
Lees, H. E. Silence in Schools (Trentham BooksIOE Press, 2012).
Picard, M. The World of Silence (Eighth Day Press, 2002).
Kalamaras, G. Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension (SUNY Press, 1994).
Schultz, K. Rethinking Classroom Participation: listening to silent voices (Teachers College Press, 2009).