Three cheers for silence

28th October 2011 at 01:00

Schools are noisy places. Once upon a time, classrooms were so quiet you could hear a pin drop; now you'd struggle to hear a sewing machine hit the floor. And they are about to get louder. We have been asked to reduce teacher talk and pump up pupil dialogue in order to pep up results.

Apparently, the more we speak, the less the kids learn, so we need to get them chatting. This would be fine if we could trust the kids to discuss whether Willy Loman is a true tragic hero, rather than the likelihood of Chloe copping everyone a discount at her branch of Hamp;M. The problem with student dialogue is that you can't monitor it properly. Your classes might look as if they are debating how oxbow lakes are formed, but, in reality, they are probably swapping the latest Hollyoaks gossip.

It's not as if pupil dialogue was missing from our lessons in the first place. We regularly rely on talking plenaries; my favourite is the one where we instruct our young charges to tell someone they've just met in a lift three things they learnt in the lesson. Not speaking to strangers is patently not one of them. We may be flaunting basic child protection issues, but at least we can demonstrate student progression.

Our kids exist in a world of noise. This is evidenced by the hundreds of stringy white headphones that dangle like disoriented tapeworms from their blazer pockets. Teenagers hate silence and vociferously rebel when we insist on quiet study. Last week, my Year 11s protested that it was an abuse of their human rights when I insisted they did a timed essay under mock exam conditions. I worry how faded and insipid their lives might actually appear when they face up to reality without a Spotify playlist. My pre-MP3 generation are more fortunate: since our headphones were the size of small hovercraft, music became less of a habit. Hence we can resist the urge to counterpoint our yard duties and bowel movements with a catchy chorus or a meaningful middle eight.

It's a pity schools are so afraid of silence. Last week, on my birthday, instead of persuading my colleagues to come out for pizza, I attended a group meditation. It was extraordinary. There is something intensely intimate about sitting in the dark with a room full of strangers, sharing nothing but silence. It was like a cross between communion and sex. Except I didn't need to go to the bathroom for a last-minute wee.

I'd forgotten how powerful not talking can be. A while ago, I saw a theatre production called Kursk. It told the story of the Russian submarine that sank in the Barents Sea, killing all of its crew. The loss of 118 men was made real by flooding the audience in darkness and silence. It's ironic that not speaking can speak to us so directly. Before my husband went AWOL, he replied to my "I love you" with a long, measured silence; he didn't need to say anything else. Now, although he warmly assures me that he does, I still listen anxiously for any tell-tale Pinter pauses.

Teachers are wary of silence. We may shout it as a command, but we don't use it to nurture understanding. Education has become a marketplace where students barter ideas; it should also be a cathedral where they can pause and reflect. The sound and fury of pupil talk might deliver a "tangible buzz", but quiet contemplation stops it signifying nothing.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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