Why a school without noise is less than sound

14th January 2011 at 00:00

Part of our school has been handed over to the builders prior to renovation. It is empty and cold. A thin film of dust has settled and its school-feel has gone. It is just an empty building. When I wander around in a valedictory way, I realise that what it lacks most of all is noise. Because any school as profoundly silent as this is unnatural. The corridors are the same; the spaces the same. But it seems incomplete. The spirit of the building was contained in the noisy interaction and the humanity of the place. Now it has gone.

A school can seem to be a very noisy place. It provides an unpredictable assault on your eardrums. There is the shouting and the gossiping, arguments, the squealing. And then a sudden piercing howl, as if a moon-crazed wolf is in the corridor. You will hear a distant door slamming, sudden shouting, the clatter in the kitchen. The distant sound of a whistle. The drumming of feet in the gym. Tables being moved in the classroom above. The unexpected ranting of a teacher who is usually calm and measured. And of course laughter - because schools are generally happy places. Then suddenly calm will descend. Doors will stop closing, feet will stop moving, chairs will stop scraping. Listen out for such moments because they don't last long.

External noise can destroy your lesson. The local villains know this. They know we are the victims of distractions which come from nowhere and which we cannot control. So they can achieve a small triumph through an irritating act of revenge. A motorbike tearing up the football pitch can cause huge disruption, dragging attention from within to without - because their noise is an intrusion which has broken the fragile spell of the classroom. Nothing can be more irritating than your lesson being overturned by a parent noisily revving their car and sounding their horn to call Jordan out of school for a dental appointment.

One of the worst lessons I can remember was disrupted by a seagull hammering with his beak on the plastic windows of my classroom and refusing to leave. On that occasion, the bird became the subject of the lesson because I had no alternative.

Our lives as teachers are highly structured and that rigid shape is controlled by bells. Like dogs, we respond to them. That bell or a buzzer can be so intrusive, and so unreliable too. It either comes too soon to terminate an enjoyable lesson, especially since you know the next class are not nearly so appealing. Or it takes ages to rescue you from chaos. And do not stand beneath it when they are ready to go off. It will always make you jump in an undignified manner.

These noises define our world. Yet we always value silence. We seem to think that it is a state to which we must all aspire. It is something student teachers yearn for, and yet normal classrooms are rarely quiet.

The connection between silence and attention was exploded a long time ago. There is nothing worse than the quiet unconsciousness of a class drifting away on a raft of boredom. A classroom should respect moments of silence, but must most often have a healthy buzz. A good lesson provokes a spirit of enquiry, stimulates question and response. It is part of the skill of a teacher to know when the engagement is slipping.

In their world of endless stimulation, silence can be an alien concept to children. It is completely unnatural. MP3, mobiles, games consoles, everything requires sound. As a result, silence means something is broken, that something is wrong. Find a silence and there is a pressing need to fill it.

That is why examinations can provoke such restlessness. The very fact that there is no noise can inspire giggles and serious unease among some. Most will realise that the exam room is a different place and accept what it represents. But for others, remaining quiet for so long is as difficult as juggling with jelly. And it can be instructive for us to remember that this might be one of the very rare occasions where they have had to experience deliberate silence.

Of course, as a teacher I should regard silence as good. Noise is the enemy. My mission is silence. And children feel the reverse. A school is a community at war, for noise represents anarchy and misrule. It must be defeated. Silence is control. And yet I think in this I am on the side of the pupils.

In a silent school, there is a sadness. It waits to be brought to life. For us, silence isn't golden. It shows that something is missing.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School in Swansea.

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