At the start of my teaching career, I felt that silence in the classroom was draconian, merely a symbol of punishment and a vehicle to demonstrate anger. I favoured collaboration at every stage; I wanted my classroom to be a hub of lively and loud communication.
But I changed my ways.
The spark was that my Year 11 students faced eight hours and 30 minutes of writing in silence for their English examinations. I realised that I had to make some drastic changes to my practice to help them prepare. However, I also realised that concentration, focus and the ability to think without interruption are vital skills that our young people need to succeed in life.
So how can we begin to champion silence more in our classrooms? Of course, domineering enforcement of silence is still counter-intuitive. We have all had the experience of that teacher who terrified us into submission and made us afraid even to yawn. Such anxiety-inducing practice is not helpful in encouraging learning. And to argue that a classroom should be perpetually silent would be ridiculous.
Yet we still need to help young people to rediscover their attention spans and find solace from a day full of relentless noise. Here’s how I think we can do it.
1. Wait time
Often “wait time” is oversimplified to mean leaving a pause after asking a question. But it can go beyond this.
Frequently, a student will pause as they seek to clarify their thinking when responding to a question. But we gasp in horror at the prospect of a moment of silence in the lesson and interject. Giving that student time to think – in silence – will ensure that they can consider carefully without pressure. This is likely to improve the overall quality of their response.
Pausing after a response also enables the other students to consider the answer their classmate has given. This prevents us from leaping in to assess the quality of the answer, encouraging young people in the room to listen carefully and think about it instead. At this point, we may want to ask students to reflect on the strengths of the answer and possible ways of developing it – these are useful strategies to improve their metacognitive awareness.
And at times we may need to take a moment to gather our own thinking and consider how we want to explain something or move forward. This is vital in modelling to students that thinking requires time, patience and deliberation.
2. Sacred silence
Too often, we set students off on tasks without being clear about our boundaries for noise. The resulting hubbub shatters any real concentration in the room. Young people like clarity, and the idea of “sacred silence” can provide them with this. The trick is not to overuse silent time in lessons but to have a set period of any lesson that is completed in “sacred silence”. This can be as little as 10 minutes in pin-drop conditions. What is vital is rationalising for students why they are working like this – making the experience celebratory and reverential, rather than punitive.
When we want our students to deliberately practise what they have learned, to make sense of the material that we have discussed together, working in sacred silence can help us, and them, to see just how much they have understood.
3. Curb the narrative
As teachers, we may subconsciously feel the need to narrate endlessly over our students. When we set them off on individual tasks, we interrupt their flow of concentration by interjecting with our observations about their work. This has the effect of shattering their fragile working memories: the verbal equivalent of a notification on a mobile phone. It will then take them time to readjust their thinking and find focus.
Muting ourselves regularly and for sustained periods in our lessons will not only help us to save vital energy but also assist students in developing the resilience they need to battle through problems. It all helps to facilitate communication in the classroom, making us much more reflective about how we use language.
4. Silent modelling
If we want to really channel our students’ thinking towards the task at hand, we can try an interesting spin on live modelling. It involves asking students to be completely silent while we model how to complete a task. This demands cinema-style reverence – as our students watch in awed silence while we show how to overcome a problem we will then ask them to attempt.
This can be followed by a deconstruction that checks students’ understanding of what they have watched and rationalises the approach.
5. Silent reflection
We want our students to be independent, reflective and able to identify their own errors. Often, we don’t maximise opportunities for them to build and develop these metacognitive skills. Instead, we expect it to happen by osmosis. After any independent piece of work, giving our students time to carefully proofread in silence will make marking easier – and help them to recognise where they have gone wrong or, indeed, right.
Silent working may not be the most attention-grabbing and dynamic of classroom activities, but it is one of the most important for our young people to gain confidence and proficiency in.
Jamie Thom is an English teacher at Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland and the author of Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom