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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Background noise and awkard silences

Have you ever experienced a moment in a lesson where, without warning, the whole class suddenly goes quiet for a while?

I had one of them today. As ever, it was an unplanned moment. The students had been working on task for a while, with the usual level of classroom noise, then suddenly, as though there was some telepathic signal between them, silence descended.

This happens in my lessons every so often and it usually feels a bit wierd. For a moment it's calm, then it feels a bit awkward, then I feel a sense of pressure descend on the class. I always worry that one of the students might want to ask a question, but they don't want everyone else to hear, so they don't ask and end up feeling a bit trapped.

Inevitably, it never lasts more than a few seconds before one of the more vocal students says something inane.  "Why has it gone quiet?" is a popular one, asked in indignant tones, as though it's the responsibility of the rest of the group to keep up an incessant stream of background noise. Or they say something like, "It's really quiet. I don't like it!" as though the brief silence is something to be endured rather than a moment of calm.

To be honest, I'm usually as relieved as the students when the spell is broken. A few nervous giggles and we're back to normality.

Recently however, I've been wondering if silence might actually be a useful pedagogical tool. It's not something that comes naturally to my style of teaching, but I think it's worth pondering.

So what are the benefits? Well, working in silence would give students a chance to become more engrossed in the task at hand rather than getting involved in off topic conversations around them. Teachers should never forget that school is a highly social experience for students and they can often feel pressurised to manage relationships with their peers at the same time as learning anything academic. This sort of social scenario in the classroom is the antithesis of the psychological concept of "flow" when you become completely absorbed in what you are doing and you don't notice anything else that's going on. I think I've experienced "flow" when playing the piano, writing certain essays and even when solving some particularly engaging maths problems. It's a great feeling and a very productive state of being. A normal classroom environment, full of distractions, doesn't seem conducive to inducing a state of "flow" in anyone.

Working in silence might also give students a chance to be more reflective about what they are doing. Rather than racing through their work, they would have more time to concentrate on the task at hand (because they would spend less time chatting to each other). This may particularly be the case for problem solving questions, where students have to approach something from several different angles and refer to various different facts or techniques in a single quesiton.

Hmmm. I'm definitely not suggesting that I will try to insist on silence for a whole lesson, or even the majority of a lesson. As a general rule, I always encourage students to talk to each other throughout lessons and I have no intention of dramatically changing this modus operandi. My classroom is arranged in groups, not rows, specifically to facilitate discussion, even though I know it means I have to work a bit harder to get them to focus on me when I'm teaching from the front. And I'm not at all averse to background noise. Whenever I work at home I tend to have music on, particularly when I'm writing. Currently, iTunes shuffle is soothing my ear drums with "All the young dudes" by Mott the Hoople, which I consider to be pretty good writing music.  Oooooo. It's just changed to "White Winter Hymnal" by the Fleet Foxes. Even better writing music.

But I think it might be worth trying out shorter periods of silence, maybe 5 minutes at a time, after students have had a chance to talk to each other about what they are doing. I like the idea of giving a class an extended question, asking them to discuss a strategy for answering it, then telling them that it's time to put their plan into practice, but they have to do so in silence so that they can concentrate better. I don't know how well it would work. It might just feel incredibly awkward. They might completely resist it, or they might embrace it. Whichever class I choose to try it with though, I know that I'd have to explain my reasoning first. I wouldn't want them to associate the period of silence with punishment or boredom. I'd have to explain that we were going to use silence as a way to help them concentrate and produce their best work. It would be a planned silence, a friendly silence, and most of all, a productive silence.


  1. My classroom dynamics seem very similar to yours. I purposefully introduce silence, though, when they are first working a new problem. I tell them not to say the answer out loud, and to work independently. Then, when most students seem done, I'll tell them to check their answer with their neighbor. I think it really helps.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Do you have a blog? I'll go and have a look when I've written my reply.

      It sounds like you do it the other way round to what I was musing on - silence first, then get them to talk about what they've done. I think I'll try it both ways round, because I still like the idea of getting them to talk about an extended problem first, then having a go at working through the steps they just talked about. (E.g. finding the area of a shape made of triangles, but you have to use trig or Pythag first to find the perpendicular height)