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Silence An Article about the relationship between learning and silence.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Professional Development, Educators

Tags: Silence Behaviour Contemplation Thinking Listening
Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, their candle began to flicker and then it went out.

The first monk said, "Oh, no! The candle is out."

The second monk said, "Aren't we not suppose to talk?"

The third monk said, "Why must you two break the silence?"

The fourth monk laughed and said, "Ha! I'm the only one who didn't speak."

Now, if you were a hypothetical fifth monk, you might walk deep into the forest, sing at the top of your voice, and argue that because no-one heard you it didn't matter whether you were silent or not.

So, does silence matter when it comes to learning?

Party Talk

In my training, as some of you know, I run an activity called Edit Alley. Many of you go on to use it successfully in class. But it's a noisy task and not suited to everyone. Two lines face each other and discuss a topic. Then one line shuffles up so everyone has a new partner with whom they repeat the discussion. Everyone is talking at once but very few people see this as a problem. Sure, some might need to focus in a little more but, by and large, everyone is able to hear and be heard.

Children manage it too. They naturally move a bit closer to their partner and they manage to cut out sound that's not important. After 3 or 4 conversations with different partners they generally return to their seats quieter than when they left. They are all talked out. It's the kind of skill they'll need at adult social events - receptions, cocktail parties for example - the ability to tune in and tune out.

Positive Feedback Loops

Let's face it; some classes are quieter than others. One year your children might be passive, biddable and meek; the next, feisty, boisterous and noisy. The feisty ones are often more fun and creative - so long as some wide boundaries are securely in place. And classes like these can suffer from positive audio feedback loops: one child is excited and speaks a bit louder than everyone else. Everyone else raises their voices just a touch to compensate. Excited child does the same, in order to be heard. As does everyone else. Until it's noisy enough for you, guardian of ambiance, to intervene (maybe with a pre-agreed Soundscape - see this month's Thinking Tool).

Classes like this can be a real challenge to get silent. They are built to talk and have a lot to say. You wouldn't want them next to you in the cinema but you would on stage. So it's worth asking what value silence has in learning.

Why Be Silent?

Is silence about the teacher or the children? Is it what the teacher wants or what the pupils need? In what ways can silence help or hinder learning?

Ever get told off at school for talking to yourself as you struggle with a difficult task - when you are supposed to be silent? Ever do the same to a pupil of yours? In 1954, educator Edgar Dale proposed that the most effective way to learn something was to talk about it as you learned it - a kind of running self-commentary. Edgar did his research in the days when all you needed was a good rationale and a few folks for whom it kind of worked. But since then the idea of pole-bridging has confirmed his work. When we describe our thoughts and our actions - as they happen - we are 'bridging the poles' across thought, language and action and strengthening< the neural connections between them.

On the other hand, silence is like a blank page; daunting but full of creative potential. It's an opportunity ;to plan, think, prepare and take stock before speaking or acting. Some children need silence to concentrate. Others need to talk to concentrate.

Building a Classroom Soundscape

The question moves on from 'Should there be silence in class?' to 'What kind of soundscape best supports our learning?' Silence is just one building block of the audio environment in which diverse learners and their teachers work. In order to design soundscapes that support as many learners as possible, involve everyone in their creation. Use the ideas in this month's Thinking Tool to help. You can begin by seeking everyone's opinions on the following:

  1. What is the best kind of soundscape for this classroom so that everyone learns more?
  2. What is your individual soundscape preference?
  3. What are your rights and responsibilities regarding the sounds that happen in this classroom?

Use appropriate Thinking Classroom techniques to co-negotiate a whole class decision on what you're aiming for and then create visual representations of the soundscapes needed for different kinds of learning.

As you continue to monitor and evolve the soundscape have one question at the back of your mind:

What difference does silence make to effective teaching and learning in this room?

Related Resources:

Silence Think Sheet

Soundscape Thinking

Soundscape Thinking PowerPoint


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