By Teachers, For Teachers
How often is it quiet in your classroom? Do you value quiet, or dread it? Is silence “awkward” for you or your students? Many teachers talk about how vivacious, engaging, and loud their classrooms appear. Some go so far as to decry how teachers shut out student collaboration and insight when they insist on having a quiet classroom.
Certainly collaboration, interaction, classroom management, and noise are central to the 21st-century education. I’m not advocating for an authoritarian model where students are silent and the teachers talk a lot. But maybe it’s time that we rethink how we look at silence and consider how it might be a valuable tool in the development of our students.
Sometimes we mistake silence as a sign of inactivity. The person silently staring at their coffee mug, the student silently looking at their desk, or the colleague silently taking in the morning air all seem like there’s not much going on. But our minds are constantly active, and beneath the surface we constantly process our thoughts and experiences.
Silence gives us a chance to think without interruption. A noisy environment, a person talking to us, or an interactive activity all might break the momentum of otherwise focused thinking. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” “Unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided concentration.”
So the first thing silence might afford our students is an increased ability to concentrate. Collaboration and discussion can go a long way in helping students process information, but at other times silent thinking can maximize each individual student’s ability toward mastering a particular skill. In my English class, I am responsible for teaching students to write well. I like to give them opportunity to share ideas and progress with one another, but at some point the thinking needs to take place in their heads as they struggle with figuring out how to turn their thoughts into words. In this case, a noisy classroom or prolonged collaboration ultimately hinders their ability to process their work.
Along with concentration, silence provides an environment where students gain comfort with their own thoughts. It’s interesting to note that today’s technological advances, while providing so many benefits to education, also provide unlimited distraction. Students get to the point where they may be uncomfortable with silence and automatically gravitate toward external stimulation. We want to plug music into our ears, we want to check the latest Tweet or iMessage, or turn to that person beside us and chatter for a second. These seem insignificant and harmless, but when we make a habit of interrupting our thinking and we endanger our ability to critically process information. Seneca, the famed Roman stoic philosopher, told us, “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Silence is also critical when it comes to “Wait time,” as well. Sometimes as teachers we feel like it’s our responsibility to break the silence and fill in the gap. Resist that urge! Wait Time is the period of time we’re willing to wait in silence while students are processing their thoughts. When you ask a question, don’t feel like you need to rephrase it again and again until you get an answer. Wait. Don’t feel like you need to call on the first hand in the air. Wait.
Also when students are having a discussion and it suddenly dies down, and all their eyes turn towards you silently pleading to “Break this awkward silence,” don’t give in. Wait. Silence is the sound of thinking, and it takes time – not your interruption – for students to organize their next thought.
Zoning out is kind of like a strange form of non-thinking, where our mind wanders with no tangible thought process taking place. Silence in your classroom can also be the sound of zoning out, which is usually something you might discourage.
Sometimes we can see zoning out in their expressions: Eyes glazed over, mouths agape, staring directionlessly without life. It looks like the lights are on but nobody may be home at the moment. We also refer to this as “Spacing out.” This is also silence, but the not the kind of silence we like as much. A 2010 study by Harvard concluding that a “Wandering mind is not a happy mind.” When students begin to zone out, they enter a realm of unproductive or unengaged thoughts. As teachers we should look for the telltale signs of our students zoning out and should politely redirect or re-engage them.
Daydreaming, on the other hand, can be a positive mental process. Zoning out is like dimming the lights and allows for very limited thought processes to occur. Daydreaming, though, is an engaging mental process where individuals exercise their mind with dreams, reflections, alternate scenarios, and a long list of other cognitive tasks. In addition to facilitating further concentration, silence in the classroom affords students an opportunity to daydream, which according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufmann “Produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful.”
One of the mantras I repeat to my students is, “I’m not here to tell you what to think. I’m here to teach you how to think.” Thinking is, by its very nature, an internal process. We can try to capture the results of that process through discussion, production, and activities. We can supplement the thinking process with collaboration and experiential learning. But unless we provide an authentic environment that encourages internalized thought processing, we might be sacrificing students’ critical thinking abilities.
I do not believe a classroom should be perpetually silent. But I consider silence as the sound of thinking, and I use silence as a tool on my teaching tool belt to encourage the healthy cognitive development of my students. As you’re thinking about your classroom, consider how often you allow for periods of silence where students have an individualized opportunity to focus and process their own internal thoughts.
After all, students’ thoughts are valuable, and we show students we respect their thinking when we facilitate the right environment for that thinking to happen.
What do you think about silence in your classroom? Is it a positive tool or an unwelcome adversary for you and your students? Tell us what you think in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.