Tuesday Teaching Question

I am not a quiet sort of person, but I was when I was a student. I went entire semesters without saying a word in classes. I preferred it, actually. And now, while teaching, I work hard to try to keep students from having the option to do the same. I’ve considered, from time to time, the wisdom of my approach and the reasons for it, but I’ve never seriously considered it as anything other than justified, at least not until I read this article in The Chronicle last week.

In this research, I was most surprised by what had been missing in my conversations with colleagues and had rarely emerged in all the reading I had done about student silence. It came down to this: Student silence isn’t necessarily a problem. Some students choose silence because it best fits their learning style, culture, or history. Much contemporary pedagogy lauds the calls for “student voice” as empowering. But students who are, for example, visual learners, or whose home cultures have taught them to value speaking and silence differently than the contemporary culture of American higher education does, often benefit from the inclusion of silence in the curriculum. Recognizing that silence can be an active, generative space, those students agree with a small group of theorists who argue that silence can invite meditation, contemplation, and engagement. In other words, silence—along with dialogue—fosters learning.

I know it’s true, and yet, again and again, I return to evaluating the quality of my class at least in part on the basis of the decibels generated (noisy equals good). When it comes to content, I am a “more is more” kind of teacher, packing it in because I get access to their minds for “only” 16 weeks. I always have a little fear (suspicion) that if I were to devote an hour of classtime to silent, meditative journaling or reflective consideration of a question or text, that my students would think, judgmentally–look at him: taking the day off, and yet, I know that at least one challenge that our students face with an intensity unknown by many other college students is that of finding the time to muse on a subject in quiet, in peace, without the expectation of turning out a product.

I don’t use silence enough in my classroom–I’m positive of that, and so, I ask you how you use it and why?

3 thoughts on “Tuesday Teaching Question

  1. This is such a great question!

    There are a couple of points here that I’d like to explore:

    1) Some students learn better when they have the time and space to think – I was the same way and, contrary to how it might seem to my colleagues, I still have to take time to think things through before I talk about them.

    I remember a really, really good teacher that my son had for both first and second grade whose class mantra was,

    “Everyone Needs Time to Think”.

    She followed that rule every day, and very young children learned to sit quietly to ponder life’s questions, or to take time when answering a question, or to allow a classmate to take the time to formulate an answer. She would wait; comfortable in the silence, and the rest of the class would wait too. It wasn’t about racing to the top! sigh. I really dislike that slogan, but that’s another post.

    2) Yet, as an instructor I think I too like nothing better than a loudly active class – makes me feel like I’m doing my job. However, I know that not all students are comfortable with this and those are the students who will most likely not complain about it, because they are the quiet ones. Loud, rambunctious interaction can be a difficult setting for some folks to think in. I’m actually like that as a learner! I’m slower, I think than many folks around me and I need to process the input and then process my response, and that takes time.

    3) I have to get my adult students comfortable with the idea of “wait time” which is an important element of teaching. As early childhood professionals, they need to set up an environment in which young children, in all their variability, are comfortable exploring. We have to get in the habit of not pressuring young children to produce an answer. It’s actually not easy to wait – too much pressure to produce!

    Last year, I took my “Math and Science for the Young Child” class on a field trip to the Osaka garden which is behind the Museum of Science and Industry. They were busy chatting and seemed happy and engaged, but I thought they were missing the point. So, I made a rule that for the next 5 minutes we could not talk or gesture to each other. The goal was to walk through the garden quietly. My underlying goal was to help my students become good observers which is a huge goal in our program. What happened surprised me a little bit. Several of the students became kind of teary after the experience was over and we were reflecting on it. They said they couldn’t remember a time when they were actually quiet for 5 minutes solid and that they noticed so much more around them. They said there is too much pressure all around them to pay attention to other things; phones, TV, other people. They said it was special to sit and take in all the sensory information from the nature around them. We all sat there for another minute or two thinking about this together.

    That experience has stayed with me and I try to keep it in mind when I’m planning. In fact, I keep a picture from that field trip on my desk as a reminder. In my planning I try to weave the very active pieces of a class session with various times for quiet reflection. Sometimes that means that I ask students to write a reflection. Sometimes this means that we all sit in silence for a moment – this usually happens after a video clip or a brief reading of sorts.

    Last week in class, a student (who happened to be in the science class above) reflected on how she was working on slowing down a little bit. She said she is quick to judge and talks really fast. She said she noticed that I talk slowly and that she wants to try that more often with her own kids and in her interactions with others. In her words, she said “it gives me more time to think about what I say, before I say it”.

    The pressures are huge. We have distractions, and we have our own internal pressure to actively engage our students. We have pressure from them to make it happen – tell me what I need to know for the test!

    Maybe we should think of ourselves as protectors of time and thought. Isn’t that cool?

    I will protect the quiet moments in my classes and even in meetings (can you imagine!) but it’s important because,

    “Everyone Needs Time to Think”.

    • Ah, what a glorious and thought provoking reply, Carrie.

      It reminds me of this article about philosophy where philosophers are described as those who take their time, rather than those who bill for it (and so try to maximize it). I am guilty, guilty, guilty of not doing enough of the former, I know, I know…and I am reminded of it every time I hear stories like yours. (Sigh–back at you!)

    • Love the responses here. Comtemplation, deep breathing, relaxation, and freedom to be silent – all part of the creative state. These are the first tenets in performing any task, whether writing, reading, speaking. All too often my students believe they have to protray characters in bigger than life circumstances when acting in scenes and plays. It’s not until they can trust their instincts to just be calm and still that their emotions ring true. They have entered that peaceful state in which they can truly use their creative energy.

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