Silence as a pedagogical tool

Using silence effectively in the university classroom has pedagogical benefits, asserts Helen Lees

August 22, 2013

Silence can lead to a sense of teaching-based group intimacy that, ultimately, can enhance the discovery of knowledge

A recent issue of Times Higher Education drew welcome attention to the value of silence as a pedagogical tool in higher education.

In “If silence is golden, we should invest in it during seminars” (8 August), Robert Zaretsky, professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, suggested that silent pausing in seminars, for instance, could be a good idea: in my view, he’s quite right. However, to say that “there seems to be little research into the pedagogical uses of silence” is incorrect: many researchers have been working on this for years. Research into the pedagogical uses of silence is wide-ranging and interdisciplinary.

My own work looks at theoretically supported, practical, positive uses of silence in classrooms. Some schools, such as the St James, Quaker or Krishnamurti schools, have a long history of using silence deliberately for pedagogical reasons. An informed fashion for silence is growing in other areas of life, too. Clinical trials – mostly looking at mindfulness and meditation – show that it has health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and lessening agitation, and courses in this practice are now prescribed on the NHS for those with recurrent depression.

There are many reasons why bringing silence into university classrooms might be a smart move.

Silence in classrooms offers the potential for more democratic forms of interaction. To use it, students must accept the need to remain silent for their own sake or for the sake of others. Over time, this can lead to a sense of teaching-based group intimacy that, ultimately, can enhance the discovery of knowledge.

Appreciating the pedagogical uses of silence can be particularly helpful when teaching students from Japan, China and Scandinavia, where silence plays a significant cultural role and is valued. The Finns, for example, are well known for not talking unless utterance is important.

Moreover, students seem to like silence in higher education teaching. Karl Patten investigated the experiences of silence among university students in the US before retiring from Bucknell University’s English department. In the 1997 book Silence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Adam Jaworski), Patten reports that his group liked considering photography, paintings and silent films in deliberate silence and especially appreciated zazen (a form of meditation practised in Zen Buddhism) sessions of silent sitting during a course dedicated to discovering silence.

I have conducted my own experiments. In a recent education studies seminar group I led, I introduced regular pausing for three minutes, twice in each two-hour session, using an egg timer (handheld or online). In the midst of all the new information they were receiving and assimilating, these substantial, expected pauses allowed the students a mental, physical space to breathe. It also handed complete control to them for a few minutes – this was their time and they could choose how to use it, as long as the agreement to be silent was respected. Some looked out the window and some wrote notes, while others closed their eyes, perhaps to meditate briefly.

Although in a two-hour session we “lost” six minutes to silence, the students repeatedly requested these silent pauses and in the end-of-term student-staff consultative committee, the course representative stressed that students had found it beneficial to the learning process. I believe it was one factor that helped to boost student satisfaction in my seminars. And, of course, it cost nothing to implement.

However, we can’t take it for granted that silence will come easily or that it is always positive – it cannot be positive if it is coerced. Instead, we need to understand how to “work” silence.

Research suggests that silences need to be regular, rather than ad hoc, to have a positive impact. To use silence effectively, it is necessary to develop an art for it, a technology for its implementation. Ironically, if we are to achieve this, we will need to talk about silence rather a lot.

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