Speak up, I'm doing some silent teaching

April 9, 2004

Lecturers, bite your tongue, relinquish control and get those students talking. It will do wonders for classroom dynamics, says Rosanna Breen

Teachers are in that awkward position of having to strike a balance between asserting control in the classroom and giving students the space and freedom for discovery. Most lecturers take an authoritative stance on the knowledge they are about to "deliver" when they start. They want to control how learning is structured by setting the pace of delivery and creating space for consolidation, usually by encouraging student participation.

Silence is an invaluable tool in getting classroom dynamics to work. I began to realise its power last autumn. In one of the first seminars, I assigned the students to groups and set them tasks. As they didn't know each other, I thought that this would help break down the barriers.

This worked well while they were in their groups, and most people chatted away. But getting students to volunteer opinions was more problematic. How much silence do you allow before picking on an individual? Some students are itching to say something, but you sense they are silenced by some underlying social rule.

We have all experienced that hesitation in a large group. After a long presentation at conferences there is always a pause when the chair asks for questions. Then someone bites the bullet. Such silence seems to be something to do with being a member of an audience. The transfer of control from presenter to audience does not seem natural, socially speaking. It takes people time to psych themselves up for the performer role.

As a teacher, it is much easier to fill in the gaps than to leave a silent space. Counsellors, however, say that the most valuable therapy happens when there has been a long silence. It is important not to lose the silences, but to transform them so that they are anticipated and therefore, perhaps, experienced in a more positive way.

To overcome the problem of the silenced student, I decided to set some ground rules. On my overhead transparencies, next to the details of the group task, I wrote in bold pen a reminder that each group should allocate one person to feed back on their discussion to the class. In my introduction to sessions, I also warned the students that they would be asked to contribute. I gave them a two-minute reminder, asking them to wrap up their discussions and to allocate one person to report back. These measures left no one in any doubt that a response was expected.

Well, it worked. I started to feel a lot more comfortable with silent teaching. The students also looked less embarrassed and seemed to use the silences to gather their thoughts. They began to reject the passive "audience" role. One student even came to the front to explain her thoughts more clearly to the group by drawing a diagram. A sense of trust and confidence in classroom activities developed over the course of the term.

Lectures with much bigger groups of students were very different from the seminar sessions, in which I had only 20 participants. The slot was an arduous two hours long. There was a lot of detail to get through and space for only two short group tasks.

In this lecture format, teachers and students are placed back into their "vocal-performer" versus "silenced-audience" roles. It was frustrating when a couple of students began to chatter during my lecture, but I rediscovered silence had another power. It took only an elongated pause on my part to get the pair to stop chatting.

One male student kept pulling faces, which made it hard for me to keep a straight face. This was one member of the audience who seemed to want the performer role all to himself. But it became apparent in subsequent small-group workshops, designed to teach the use of statistics in educational research, that he was champing at the bit to negotiate for his authority over the knowledge being taught in these classes.

Silence is most effective when students and teachers are in agreement about the ground rules underpinning a teaching scenario. In lectures, it is pretty clear that the lecturer talks and the students listen (or at least stay silent). It gets more complicated when teachers take on the challenge of helping students to learn by giving them opportunities to participate or time to consolidate individually.

Students need to know to expect silences and how to use them effectively.

For lecturers, talking means having control and it is risky to let go. But teaching is not all about talking. Coming to appreciate the benefits of silence is something that students and lecturers can learn together.

Rosanna Breen is researching work-based learning at the National Health Service University.

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