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When Students Are Silent

Silence is a powerful tool, one that’s most often used in schools for compliance.  Even young students rapidly learn the silence rules:  be silent while the teacher or others talk, be silent during announcements, be silent during a test, be silent in the halls, be silent when working at your seat.  Some schools even try to regulate noise at lunch, one of the few times kids have to freely converse.  Some teachers actually believe that the only time kids are learning is when they’re silent.

But good teachers also know how to use silence as an opportunity for students to marshal their thoughts.  Wait time, for example, encourages better student participation when kids don’t feel pressured to Discouraged-boy-at-deskperform.  We know that when the classroom ambience is all about rapid questions and answers, only the most assertive students participate and only those who excel at recalling literal information perform well.  We know it’s better to ask the question first, and then choose a student to answer rather than the other way around so that everyone engages in thought.  And we know to discourage kids from raising their hands so that we can call on anyone and give him a few minutes to think about his answer or pass. 

We know how adults in schools use silence.  But what about students?  What does their silence mean?

Often teachers interpret student initiated silence as ignorance or hostility.  But University of Pennsylvania professor Katherine Schultz has studied silence in the classroom and believes that teachers who listen carefully to silence can actually encourage student engagement. Schultz says that “silence holds multiple meanings for individuals within and across racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.”  She adds, however, that “in schools, silence is often assigned a limited number of meanings.”  In fact, she says, student silence can mean a number of things, and teachers must listen carefully.  As a result of her research, Schultz suggests that “teachers redefine participation in classrooms to include silence.”

Some student silence, she says, is a result of cultural identity.  Other kinds of silence can be protective, so that the student doesn’t expose him/herself to unwanted attention or to hide perceived shortcomings in language or thought.  Other forms of silence may be a reaction to perceived lack of power or independence.  Still other silences may be a result of the student’s inability to connect to the classroom environment. 

Schultz says that teachers need to train themselves to look for reasons that students may choose to remain silent and then to modify their approach accordingly.  Participation, for example, doesn’t always have to be oral, nor does it have to be in front of a group.  Taking time to know your students rather than simply judging them is a big step towards engaging students in the classroom. 

We live in a constant cacophony in school and outside of school.  In addition, time is a precious commodity in schools, and teachers often feel pressured to set a pace that allows them  to “cover” the information that may appear on looming state tests.  Listening is getting to be a lost art, and silence a rare creative tool.  Schultz gives us something to think about if we can find a moment of silence to read her white paper (link above) and consider her ideas.




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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.