How might you integrate silence in your classroom?
What value can there be in silence in the classroom? If silence is traditionally seen as a place devoid of sound, generally thought of as mentally bereft, cold, and empty, what significance could there possibly be? This expanse of nothing–or to our students, an empty page or a quiet classroom–might create degrees of anxiety until we find a way to relate to them.
I began experimenting with silence in the classroom while working on my masters in education. It became such a successful piece of my instruction, I ended up writing my thesis on the use of silence as an instructional tool.
Silence as Punishment
When we use the word “silence” as a transitive verb, it’s negative. We speak of “silencing” someone or something as an effective form of punishment. Teachers demand silence as a way to settle boisterous classes. The U.S. prison system imposes solitary confinement as a punishment for egregious behavior. Parents invoke the dreaded “time out” with uncooperative children. Our own Constitution has been amended to include a legal entitlement to silence in order to protect us from harming ourselves with our own words. Silence, and the emptiness it creates, clearly can be threatening.
Many of us as teachers have been conditioned to think that silence equals apathy or lack of understanding, so we dole out constant stimulation that essentially directs the student by telling them what to do and how to think. Many of us were never taught and never rewarded for considering the whole student within the educational environment. The whole student includes a unified mind, body and spirit, and teaching this student requires going well beyond mere cognitive aspects. It requires an experiential understanding that recognizes, appreciates and employs the union of student, teacher and present moment.
Silence as Inspiration
Silence can become a medium for learning, connecting students to the subject matter and themselves in a more meaningful way. A mind properly emptied of non-essential stimulation becomes open to the possibility of deeper learning, sharper concentration, enhanced creativity, and communal engagement. Silence, which has traditionally been considered wasted class time, should be viewed as an opportunity to foster reflectiveness, solidify learning, and enhance memory.
When students feel safe and recognize openings in the learning process where thoughts will not be interrupted, they are more likely to take academic risks. Silence gives students the opportunity to step into a place of calmness, allowing them to access their inner faculties, voice, and beliefs. Silence creates gaps in habitual thinking that benefit all, including the instructor. Silence slows down the entire process. This syncing effect brings the entire class to the same starting point. When we slow down, we begin to authentically see, feel, and connect.
Tips for Integrating Silence
Too often the minds that enter our classrooms are distracted, fragmented, and hectic. If thorough, engaged instruction is to take place, both the teachers and students must learn not only to recognize discursiveness of the mind, but also to competently deal with its distractions. Even in its simplest form silence can have dramatic effects.
This practice with the daily curriculum takes a concerted effort. School intercoms, ringing bells, adjoining classrooms, and hallway movement—all of these thwart the beneficial effects of silence. How can we expect a student to contemplate new information and experiences in order to discover what they think when other voices or sounds continually fill the space? That’s our Essential Question as we strive to create a new space. Here are some thoughts about how to make space for meaningful silence in the classroom.
- Prepare students for the change in habits and routines. Let students know that you will be integrating a moment of relaxation (remembering that the actual word “silence” can initially sound punitive to students) and challenging not just them but yourself to find stillness. Talk about the benefits of silence, quiet, and stillness. If you are also practicing new habits of stillness outside the classroom, you can honestly share your struggles with this, the temptations of devices and noises and efforts to overcome those interruptions, and the rewards you’re seeing from a new practice.
- Creating space not only applies to mental landscapes but also physical environments.
- By leaving open, uncluttered areas on walls, shelves, and tabletops, a non-constrictive atmosphere greets students as they enter.
- Arranging desks in a semi-circular pattern has the effect of opening a common area, enriching and fostering the community environment. This arrangement establishes and fosters non-verbal contact. As much, if not more, communication happens at the non-verbal level than at the verbal level and face-to-face contact rather than looking at the backs of each other’s heads allows students to read facial expressions, notice gestures, and generally practice more attentive listening.
- A teacher who utilizes pauses in the “performance of teaching” is creating dramatic space—contrast or emphasis on the subject matter that can’t help but draw attention.
- Beginning a class period with one minute of quiet time, merely for relaxation, allows students’ bodies, minds, and spirits to rest in a shared moment. Once synchronized, they may be more able to fully apply themselves to the material at hand.
- This can be as simple as a bell tone on a cell phone or a chime. Ring it once at the beginning of class and model the behavior you wish to see–a relaxed and still body, unfocused eyes, slow, deep breathing. As students become more familiar with the process, the length of time can be extended from 20 seconds to several minutes. As much as possible, distractions should be ignored during this time. Ring the chime again to signal the end of the restful time and the beginning of engaged thinking. These moments can be taken at any point you feel students need to recenter and refocus.
While it will likely feel a bit awkward the first few times you attempt the technique, I encourage you to keep at it. Students will begin to find their place–themselves–in those moments. If you are really curious about their individual journeys, ask them to journal about each experience.
Silence can have profound implications in the teaching environment. I encourage every teacher to try building brief moments of silence into his or her daily routine. See what blossoms!