Oppressive silence and productive silence

Children need silence. They need silence to think. They need to be able to subvocalise before they put words onto the page or before they share them in a discussion. They need their peers to be silent so they can hear and focus on the voice of the teacher – the voice of the expert in the room. They need silence because this replicates the conditions of the exam hall they will ultimately have to face. However, there are certainly two kinds of silence in educational settings, and they are not created equal.

“This teacher can create silence in the classroom, but it is a begrudging and enforced silence.”

Oppressive silence is created through fear. It is the silence of the tyrannical teacher. This teacher can create silence in the classroom, but it is a begrudging and enforced silence. While students have the conditions for focused work, these conditions have not been achieved in the right way. When silence is purely the result of a strongly enforced behaviour policy, this certainly creates the physical environment for learning, but there is something important missing. Forcing children to be silent doesn’t force them to think. And in any case, you don’t really want to force them to do anything. If students don’t want to think hard about your subject during that silent time, they won’t. If they are agreeable and able, they will churn out work that is good enough. If not, they will refuse to work. Worst of all, there will be some who simply cannot access the work. They will sit there, confront their own inadequacy and decide it is better not to try, because it hurts less. Oppressive silence is the kind of silence that is suddenly imposed, without warning or explanation. It’s the kind of silence that ensues when students don’t understand why it is in their best interest to be silent. It’s also the kind of silence that students haven’t been properly prepared for, so they can’t make the best of the opportunity it affords them. Oppressive silence is wasteful. It promotes resentment and frustration. Of course, there will be a few bright and independent minds who can always revel in silence, but your job is to ensure that everyone is learning, not just some. To an extent, the academic top end can get along without your intervention, despite the rhetoric about high ability just being a different kind of ‘learning need’. The rest of the room, however, will not be able to make use of silent time if they have not been properly prepared to do so.

“This golden silence might just be 10 minutes, or it might be a whole lesson.”

Productive silence is magical. It’s the best thing that can happen in a classroom. It’s essentially the endpoint of a good learning cycle, when students are able to independently and confidently put their learning into practice. They have been taught properly and supported as necessary, and the judicious teacher has recognised that they are ready to apply their new knowledge and skills in exam style conditions. This golden silence might just be 10 minutes, or it might be a whole lesson. It’s a time when the teacher doesn’t talk, because the students are drawing on their internal intellectual resources. They need to listen to their own internal voices, to test what they know. They are doing so willingly, because they know the teacher has given them the mental resources they need. They have watched the teacher apply the knowledge through live modelling, and they have been supported through this application process through joint modelling. The next logical step is an independent attempt, so the students don’t feel resentful or abandoned when the teacher says “over to you.” This method of teacher modelling, co-modelling and then student application is called “I do; we do; you do” at my school. It’s simple and brilliant.

And so, the magic happens. Every student in the class, expertly prepared, picks up his or her pen and begins calmly and confidently. Pens dance effortlessly across the page and the fruits of your efforts manifest in beautiful prose. The fledgling birds all take flight.

Except that’s not really what happens.

In reality, whilst most students move confidently into independent practice, one student sits there, staring at the page. Pen is on the desk. Posture is defeated. What do you do? This is silent time. Golden time. You are testing these students. Surely you need to let this run its course, even if this student can’t write a thing, he needs to know he is falling behind. He will learn from it and try harder in class from now on. It’s tough love.

Utter nonsense.

There is no wisdom in leaving a student to fail: even if the rest if the class have got it; even if this student contributed to his own failure through inattention or poor behaviour. Five minutes is enough time for said student to realise they can’t do it and they need help. Do not force them to remain in this negative mental space while they watch their peers succeed. You must intervene. Quietly, discreetly, you should move to support this student. Perhaps you write a sentence starter, perhaps you give a list of key words, maybe you remind them of an equation or the steps of a process. Make a mental note that this student isn’t in line with the rest of the class, but then provide the necessary support to allow them to work productively during the silent period. If you don’t do this, you are allowing your student to practise failure, and this is a deadly mistake.

So, productive silence is golden and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean you can put your feet up whilst the class works away. You must be active and attentive. Circulate the room. If everything is going well, smile and show that you value the students’ hard work and that you are pleased with their success. If a student needs help, allow them to struggle for a moment (may need this productive struggle) but intervene before they are demoralised. Get them back on track with a bespoke and responsive intervention. If you don’t, productive silence turns into oppressive silence for one of your students.


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