The value of silence in the classroom

“Hello? Can you all hear me?”

Chat box: [yes]


So begins another online teaching session. A check to know if I am not simply talking to my screen but that there are actually people out there, hopefully listening. There is the inevitable silence in which I wait for a reply. Most of the time, the students type their responses or give a ‘thumbs up’ emoji. If I am lucky, I will hear a lone voice calling out into the void. Then the silence stretches ahead again, and I begin the class.


Teaching in online settings has made even more apparent something that has been always been present in various classroom environments. Silence. Outside of teaching and learning, silence is a subject fraught with politics, human rights, and divisions across race, gender, sexuality, and class. On an individual level, silence can invoke extremes of emotions, from deep moments of peaceful bliss to gut-wrenching fear and dread. What it means to be silent is almost entirely dependent on the context we find ourselves in, and on whether the silence is chosen by ourselves or imposed by others. It is a delicate matter and thus perhaps no wonder that ‘breaking’ or ‘shattering’ a silence can be a powerful act.


But what about silence in the classroom? How do we make sense of it there? Both through my own experiences of online teaching and my research interests in social interaction (most recently in the sounds that we make that are on the edges of language), I have become increasingly curious about the status of silence in pedagogical arenas.


Tutor's laptop and notes in an empty university classroom
Is anyone out there?

In lectures we may demand silence when we’re talking but seek it when we want student feedback or engagement. In group work, a concern with encouraging ‘quiet’ students to talk is counterbalanced with frustrations about ‘dominating’ students who take up too much of discussion time. In short, it can seem as if there is either too much or not enough silence. As if the quantity of silence was the important thing.


Of course, it is the quality of the silence that matters. Not all silences are the same.


Awkward silences are a case in point. In one-to-one conversation, they occur when there is an unexpectedly or unintentionally long pause between two people talking. A break in the conversation that can feel uncomfortably long. I once had a colleague who could seemingly command awkward silences in order to get me to reveal whatever news I had of fellow colleagues. Determined not to betray the trust of good colleagues, I would sweat it out. These days, I am no longer afraid of awkward silences. Or at least, they no longer feel so awkward to me.


There is a difference, though, between an awkward silence in one-to-one conversation (whether in the classroom or chatting with friends) and that which occurs when teaching a group or large class. It is a familiar situation to many tutors: you pose a question to the students and wait for a response. Seconds tick by like minutes. Many students look down or avoid your eye gaze; the papers or computer in front of them being an ideal distraction. But is this necessarily an awkward or uncomfortable silence and does it seem the same to everyone in the room? What is happening in that silent space?


In a pedagogical context, silences are loaded with the expectation that learning should be taking place. When questions are asked, or theories and methods discussed, the silence is the pause before waiting for the answer. To find out if the student has learnt something or has understood what is going on. But a response is also a verbal display that you have understood what it is that you are expected to say in that moment, that a certain kind of response is required. This is similar to what is referred to as interactional competence, though how competence is demonstrated is a complex matter (e.g. see Waring, 2018). When a teacher asks a question, it is perhaps more obvious that the expected response is an answer to the question from a student. In a tutorial or seminar, the relevant next thing to say or do is not always so clear. What happens when a tutor or student makes a comment about the research paper that they have all been reading? What should be said next? Not only do students (and tutors) have to figure out what kind of action is appropriate––to make another comment? To agree with the previous comment? To nod sagely as if you know what they are talking about?––but also to say something that is pedagogically appropriate. That is, to not only say the right kind of thing but to say the right content-relevant and theoretically-consistent or methodologically-accurate kind of thing. No pressure, then.


Silence in group interaction, or in classroom situations in which more than one person could be expected to answer, are thus filled with expectations about filling the space with something that is both interactionally and pedagogically appropriate. Layered onto those expectations are then a potential uncertainty about who it is that should speak next and this is where we move into really interesting territory. Setting aside the myriad relationships and interpersonal dynamics that might exist between students, it is no straightforward thing to be able to know who is the appropriate next speaker. When is it your turn to talk? Even if it were, the length of silence that is acceptable before a response is given can vary. Sometimes this is treated as an individual’s capacity to tolerate silence––as in the example of my colleague commanding ‘awkward’ silences above––but it has also been discussed as a cultural issue.


That silence might be a cultural thing––that students from particular countries might be more reserved, less talkative, or more likely to want to hear the ’expert’ tutor speak––is an argument that is often rolled out in training sessions on how to encourage group participation. As Jin (2012) notes, however, it is oversimplistic to assume that Asian students are more likely to be quiet, and there are a whole range of ways in which silence can be interpreted and, in fact, used as a resource in the classroom. There may be differences between whether silence is treated, for example, as politeness or disagreement (e.g., Nakane, 2006) but these can present both within a culture as well as across cultures. Aside from the rather patronising and frankly inaccurate stereotypes that these perpetuate (this applies to some Nordic countries as well some in south-east Asia), they take the focus away from the opposite problem: that there are some people who talk so much that it is almost impossible to ’get a word in’.


The concern is that teaching practice and research into teaching has placed too much importance on ’quiet students’ as being problematic and something that needs to be changed. Silence has been attributed to individuals rather than understood as an interactional and contextual issue. Even students themselves might attribute silence or talkativeness as personal attributes and therefore requiring solutions aimed at the individual (Skinner et al, 2016). If we consider silence instead as a collective enterprise, a tool perhaps, then it might open up new possibilities for how we use the space in the classroom. This is what Alerby & Elidottir Alerby (2003) refer to as the ‘pedagogy of silence’; using silence as a tool for reflection without assuming that just because someone is silent they are necessarily reflecting or thinking. Likewise, neither need they be ‘disengaging’ or unmotivated in that silence. The different identities that we enact when we work as students––as being a ‘good’ group member, a motivated learner, a to-be professional psychologist, for instance––are constructed and reconstructed in the talk and gaps-between-the-talk during tutorial discussions (Jin ,2017). Silence need not be loaded with expectations that the talk following the silence will demonstrate learning. The learning, and management of that learning, is also going on in the silent space.



Symbols for audio and video on Zoom
When to talk? When to be seen?

When we teach and learn in online spaces, physically separated from each other, the silence has additional dimensions. There is not only the silence between the people in that virtual classroom, but also the activities and silences around each individual person in whatever place they are located. We don’t all have the luxury of a quiet home office with no disturbances. Many of us––students and tutors alike––need to manage both the interactional space within the online teaching activity and that which surrounds us in our physical setting. Our private and pedagogical lives are merged in ways that are not so obvious when, as tutors and students, we sit in a room together.


Silence online therefore has further complexity. When I ask my students if they have any questions, there are not only the usual interactional norms determining who speaks, when they speak, and what they say. I also need to take into account whatever else might they need to be dealing with in the silent space. As a tutor, I have some level of control over who talks and when, but with this comes a responsibility to attend to the rights of others to talk as and how they choose to do so. It is not always easy to get the balance right. I am quite comfortable with silence but still need to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the different values placed on silence in the classroom. With how to make use of silence in a way that is sensitive to the rights, needs, and expectations of others. In my brief exploration of the literature in this area, it is clear that there is much still to be learnt and to explore. Silence is not a known quantity or volume; it is not that we need more or less of it. It is that we need to pay more attention to the quality of silence and the ways in which it can be understood and valued within a pedagogical arena. At individual, interactional, group, and cultural levels, there are so many ways in which silence can be understood. Just about as many, in fact, as the ways in which languages and sounds can be understood.


References

Alerby, E., & Alerby, J. R. E. D. T. (2003). The sounds of silence: Some remarks on the value of silence in the process of reflection in relation to teaching and learning. Reflective practice, 4(1), 41-51.


Jin, J. (2012). Sounds of silence: Examining silence in problem-bas