Sanctioning Silence in the Classroom

Brian Taylor

September 05, 2013

As a sometime musician, I have long been interested in the idea of silence—or, more accurately, the possibilities of silence. "The pauses between the notes," said the great Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel, "is where the artistry lies." As a teacher, I have found that the topic of silence is one about which academics are largely, well, quiet.

Silence in teaching has multiple meanings. It is both an opportunity for thought and a force that can bring the classroom to a grinding halt. It is a complex and interesting phenomenon that, properly managed, can enrich our classrooms.

We all know that moment of terror that strikes fear in the heart of the rookie instructor. You pose a question to students and in place of a response comes ... nothing. For the first-time teacher, silence is the worst kind of enemy, a beast to be slayed with an endless torrent of words and a cascade of questions. Silence is also the raw material that informs our visions (and nightmares) of pedagogical failure.

What we bring to our interpretations of silence in the classroom is a set of assumptions that reflect our own anxieties and experiences. All too often we misinterpret silence to mean that our class is boring or that we have asked something in a way that is unclear or incomprehensible. Either of those things may be true, but just as often silence denotes the process of thinking—genuinely mulling over something.

I find it helps to sanction the silence in my classroom. If I've asked a question that students seem to be taking a lot of time to ponder, I'll say: "Why don't we take a minute or two to jot down a few notes about this question, or look over this passage we are discussing?" Sanctioning the silence has the odd effect of reducing the tension so no one feels pressured to speak up to fill the gap. Students can then form a more authentic and considered response.

Acknowledging and working through the silence—especially early in the semester—is a strategy that helps to normalize its discomforting and sometimes stifling presence.

Sanctioning silence is also important in a class that features group presentations. The groups are mostly made up of inexperienced students who, in giving a talk, find the silence of their peers somewhat discomforting. In my experience, most student presenters will move on if they ask a question that is not answered within five to 10 seconds. You can see their terror; the looks exchanged among members of the group, the rephrasing of the question, the shuffling of feet, and the hurry to move on without spending the requisite amount of time to allow their audience to think through an idea. Sometimes moving on is necessary, as not all questions or comments are created equal. But it's a shame to see the presenters rush to keep going and disrupt the necessary thinking that strong presentation questions can inspire.

In order to remedy that, I often tell student presenters to expect that time "feels" differently when one is in front of the class, and that five or 10 seconds can feel a lot longer when numerous pairs of eyes are trained on you. I try to reassure students: It's not necessarily that they don't understand your question or don't want to respond, they just need a minute to think. I've asked groups to essentially do what I do: Tell their listeners that they can take a "second" or a "minute" to think about an idea.

On the other hand, some groups might ask if their peers have understood the question. If not, it can be rephrased. Students still get nervous in these situations, but at least they are better able to handle the silences that are an inevitable part of classroom conversations.

Students are silent for different reasons. Some students, of course, don't speak up in class because they haven't done the homework, or don't understand the materials. Other students may not contribute to class conversation because they have learning disabilities, or use English as a second or third language. Sometimes I find that creating a pause in class to let students think about a question or issue can be beneficial because it gives students additional time to formulate a meaningful response. This technique can help to get more students participating, especially when the class has a small number of students who dominate the discussions.

Still others are quiet because they are inclined toward silence; sanctioning silence in the classroom can relieve their anxiety. I was one of the latter group as an undergraduate. I would feel myself freezing up when a question was asked: My brain seemed to shrink for every second that passed.

It is not that quiet students are not engaged, but they hang back and wait for someone else to contribute. Some teachers alleviate that problem by calling randomly on students. Others emphasize the importance of class participation as part of the final grade. Personally, I make a distinction on my syllabus between attendance, which is required and expected, and participation, which is how one earns credit toward an actual grade. I ask students who are particularly shy (this conversation takes place outside the classroom) to consider writing down some of their thoughts on the day's course material before they come to class, and then refer to their notes during our discussions.

Instructors can also use silence in the classroom as a way of showing disapproval. Calling on a student who is unprepared or disruptive and allowing him to squirm under the silence that follows a specific question has been a trademark of some teachers. I'm not completely opposed to that method, but I think its effectiveness, like many uses of silence, needs to be well timed and carefully executed.

Left to linger too long, silence can lead to a climate of indecisiveness or even hostility. Quite a few years ago, a graduate-student colleague of mine once asked a question, and, completely frustrated and at wits' end with the continual silence of his students, sat in front of them for 45 minutes reading a book while waiting for an answer. That's an extreme case, but it serves as an example of how silence can be understood as a punishment or a way to prod, as well as a normative state the class finds itself falling into time and time again. For ways to deal with the chronically silent class, see Erin Templeton's essay "Silence Is Golden."

The overambitious student will seek to fill the silence. Teachers are ambiguous about that type; we appreciate the energy, but we are also silently frustrated when a student dominates classroom discussion day after day, someone who cannot seem to allow silence to take hold in the room long enough for another member of the class to speak.

If necessary I find it useful to have a brief conversation with such students after class, where I tell them that while their comments are valued and useful, I would also like to give others the opportunity to speak. Many students are not even aware of their tendency to hijack the conversation, and most are able to check themselves once you bring this tendency to their attention.

In his "Lecture on Nothing" from his book Silence, John Cage states that "What we require is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking." Silence and speech exist together in a symbiotic relationship. Silence is not merely the antithesis of speech but rather the necessary precondition for authentic, lively, and engaged speech. Silence could also be, when thought of in a more negative light, the condition for chatter, like in the case of the nervous teacher, or frustrated acquiescence, as in the experience of my graduate-student colleague.

It is my contention, however, that far from being the enemy of a productive classroom, silence—once we allow ourselves to hear and understand its many meanings—has the capacity to enrich and enliven the ideas we discuss in the classroom. By working with silence, we can come to find that it has a lot to say.

Charlie Wesley is a musician and a visiting assistant professor of English at Daemen College, in Amherst, N.Y.