Silence is golden (sometimes)
If we need any more proof that ideology should play no part in directing pedagogy, it is in the matter of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning. What even is ‘passive’ learning anyway? If it means doing nothing, then it’s not learning. If it means not speaking or moving around, then it’s not passive. Listening is active participation, just not involving movement or sound. We do this every time we read a book, listen to the radio, or watch TV.
So let’s consign the idea of ‘passive learning’ to the dustbin.
And while we’re at it, let’s do the same to the notion that silent learning is just for traditionalists.
Few things get up my nose more than the idea that primary school kids can’t work in silence and don’t like doing it when they do. The truth is, they can, they do, and, more to the point, they should.
Does this mean they should do it all the time? Of course not. That would be equally absurd. What they should do is a stint every day for an amount of time appropriate to their age. As a rule of thumb, I would say 5 minutes a day in both reading and writing, starting in Year R, and building up, 5 minutes extra every year, until Yr 4. So in upper Key Stage 2 they’d be doing 30 minutes silent reading and writing every day. (To be honest 30 minutes silent writing is a bare minimum in KS2).
The reasons for this are three-fold. First, concentrating on one thing is hard, especially if that thing is difficult. It takes effort and stamina to focus the mind and keep it focused. We can’t expect children to do it well without giving them the time and support they need to practice. So, the sooner they start and the more they do it, the better.
Second, both reading and writing require sustained practice over time in a place with minimum distractions. Even for experienced writers, writing in a noisy room with lots of distractions is hard. Imagine how much harder it is for someone who finds writing really difficult? For this reason the minimum amount of distractions is crucial.
Third, getting started at writing and reading takes time and can’t be rushed. Often it takes at least ten minutes to get started and another ten minutes to really get going. That means even in a session of thirty minutes there is only ten minutes optimum writing time. For this reason students often complain when it is time to stop and beg for more.
Try it yourself, try writing something you would be happy for someone else to read and evaluate, when you only have thirty minutes writing time. Now try to imagine doing that in a crowded classroom full of noise and distractions. It wouldn’t be easy.
Regular and extended periods of silent reading and writing are, therefore, vital for young children’s development. And we should not be afraid of organising silent sessions because of ideological arguments about ‘passive’ learning.
I could make the same argument for maths and other subjects when the learning requires it.
So far, so traditionalist.
Where I differ from our more authoritarian colleagues is on the matter of enforcement. For me, if you can’t explain to your students why a particular strategy for learning is the best one, then either you need to practice explaining things better or the strategy you’re recommending is not all it’s cracked up to be.
You might complain you don’t have the time or inclination to explain your thinking to your students and they should just get on with it. I think this is a mistake. It might save time in the short-term, but in the long run it carries with it the germs of its own failure.
By inclination, human beings tend to equate activities they are made to do, with things that are unpleasant, tiresome, and best avoided. Therefore, you can probably use your authority to force children to work silently (punishments and rewards work pretty well for this approach), but the lesson they are really learning is not the one you want them to.
For me, a better strategy, although more difficult and ambitious, is to spend time explaining why working in silence is the best approach. I’ve found children don’t need too much convincing; the argument is pretty obviously true. However, agreeing in principle is not the same as actually doing it, and some students really struggle at the beginning.
When this happens I find sympathy, reasoning, and enforcement is what’s needed. By enforcement I don’t mean shouting, sending people out of the room, or doling out stupid stickers, I mean explaining what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. For example, “Please remember this is a silent writing time, people are trying to concentrate and don’t want to be distracted. I know it can be hard, but we agreed no talking. If you need some help then ask, otherwise please get on with your work.”
Sometimes, of course, reasoning is not enough: “You seem to be having trouble concentrating today, Josh. Come and sit over here next to me, you might find it easier.”
Or, on a really bad day: “People! I’m going to ask you all to stop. Please put down your pencils. I’m sorry to stop those of you who are working and not talking, but this is not what we agreed. Remember we discussed this? What we’re after is total silence so that everyone can concentrate without being distracted. I don’t want to nag, but that’s what we agreed and I’ll get really grumpy if we don’t do it. Now, let’s have another go.”
My experience is this approach works in the long run. Of course it takes time and there are set backs, especially after the holidays, but gradually and incrementally children develop the required stamina and focus to make it work.
In my last class of Year 2’s I had a significant number of children, mostly boys, who didn’t like writing and found it difficult to work silently for even a few minutes. We had a discussion, where I explained the strategy of silent writing and why I thought it would work, we then drew up an action plan, agreeing to work in silence for twenty minutes a day in reading and writing, and included a list of consequences – a warning, followed by a second warning, then moving seats. With this in place we got started.
I’ll be honest, it was difficult to begin with and at times I had to get really quite ‘grumpy’. But over three or four weeks, practicing every day, and discussing our progress, things got gradually better. Until, by the end of the second month, the sessions of silent reading and writing had extended to twenty-five minutes.
For many of the children, including some of the malcontents, these quiet sessions became some of their favourite sessions of the day, as they testified at the leavers’ assembly. One of the things they liked most was rearranging the tables into lines, to minimise interference and distraction. By the summer term my role as enforcer had almost disappeared as the children began to police the sessions themselves, politely reminding miscreants of their responsibilities.
Of course, silent reading and writing is only one strategy I use. It’s the one I find works best for the kind of learning happening in those sessions. But it is not the only teaching strategy I have. At other times I use inquiry or discovery learning. Drama plays a significant role in my teaching, as well as art, history and the other curriculum subjects. I use an approach that largely integrates the curriculum, making connections and forging links. So that when the children write they write about subjects we have been studying across the curriculum.
As a teacher I resist being told what approaches I can and should use. I trust my professional judgement. Young children working in silence for extended periods of time might be construed as passive or traditionalist, I don’t care. Neither do I care if using drama or discovery is labelled as progressive. These terms are labels, nothing more. Different kinds of learning require different kinds of strategies, dialogue, experimentation, and play can be useful and effective, as can silent work and transmission teaching. They all have their place. It is our professional responsibility to find it.