The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states there is a knack to flying: that of throwing yourself to the ground and missing. It states that:
One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.
I feel this way about listening. Sometimes, if I am keenly interested in something I listen keenly. I focus all of my energies in carefully processing the words that are spoken, and the intent behind them. Then I get distracted. I think about something related to the thing that was spoken, and then something related to that. In no time at all I so far removed from the thing that was originally being said that not even Kevin Bacon could help me find my way back. This might not be a bad thing.
Of course it also could be a bad thing. It might mean that I am shallow, or rude or that I have a poor attention span (or all of the above). However, it could be that instead of providing dedicated moments of contemplative silence we do the opposite. We talk, but make allowances for people to drift off into their own reveries. Personally, I rather like that option. It may not feel good as a teacher to think that your students are elsewhere but it might be the best way for students to take the germ of an idea, sift and sort it, and then take it somewhere new.
I’m certainly not arguing that listening it bad, or that teaching should be talking. However, I wonder if we might inspire more and better thoughts by letting the words roll.
What does a silence mean?
It can mean that there is nothing to say. Or it can mean that there is nothing that you want to say. Or it can mean that not saying something is a good thing, a positive decision to make.
There is a phenomenon called decision fatigue, which means that our ability to make decisions diminishes each time we make one. It is something that parents of young children are acutely aware of. After having answered a thousand questions about whether they can have this, why they shouldn’t swallow that it is easy to become so befuddled so that one can’t tell right from wrong, or up from down. Barack Obama is rumoured to have a limited wardrobe for this reason; you don’t want the leader of the free(ish) world bungling the peace summit because he mentally exhausted himself choosing a tie that morning.
For this ‘mental bandwidth’ issue, it is easy to argue for silence as a welcome punctuation point amidst the chatter and chunter of modern life. Perhaps then, we should have the confidence to introduce it into the classroom. However, would students accept it if you announced that – for their own good – teaching time is going to be taken up with some high quality quietness? Students might – reasonably – think that that was something that they could do at home, and not pay for the privilege.
Also, is it always the case that a thought improves with age? In my experience, the act of speaking an opinion aloud is often enough to reveal its ridiculousness, and that’s before other people have had the opportunity to shoot it down in flames. If I spend more time alone with my thoughts will they ferment or fester?
Perhaps I am looking at this from the wrong angle. After all, it may be the best time to be alone in my thoughts is when something else is speaking. That, however, is a tale for another day.
In the ‘Preparing to Teach’ workshops I run I sometimes ask the students to sit in silence for twenty seconds. I think it a good demonstration of the different ways in which time is experienced. After all, twenty seconds is not long. Ten ticks and ten tocks. It is barely enough time to put your egg into the saucepan, let only boil it. And yet, sometimes it is enough to make people look extremely uncomfortable.
I was reminded of this by a recent pair of articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement that appealed for silence in the seminar and extolled the virtues of silence as a pedagogical tool. Both argued that silence can be used as a valuable pause in which to allow students and teachers to reflect without interruption on what has been said. I can see the sense on this. However, in practice I suspect that silences are often viewed with something akin to dread in classrooms; as evidence that something is going wrong. A conversation has broken down and somebody needs to fix it. This needs not be the case.
I would guess that teachers feel silence most keenly when they have asked a question. It can feel like a rejection when nobody says anything. Perhaps the question was phrased awkwardly, you think. Perhaps no one was listening. Perhaps everybody hates me. From the other perspective it can be just as bad. the question that follows a lecture can be seen as an opportunity to humiliate yourself in front of hundreds of your peers; to expose your ignorance to the cold, hard light of day.
So the question for September is this: how should silence be used in the classroom? Is less more? Is silence truly golden? Should we as teachers know when to start, and when to…
So, is there evidence to suggest that learning styles inventories are both valid (cogent) and reliable (can be repeated over time)? A 2004 study of 13 of the most prevalent models of learning styles concluded that ‘the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles are all highly questionable’ and that ‘none of the most popular learning style instruments have been adequately validated through independent research’.
A number of common learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyspraxia are diagnosed using similar methods. People are asked a number of questions that probe how they think, and how they respond to problems, and their answers are plotted on a spectrum that defines whether they have that condition and, if so, at what level of severity. The difference is not the method per se, but the amount of rigour involved in devising, analysing and presenting those diagnostic questions. After all, anybody can come up with a learning inventory. To prove it, I’ve done one:
- Question 1) I think better when the sun is in the east? (Answer yes/no)
- Question 2) I typically wake up before 9am? (yes/no)
- Question 3) I find it difficult to concentrate in the dark (yes/no)
- Question 4) I like to complete complicated tasks before lunch (yes/no)
If you mostly answered ‘yes’ you are a morningtonian. You are a ‘morning person’ who finds it easiest to cognitively function in the hours immediately following awakening. If you mostly answered ‘no’ you are afternoonarian. You often wake up late, and are most productive either in the afternoon or the evening. You will often need several doses of caffeinated drinks to stimulate your problem-solving abilities.
So, now that you have your diagnosis, what do you do? Does the label help?
I think that the learning disabilities example demonstrates that it can. If we are confident that a condition exists, and the diagnosis of that condition is accurate then I think that we should feel a duty as teachers to ensure that ‘reasonable adjustments’ are made to ensure that no one is needlessly disadvantaged.
However, I would agree with Frank Coffield that any method needs to be subjected to external and independent scrutiny. Anybody can claim to be a ‘activist’, an ‘assimilator’ or a ‘morningtonion’. Teachers should not be expected to warp and wend their teaching to fit every preference. As such, the learning style inventories become more useful to the learner as one means of reflecting on how their brain might work at a particularly point in time. As long as that diagnosis is regarding with a hefty pinch of salt I see no harm in that.