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…