The Sound of Silence: The Value of Quiet Contemplation in the Classroom

meditatinggirlTwo events occurred in my art history class recently that set me thinking about the role of “quietness” in learning. As I returned the latest writing assignment I was reminded that at least one of my solid A students rarely speaks up in class. She’s a good student – always on time, does well on exams and assignments, participates in group work, but rarely contributes to whole-class discussion. She is probably one of the 33% of students in any classroom who are natural introverts (Cain, 2012). My second encounter with quiet learning came later that evening as we started discussing the role propaganda played in the art of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. I asked an obvious question: “What is propaganda?” and waited quietly (there’s that word again!) for an answer that would launch the discussion. Nothing. Knowing that students often need at least 10 seconds of reflection before offering an answer I started silently counting … one mississippi … two mississippi … three mississippi … all the way to ten. Still nothing. What do you do when the silence becomes uncomfortable?

In his Faculty Focus article The Sound of Silence: The Value of Quiet Contemplation in the Classroom, Rocky Dailey suggests that silence is a powerful force, but faculty members “need to establish a classroom climate that takes the tension out of silence” and proposes two tactics for making classroom silence a positive experience:

  1. Preface a question with a qualifying parameter such as “Take a moment and consider …” or “Think about (how, what, why) for a moment.” You might even ask students to write down their thoughts before launching into a discussion. Letting students know that you don’t expect an immediate answer emphasizes that you expect and value their reflective comments. It also goes a long way toward reducing the pressure students might feel to respond quickly.
  2. Give students a preview of the discussion questions at the beginning of class. You might write the questions on the white board, on PowerPoint, or simply use an overhead projector. This “advance organizer” approach gives students a chance to consider their responses and answer the questions within the context of the course material being presented.

This second tactic is the one I used with my students. After 10 seconds of silence I posed three questions that would frame our discussion: “What is propaganda?” “Is art ever used for propagandist purposes?” “Should art be used for propagandist purposes?” I asked them to mull over the questions as we looked at several works of art. When we returned to the questions, about ten minutes later, we had a rich and thoughtful discussion; perhaps all the better for the time they spent reflecting rather than rushing to answer.

And what of the introverts in our classes … those who prefer to work completely alone and discover their best ideas in solitude? In her Faculty Focus article Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom, Nicki Monahan proposes a couple strategies that respect introverts’ needs while still involving them in engaging learning activities.

  1. Have students work with partners to accomplish a small task on the first day of class. This establishes classroom participation norms and creates a classroom climate that is a bit more comfortable for introverted students.
  2. Reconsider what “Participation” means in your class, especially if you award points for classroom participation. In addition to speaking up in class, could participation mean submitting questions on “question cards” or writing reflective journals? What would be the benefit to students if you shifted the emphasis just a bit from “participation” to “contribution?”

As the semester draws to a close, take a look at your students – one-third of them are introverts – and consider the following passage from Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

“…enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasm for a chemistry set or parrot taxonomies or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow” (pg. 265).

References

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Broadway Books.

Dailey, R. (2014, April 21). The sound of silence: The value of quiet contemplation in the classroom. Faculty Focus. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/sound-silence-value-quiet-contemplation-classroom/

Monahan, N. (2013, October 28). Keeping introverts in mind in your active learning classroom. Faculty Focus. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/keeping-introverts-in-mind-in-your-active-learning-classroom/

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