Silence that Transforms Us

“When he heard music, he no longer listened to the notes, but the silences between.  When he read a book, he gave himself over to the commas and semicolons, to the space after the period before the capital letter of the next sentence.  He discovered the places in the room where silence gathered; the folds of curtain drapes, the deep bowls of family silver.  When people spoke to him, he heard less and less of what they said and and more and more of what they were not.”

– Nicole Krauss, The History of Love 

This post is really about listening, but I think the ability to really listen comes solely from silent spaces: those without and within.  In Julian Treasure’s short and informative TEDTalk below, he gives advice on becoming a better listener.  One of the things he suggests is three to four minutes of silence a day to retrain your ears.

Personally, I think humans crave, and need, much more silence than this.  Three to four minutes of “outer quiet” is a gift; however, cultivating the “inner silence” really needed to be present and “hear” students (and colleagues, partners, children etc.) is a lifelong practice, and the more quiet one experiences, the more comfortable it becomes.  The value of such a “mindfulness practice” in teaching and learning (and in life) are quantifiable and significant (see noted post).

In the classroom, giving sufficient wait time, asking thoughtful questions, and facilitating a truly student-centered classroom all depend upon the teacher’s ability to be comfortable with silence and listen to students.  Each of these are high-yield practices.

For example, according to a literature review from the University of Akron, “Increasing the wait time from three to seven seconds results in an increase in:

1) the length of student responses

2) the number of unsolicited responses

3) the frequency of student questions

4) the number of responses from less capable children

5) student-student interactions

6) the incidence of speculative responses

In addition to pausing after asking questions, research shows that many of these same benefits result when teachers pause after the student’s response to a question, and when teachers do not affirm answers immediately.”

One way I use wait time is to ask students to do a “quick write” when they struggle with a question.  This is affirmed in article from The Higher Education Chronicle written by Charlie Wesley for The Ohio State University.  Wesley suggests, “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.”

I use this strategy often.  When I ask a challenging question to the class, telling students to jot down a word, phrase, or idea before we share out has a lot of benefits.  I can use the time students are writing to review their responses, check for understanding, and encourage students to share out later.  As an added benefit, after students have had a moment to ponder, I feel much more comfortable as a visiting teacher calling on a number of students at random.

To loop back to listening, the value of silence in the classroom, for discussion purposes, will also depend upon the teacher’s ability to listen to what students have to say afterward and reflect upon it.  Karen Schultz, who was a keynote speaker for the NWP conference and wrote a book on rethinking silence in the classroom states, “When I listen to teach, I am changed by what I hear.”

To be comfortable with silences between us, to cultivate the silence within us, and finally, when the silence ends, to let the words we hear transform us, these are practices that are worth a lifetime of study.

Here are some additional resources about the value (and rarity) of silence in modern day:

  • The Last Quiet Places: Silence and the Presence of Everything,” On Being podcast with Krista Tippett interviewing Gordon Hempton
    • This podcast interviews Hempton, an activist for preserving natural silence in the environment; he describes the value of listening and being silent in environmental landscapes on a personal and global level
  • Selected Reading from One Square Inch of Silence,” from the On Being website
    • A selection from Gordon Hempton’s book, One Square Inch of Silence, where he states, “‘The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague’…  Today silence has become an endangered species.”
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