This is what I did. Try it, you can thank me later. :)
An excerpt from my essay on threshold concepts summarising the research around silence in the classroom:
Meyer and Land (2013) adopt the imagery of a portal to illustrate threshold concepts opening up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (p.3). This imagery aligns directly with Berryman’s (2006) description of silence. He writes, “Silence is present as an opening and as a waiting for knowledge” (Berryman, 1999, p.258). The journey from noise to silence in the classroom is profoundly transformative, troublesome, irreversible and integrated, particularly in the current climate. Berryman (1999), Haskins (2010), Kessler (2000), and Stanley (2011) all highlight the ‘noise, speed and unceasing interaction’ of modern culture resulting in a loss of silence. The introduction of silence into the classroom can therefore prove challenging as it can be disorientating and uncomfortable for students. Kessler (2000) reveals this troublesome element noting that, “Students are so underexposed to silence that some have come to be afraid of any experience of emptiness” (p.38). However, it is in this emptiness that students become transformed as their connection with ‘God, others, their deep self, or nature’ is heightened and their creative energies are ‘refreshed’ (Berryman, 1999). Furthermore, Kessler (2000) describes silence as a ‘gateway’ that leads to “…deep connection to the self, transcendence, creative expression or the search for meaning and purpose” (p.36).
Anthony of Egypt advocated for an authentic spiritual life; a “life lived in an intense awareness of the present moment” (Bright, 2008, p.172). Silence places students in that present moment allowing them to open the doorway inward (to self) and outward (to others) by processing the constant external stimulus that they are bombarded with. However, the challenge for teachers lies in the culture of the school. Haskins (2010) argues that, “Teachers who are persistently pressured to improve test scores will find it difficult to honour slowness, stillness, and silence” (p. 16). Teachers have a responsibility to make time for silence even if they feel they are crossing a dangerous boundary. Building moments of silence into the day to day running of a classroom is not impossible. Teachers could introduce the Examin to the daily classroom ritual, build opportunities for reflective journaling or artistic expression into lesson plans, allow students to ‘go solo’ mid-class, or provide reflective spaces for quiet meditation in the physical classroom (Bright, 2008; Haskins, 2010; Kessler, 2000; Mudge, 2007). These moments of silence should be seen as opportunities rather then wasted time. Mudge (2007) argues that priority should be place on ‘slow, meditative thinking’ in order to complement ‘fast, linear thinking’ and cultivate wisdom, for it is in these moments of silence that students are truly transformed (p.25).
Similarly to apophatic knowing it is difficult to formally measure and assess the extent to which students have crossed the threshold from noise to silence. However, informal assessment is not impossible. Teachers can use direct observation to monitor the effects of silence in their classroom. Students may demonstrate increased connectedness, joy, calm, wholeness, sense of self, wonder, defined purpose, confidence, creativity, attention and a shift towards the ‘second naiveté’ (Berryman, 1999; Bright, 2008; Haskins, 2010; Kessler, 2000; Miller, 2006; Mudge, 2007). There may also be a decrease in anti-social behaviour, depression, lethargy and anxiety amongst students. Student journaling or artwork can capture some of the transformational benefits of silence and the individual growth of students. However, due the immensely personal and liminal nature of silence the full extent of the transformation and irreversible effects it has had may prove too expansive to fully measure.
I decided to introduce a minute of silence to the beginning of each of my lessons with my challenging year 9 class. They were told that I was experimenting with an idea. If they were keen to embark on this journey with me we would trial it for 5 weeks and they could then decide whether or not we kept it as part of our classroom practice. They agreed and so we added a minute silence to the beginning of our lessons.
I told them,
“You may use this time to clear your mind, or to notice what you are feeling and thinking right now, or to digest what happened in your last class. You might use this quiet time to pray, list what you are grateful for or to set a goal for our time together… or, if you need to, to rest.”
Lesson 1 –
Excerpt from Teacher Reflection: To be honest I didn’t really expect what came next. They were silent, but I could honestly say I could see them thinking. One of my most academic students decided to take a large walk around the room (which is why I will now insist on stillness) as it was very distracting and she became a focal point for some. I also realised I didn’t encourage them to close their eyes if they wanted to. It was like they were performing. They had to do something. They didn’t know how to do nothing. The minute went very quickly, which was odd as I had timed a minute before the lesson and felt like it went forever. I wonder if I have to make it 2 minutes to give them a chance to really stop. I have also asked five students to reflect on the process and will use their reflections to help inform my practice as we move forward.
Student Reflections – I chose five students with differing needs, abilities and personalities across the classroom to reflect on the process.
Student 1 - Ms Gill, I’m not really sure what brought this on, but personally, I don’t think the pause was useful. For me at least. Drama is already a break from all the busy stuff we do (that’s not to say that Drama is a super-easy subject that I think of as a break, because it’s not!).
Student 2 - I think the idea of the exercise was good because it gave me time to just not have to worry about everyone else but instead do what I want to do not what anyone has to do. It gave me time to be contained in myself and do what I felt I needed to do. I think that it does need to be longer though because by the time I decided what I wanted to do it was already over. For me I am not a sentimental person and didn’t want to pray or anything so instead I had a staring competition with the timer.
Student 3 - When Mrs Gill told us we were going to have to do this I was a bit worried because I talk A LOT but when we did it, it wasn’t that bad. I actually enjoyed doing this exercise as I get quite stressed and then to come into drama and be able to just have some time to think. I think it needs to be longer then one minute.
Student 4 - This is a good way to start the lesson. I used this time to listen to my breathing and relax. However, I think there should be more time, maybe 5 minutes because 1 minute was to quick.
Student 5 - I liked that. I liked watching what people do when they’re given free range and a basic guideline. Some people take it as a challenge and they try to out do something out of the box that they overthink it a bit, some people flick a switch and shut themselves off to the world like that. I liked feeling other peoples presence, then taking some time for myself. Today I didn’t want to think, so I was just there, being.
Lesson 2 –
Excerpt from teacher reflection- So today was ok. I set it up a bit better and asked the kids not to over think it this time. I also asked them to stay where they were. Some of them told me they would prefer to sit or lie down. I let them do this as it is their experiment too. About 10 students sat or lay and the rest remained standing. The time seemed to go slowly today but I wonder if that was because they were more settled and hence so was I. I felt like we were stiller and silent. I am going to increase it to 2 minutes when we do it next though, as it does feel short. A teacher walked past our classroom as we were doing it and I am sure she was thinking what the hell is happening in there! Wonder what our third lesson will be like…
Student Reflections –
Student 1 - Ahhh… Once again, I don’t feel any different from this exercise. Talking to other students, however, I think it may be because I don’t need ‘time’ to ‘prepare’ for a lesson. I’m already calm and relaxed, and therefore, for me, the one minute is just a time-passing exercise
Student 2 - I don’t think it is long enough still, I didn’t have enough time to settle down. Today I decided to lie down and I thought about the air conditioner. I felt different and more calm, but I think it is only good for a small percentage of us. Those who are more creative then others and it’s a bit hard to think about what to think about, I am still unsure how I would like it to be. See how it goes.
Student 5 - I really needed that. It feels like this whole week has been non-stop and that I’ve just accumulated tension in my body for 7 days straight. Taking two minutes to stretch and reflect was amazing. My body felt loose and light afterwards and I was the most relaxed I had been all week. I felt like I had been weighed down by an anchor before, but now I am floating.
Other feedback on the lessons that followed:
“I love having the two minutes to reflect on things on my mind, then prepare for the lesson. I like to stretch, because it feels I am physically getting rid of the pressure in my body. I feel relaxed and ready afterwards.”
“I liked the two minutes of time because I was able to reflect and wind down about the day. I think it is important and helps me throw everything out the window. “
“I liked it today as we are getting our exams back and finding out some results and I took some time to reflect. I am very negative. To take time out of talking is good.”
“It makes me look forward to Drama even more (if that’s possible)”
Students were also asked what they did with the time:
- One minute was too short and two minutes was too long, One and a half minutes was just right.
- Some students preferred standing, others sitting, some lying down. The choice was theirs but it was decided they must stay in a circle and remain relatively still.
- 95% of students wanted to keep the ‘dramatic pause’ as we now term it!
- Student 1 (from the reflections above) now uses the time to set specific learning goals for our lesson or for the week. She is highly academic and needed an additional challenge.
- 80% of the students would like to see this practice used in their other classes.
I noticed, after just one week of the experiment, that my students were more settled, focused, calm and creative as a result of the silent time at the beginning of the lesson. Instead of taking close to ten minutes of my lesson to really settle them, it was taking me one and a half! The research was right - I witnessed increased connectedness, joy, calm, wholeness, sense of self, wonder, defined purpose, confidence, creativity, and attention. I also noticed a decrease in anti-social behaviour, depression, lethargy and anxiety amongst students. My anxious kids were less anxious, my extroverted kids were quieter, my ADHD kids more focused and my academic kids more determined.
There were also many added benefits I didn’t expect.
- Students who are late to class do not disturb the lesson… they notice it is silent time and just quietly join the circle.
- I have an opportunity to guide their thinking as they enter into a lesson. For example, we are currently studying playbuilding at the moment in year 9 and I have asked them to use part of their silent time to think about what they are going to contribute to the group in the lesson to follow.
- Furthermore, they are more comfortable being silent on stage and this has influenced their performance work greatly. We have spoken about the importance of silence for playwrights and practitioners in their work. For example, Pinter - “Pinter’s pauses and silences are often the climaxes of his plays, the still centres of the storm, the nuclei of tension around which the whole action is structured” (Esslin, in Ganz, p.56 1972). Additionally it has given my year 12’s a greater understanding of Lecoq who writes, “We begin, with silence, for the spoken word often forgets the roots from which it grew, and it is a good thing for students to begin by placing themselves in the position of primal naivety, a state of innocent curiosity. In any human relationship two major zones of silence emerge: before and after speech. Before, when no words have been spoken, one is in a state of modesty which allows words to be born out of silence; in this state strength comes from avoiding explanatory discourse. By taking these silent situations, and working on human nature, we can rediscover those moments when the words do not yet exist. The other kind of silence comes afterwards.” – Lecoq, The Moving Body
- In a crazy five period day, with rehearsals before school and lunch, with meetings and everything else that goes with teaching, I have a moment to catch my breath. Well actually a minute and a half every lesson! I force myself to stop with my students and take the time to process what happened the lesson before. I am much more present at the start of my lessons and more relaxed by the time we begin.
This is now my practice in everyone of my classes. You should make it yours too. I promise you will see the effects immediately and I am 99.9% sure it will increase educational outcomes. As Mudge (2007) argues priority should be placed on ‘slow, meditative thinking’ in order to complement ‘fast, linear thinking’ and cultivate wisdom, for it is in these moments of silence that students are truly transformed (p.25).
Berryman, J. W. (1999). Silence is stranger than it used to be: Teaching silence and the future of humankind. Religious Education, 94(3), 256-272.
Bright, P. (2008). Ascending to wisdom: A Christian pedagogy. In M. Ferrari and G. Potworowski. (Eds.). Teaching for wisdom. (pp. 163-176). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Haskins, C. (2010). Integrating silence practices inside the classroom. Encounter: Education for meaning and social justice, 23(3), 15-20.
Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping students find connection, compassion and character at school. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2013). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: An introduction. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, (pp. 3-18). London & New York: Routledge.
Miller, J. P. (2006). Timeless learning. In Educating for wisdom and compassion, creating conditions for timeless learning. (pp. 3-14). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Mudge, P. (2007). Meditative thinking and ‘dwelling upon’ – A perennial challenge for the religious educator. Journal of Religious Education, 55(2), p.20-27.
Mudge, P. (2009). Towards a reclaiming framework of ‘knowing’ in spirituality and education for the promotion of holistic learning and well-being - kataphatic and apophatic ways of knowing. In M. de Souza, L. Francis, J.O’Higgins-Norman, and D. Scott (Eds.). International handbook of education and spirituality, care and wellbeing. (Chapter 32, pp. 611-629). Two Volumes. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Academic Publishers.
Mudge, P. (2013). ‘Crossing frontiers without a map’ – the role of threshold concepts and problematic knowledge in religious education and spirituality. Waikato Journal of Education, 19(2), 51-67.