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Delta Kappan

The Fullness of Silence in the Classroom

Katherine Schultz
Phi Delta Kappan 2012 94: 80
DOI: 10.1177/003172171209400223

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Backtalk Katherine Schultz

The fullness of silence in the classroom

Teachers typically demand silence when they want students to pay attention or focus
on their own work. There are, however, many more meanings and uses of silence in the
classroom. Both teachers and students use it as a strategy for teaching and for learning.
Silence is a form of classroom Teachers also use silence in we give them alternative pathways
participation that is little under- teaching. Teachers often develop for expression? On the other hand,
stood. In addition to a focus on routines that incorporate silence, just as some students appear si-
talk, silence is a useful strategy such as providing more time to lent in classrooms, other students
teachers can use to pay atten- reflect or write before answering a are disengaged from learning and
tion to students’ silence, viewing question. Silence lets teachers cre- manifest this condition through
silence as a stance that students ate openings in their classrooms talk rather than silence. In other
consciously choose or a situation and curriculum to invite more words, neither talk nor silence is
that’s produced by classroom dy- students to take an active role in a proxy for participation or disen-
namics and structures. Silence has classroom discussions. Teachers gagement.
multiple meanings and can indi- often ask for silence as a form of If the student is silent because
cate, among other things, resis- control; alternatively, they worry she’s disengaged, then the teacher
tance, boredom, thoughtfulness, when there is too much silence and might examine his own teach-
or strategic timing. students aren’t responsive enough. ing and the classroom dynamics
Silence has Silence in the classroom has Understanding silence as a to look for ways to draw the stu-
multiple several paradoxical meanings. For form of participation lets teachers dent into classroom conversations
example, student silence might develop a broader and more in- through talk. If the student is en-
meanings and indicate intense engagement and clusive understanding of students’ gaged, yet silent, the teacher might
can indicate, deep thought or disengagement. multiple forms of engagement in simply work out a way for the
Silence can be productive or un- learning. An important tool for student to engage through other
productive. Silence can be a sign of reframing silence in a classroom modes than verbal participation,
other things, deep respect; conversely, it also can is listening carefully and observ- such as writing, meeting with the
resistance, be wielded as a sign of disrespect. ing conversations to identify pat- teacher to talk on an individual ba-
A silent stance is most often chosen terns of talk and silence. Teachers sis, talking regularly with a peer, or
boredom, by students. On the other hand, might pay attention to a particular expressing ideas in another modal-
thoughtfulness, students can be silenced by teach- moment (e.g., a time in the class- ity, such as visual arts.
ers, peers, and schools as institu- room where there was notable Student silence may be a prod-
or strategic tions. Two common, yet opposing, silence) or a pattern (certain times uct of timing. Paying attention to
timing. understandings of silence are as of the day or week when there is turn-taking norms in the class-
a form of resistance or assent. At more silence than talk or groups room, teachers can structure con-
times, silence connotes fear and an- of students who tend to be silent versations to let students predict
ger; other times, silence masks inex- at certain times). For instance, when it is their turn to speak. To
pressible joy or passion that may be classroom conversations about increase verbal participation for
inadmissible in a classroom. Silence difficult topics often lead to si- older students, teachers might ask
gives people the time and space to lence. In these discussions, teach- students to write briefly before
reflect on their learning. Silence ers might pay attention to who talking aloud. Teachers can ask
might protect a student from ridi- talks and who is silent. Teachers students of all ages to turn and
cule; it might also protect a person might also use silence to find talk with a partner before a whole
from the need to talk about topics openings for conversations. group discussion.
too difficult to verbalize. Teachers might ask about the si- Rather than assuming the pri-
lence of individual students. First, macy of talk over silence, consider
they might attend to when and un- silence a form of participation,
KATHERINE SCHULTZ (kschultz@ der what circumstance the student and learn how it works in your is dean of the School of Edu- is silent. As educators, we can con- classroom. Attention to silence
cation, Mills College, Oakland, Calif. She sider how often we give students alongside talk will lead to more
is the author of Rethinking Classroom opportunities to talk about and act equitable classrooms that hold the
Participation: Listening to Silent Voices on topics that feel vital or deeply possibility of honoring the contri-
(Teachers College Press, 2009). connected to their lives. How do butions of all students. K

80 Kappan October 2012

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