People have been talking about silence and dialogue lately.

Is silence golden?

Do talking and collaboration improve learning?

Does it matter whether or not pupils talk?

What type of talk is good talk?

This is probably one of those edu-topics that gets people all partisan, so I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and see what happens.

I don’t like talking in lessons…generally.  Perhaps it’s fairer to say I only like certain types of talking.  Time is limited, the curriculum is full, and talking can be so very problematic so, like everything in my classroom, I want to get it right.  Here are my issues with talking:

1. Behaviour

If I allow my pupils to talk while they are working there will always be someone who talks about something other than the work.  This is to be expected: unless I have a class full of children who are always completely focussed on the task at hand and have nothing else taking their attention, they will wander off-task at some point.  The problem here is that, and we’ve all seen it, some children are more inclined to go off-task than others.  By allowing my pupils to talk I am, effectively, allowing those who are prone to laziness or more inclined to off-task behaviour to do this.  They will subsequently get in trouble for such behaviour and I will have allowed this to happen.  That’s not very fair.

On the contrary, if I expect silence it is much harder for one of these children to get in trouble – there is simply less opportunity for them to do so.  Their minds may still wander, but at least the wandering only affects them and not their peers.

Silence is unambiguous, it is not open to interpretation, and this creates a clarity of expectations for my pupils.  If someone chooses to break the silence it is easy to enforce consequences.  This is much harder in a room where everyone is talking.  How much easier would behaviour management be for a new (and experienced) teacher if a school had a culture that made silence in classrooms a priority?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure that many children can work well in pairs or in groups, but I am a realist.  This is hard to do: hard for them, they are human after all, and hard for us to create and enforce such a culture.  I will refer to the necessity to create such a culture for collaboration to be effective further down.

2. Concentration and learning

I am quite convinced that a noisy classroom makes it harder for children to learn.  Even if we ignore the potential for them to go off-task, even if all the talking is on-task, academic talk, the simple presence of talk provides a distraction that reduces our pupils’ chance to take things in and to think carefully about their work.  Right now I am writing this post on the settee in a quiet lounge (I mean, I’m on the settee.  I’m not writing it on the settee!)  If I were trying to do it with the TV on or with people talking in the room I would struggle, it would take me longer, I would find it harder to collect my thoughts.

If I were trying to learn something new, I know that reading or listening quietly and devoting the subject matter my undivided attention would produce a far greater effect than discussing it with others in the first instance.  There may come a point where I had questions or needed to talk through ideas, but this is a particular case and not the first port of call.

We know from findings in cognitive science that we remember what we think most about, and that distractions (in any form) reduce our chances of learning something, so it strikes me that it is much fairer on our pupils to provide (as much as we can) a distraction-free environment.  I do worry that the position of conversation and collaboration is overplayed in our schools and the value of silence can be underrated.  I’ve seen schools where silence is an alien idea!  I would contend that the expectation for conversation and collaboration slows down children’s rates of learning in two important but different ways.  The first is that focus and behaviour suffer.  The second is that the teacher so often has to spread themselves too thinly, having time to only drop in and out of each group and therefore rarely being able to provide high-quality guidance.

I will openly admit I have no evidence for this contention – I’m not sure how it could be tested.  I suppose in the absence of hard proof I approach the silence issue a bit like Pascal’s Wager:

pascal-talking

The two yellow boxes are the ones to worry about – the cases where our pupils learn less.  So which would be the greater of these two evils and hence the one to be avoided more?  We can assess this by considering the positives of allowing/not allowing talking.

The research literature is not convincing on the efficacy of learning in groups.  See the summary in the image in this tweet:

It is clear that in order to be successful a collaborative learning environment must be “highly structured and highly scripted”.  How much classroom talk really falls under that banner?  Without this structure, there are so many pitfalls a group can fall into that the process becomes ineffective.

In contrast, although silent students may miss out on the chance to share ideas they have a much greater chance of thinking undisturbed about what they are learning.  If silent periods are well structured, with the teacher taking advantage of regular opportunities for assessment of where everyone is at, they allow each student to think for themselves and no-one can hide behind their friends.

My conclusion from the wager is that the best outcome is to expect silence.  (I understand that if you are inclined to disagree with my preference for silence from the outset, then you will see bias in my conclusion, and I would love to hear someone argue persuasively for the benefits of talk over silence as a standard way of working).

There are other benefits to regular silence.  A silent classroom is one where the quiet pupil doesn’t have to worry and the loud pupil doesn’t have to play for attention.  Everyone is on an even footing in a quiet classroom – surely this is fairer for all?  When we expect silence we are giving our pupils the chance to be calm and still.  In a world where practically their every second is competed for via electronic devices, and where many of our young people don’t get the chance to be undisturbed, stillness and the chance to think for more than a few seconds is of the utmost importance to a healthy mind.

How does it work in my classroom?

I explain to my classes why I like silence.  Periods of silent work are so that they have the space to think for themselves, and so that I can see what they themselves can do, rather than what their partner can do.  They will learn more if they are thinking hard and not distracted, and if someone tries to break the silence I explain that they do not have the right to disturb their friends’ chances to think and to learn.  This is a message that needs to be repeated a lot, especially when silence is alien to pupils.

But…

There is one important exception to my expectation of silent work.  Almost every lesson includes whole-class teaching and by ‘whole-class’ I mean that the whole class has to be involved in my teaching.  I ask regular questions, they ask regular questions.  I try to gauge where the majority is at, I try to probe misconceptions.  Often I’ll ask a question and give them thirty seconds or a minute to discuss in pairs before asking what answers they came up with.  If there are a few different answers that’s important.  I’ll write all the answers on the board and do a vote as to who thinks each is right (this is really important for me to see quickly who has made which mistakes).  We’ll look at these answers in detail to find the errors that led to them, identify the errors and go again with something similar to see if the errors have been corrected.  I make a point of asking every student to answer a question at some point in every lesson, as much as is practicable.

Important mathematical vocabulary is written up on the board and I expect it to be used in answers.  If someone gives an answer which could be better explained using a mathematical word, I ask them to improve their answer and guide them to the best words.  This is important because vocabulary will only stick if we use it.  By controlling periods of talking I can make sure my students are using the vocabulary I want them to become proficient with.

Any periods of discussion are short and controlled.  This, combined with periods of silent, independent practice, makes for students who have to behave appropriately, who have to concentrate and who have to involve themselves in the lesson.  There are times when we tackle really complex problems and I allow them to work together, but it is always in short bursts and involves regularly coming back together as a class to maintain structure and direction (both as a technique for guiding learning and for behaviour management).  Such lessons are the exception, not the norm.  Many mathematical problems in the classroom need less collaboration than we think.

So that’s my approach and my perspective.  Agree or disagree, I’d like to hear your thoughts as always.

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