Tag Archives: silence

Speaking Silence, Addressing Silencing, and Quiet (in) Learning

9 Sep


Our first Words on Wednesday appeared last week and focused on discussion by connecting to Stephen Brookfield’s workshop packet supporting “discussion as a way of teaching.”  I wrote that first WOW piece – which appears here – while reading a new flurry of columns on silence in classrooms.

These columns – appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times – address “What to do about silence,” offer astute analyses of the ways in which quiet makes room for thinking, and set out ways of inviting silence into classrooms.

Overall, the authors called on those of us who teach to become deft at recognizing differences between silence as a facet of learning – thinking and processing – and silencing as a hindrance to learning.

And, most of all, the pieces call on us as teachers to recognize ways we and our students can make use of silence as part of learning, and can work together end to silencing as part of our everyday teaching plans.

Also part of my reading this last week, I returned (an academic year ritual) to works by my University of Iowa mentors.  The one that’s pertinent here is Sam Becker’s speech from 1991 to communication scholars.  He’d  put it this way:  We need more talking, not less of it whatever we teach in the world today.  We need more attention to developing ideas in thoughtful ways, in ways that build reflection and understanding, in ways “that bring others in rather than locking them out, a way that build community instead of destroying it”  (Becker on Tolerance and Speech).  One way of bringing other in, Sam Becker and Cleo Martin would say to us at UIowa, is to make room for quiet by engaging all in silence and by finding ways to hear the ideas shaped in quiet reflection.

In playing with ideas from the Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill book on teaching with discussion, I began to formalize ways of incorporating silence into class sessions – for reflection, for catching up a bit, for listening to what isn’t and is almost said, for hearing subjects and authors in addition to (even before) our own ideas.

Often I make use of quiet by engaging everyone in a bit of writing – perhaps individually, perhaps on the same sheet of paper or in the same word document or in common white board space. In writing on individual cards or sheets of paper where, often, the risk to dissent through ideas offered or cards left blank offers a bold space for calling attention to ideas.  In either case, the important thing for me as the teacher is to make room for listening as an invitation to make room for speaking.

Discussions are, for me, about opening up thinking – and therefore, most often, finding ways for silent and silenced students to take up semantic space.  Opening up thinking requires, in this balance, an increase in time spent listening – not only for those who do talk more than listen or who do insist on rightness of particular (mis)conceptions and singular viewpoints, but also for synthesizers who weave ideas across a discussion and for teachers who need to listen for what is said, what is almost said, what is covered over protectively or hastily, and for what is in the midst of taking shape.

So, on to sharing the ideas – this time via a series of images, a full baker’s dozen since 13 is my favorite number.  My hope is that the images themselves will spark new thinking, and that the PowerPoint version (shared here Brookfield’s Slides using Silence) can be adapted by teachers who want to insert process slides into the slidedecks they create for class sessions.

One further note before turning the post over to the slides, the ideas in these merged slides – colleagues and former Teaching in Higher Education students have taken this mingling of my teaching practice with Brookfield’s original work  I’ve done in classrooms across 25 years – into their own classes out across the curriculum: They’ve made adaptations of these ideas in their math, engineering, nursing, horticulture, philosophy, art, studio, music and literature classrooms. Here’s hoping you will find ways to do the same in creating discussions that spark thinking and idea shaping with quiet and collaboration in speaking.



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