“Just give me, give me, give me the power
And I’ll make them bleed”
I’m a big fan of silence in classrooms for when teachers are teaching, when children are writing, or when a student is addressing the whole class. In my book on behaviour I talk a lot about how to set ‘one voice’ as a key expectation, how to get the attention of a class, and what to try if your students won’t listen. When we listen to each other, we can learn from each other; silent listening helps to create a calm, respectful atmosphere in which the exchange of ideas can take place or focused individual work can happen. It’s definitely not easy for teachers to get silent attention or focus, but when they do it is a powerful tool for learning. The thing you really want is for your learners to fall silent of their own accord: to make the possibility of learning to be the thing that draws them in. Not the system, not the punishments for refusing to comply with it, but sheer interest in something new to learn. Of course this can be incredibly hard to achieve with some young people, and in some contexts, but I can only hope that it is the ultimate goal of every teacher.
If I’m honest with myself, there is something of a thrill in being able to get (and keep) a large group of people silent so that you can address them. The feeling of having people ‘in the palm of your hand’ is pretty special. I often speak to groups of over a hundred teachers, and if I didn’t ask for silence at times when anyone is addressing the room, learning would be impacted. At the same time, though, I always intersperse periods of listening with times for chatting and sharing ideas. People don’t tend to do well if you talk at them all the time, because they need to assimilate what you’ve said. When a session is over, the biggest buzz is if people want to talk about it afterwards, either coming up to talk with me one on one, or discussing what we’ve just done as they go for their break. Silent listening is a great tool for learning but human connections can be even better.
Earlier this week I saw the following tweet:
The author of the tweet is a head teacher. And if your change of policy is even alienating parents who are head teachers, then it is probably fair to say that you need to think again. It’s a completely normal human behaviour to talk about a lesson as you leave it. If the lesson didn’t particularly grab you, you might want to let off steam for a bit before you go on to the next period of learning. Of course it’s important that children move quickly, safely and sensibly between lessons, but trying to keep them in a constant state of silent attentive focus has to be counterproductive. There’s no sensible reason for it. They’re children, not monks. It’s not a choice between silent corridors and anarchy. For all the talk of ‘opportunity cost’ and needing to make every minute count, when I send my children to school I don’t imagine that learning only happens within the walls of classrooms. I want them to learn how to be good friends, how to laugh and have fun while they work, and how to deal with the complicated human situations that crop up in everyday life.
The problem with the feeling of power you get when you control a group of other people is that it can tip over into bad decision making. Yes, it’s great to get a room full of people silent so that they can learn, but being silent is not a good thing in and of itself, if I drone on after everyone has stopped listening. Yes, it’s fun to make people laugh, but not if I hurt someone’s feelings when I do. Yes, we can make ever higher and higher demands, have ever higher and higher expectations, and sanction people into accepting them. But along the way we might lose something we didn’t even realise we had. Because it’s not about me and my power to hold an audience. It’s not about me and the power of my knowledge. It’s not even about me and the power of my teaching. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about showing young people that they have the power, to take charge of learning for themselves.