Welcome to Real World Teacher!

Real World Teacher is Craig Seganti's blogging site for Classroom Discipline and other educational topics. Here you will also find the Real World Teacher Lounge, where member teachers can post questions to be answered by Craig and/or by each other.

PHILOSOPHY

Teachers are professionals who deserve to teach in an attentive, appreciative environment where an education is the reward. The aim is to not waste time in politically correct jargon but to employ those techniques and strategies which work-in the REAL WORLD.
Oct
21

The Power of Silence

By

When thinking of writing this article, I was thinking that posterity would find group work one of the most over-rated concepts to be emphasized in education this last decade or two.  But then I realized I didn’t have to wait for posterity.  After 20 years in the biz, I could trust my empirical observations.  Which is something I recommend to all teachers:  if there is a disconnect between your experience and what ideas are handed to you from on high, trust what is in front of your eyes.  That is why my discipline method is so successful:  it is based on what really works, not what should or what I want to work.

Group work has been emphasized in classes with that fanatic insistence in education circles which approaches religiosity, as if by not having your students in groups at all times and opportunities you are committing a sin.   If you put your students in groups when the administrator shows up for evaluation, you are on the right track ( as well as having your agenda on the board and not ever reading from a textbook or encouraging good grammar–textbooks are only invented so you can prove what a good teacher you are by not using it, and grammar is not important as long as students get the idea across–although you can’t get an idea across without grammar, something legions of educators have overlooked).  Lecturing your students, though you might have years of interesting experience and fascinating connections and knowledge to relate,  also makes you a dud in the modern educational community.

Yep, group work has been the fad for years, while it’s reciprocal has gone under-appreciated: individual work with complete silence.

I write about this today because I happen to have had an opportunity to be in a very quiet place studying in a big, noisy city, and so unaccustomed to this perfect silence was I that I realized its rarity, especially having taught in inner-city schools for years, where the absolute silence requisite for intense concentration seems hardly a valued commodity, much less a reality.  Even when my classrooms are silent there is nearly always some noise coming from the halls, or from some machine making noise on campus, or an important non-academic announcement about a pep rally, or an assembly about your rights or another popular social issue ( some schools, I’ve suggested, should have as their mission statement “Anything but Academics!”)

But here, in the midst of a profound silence, I realize how difficult it is to think deeply, to really concentrate, without really profound, nearly perfect quiet over a sustained period of time.  I’m in the midst of poring through a music production manual, and the technical jargon taxes my reading comprehension limits, and hey, I’m no dummy, I’ve got a lot of reading experience, in the millions of pages, and yet–were it not perfectly quiet, without disruption or distraction, I wouldn’t have a chance at getting this stuff.

How much less students with less than marvelous reading comprehension skills and only burgeoning skills of prolonged concentration will be able to truly grasp the advanced comprehension necessary to decode more advanced works without plenty of opportunity in a quiet environment?  Earth to modern education, do you read me?  This takes quiet and sustained effort.

And so little do our students get an opportunity to enjoy this delicious quiet.  First, because of classroom disruptions and ineffective school discipline (which I have solved with my book for those looking for solutions– classroom disruption is hardly as inevitable as is widely held to be true these days), and second because of noise in the environment.

I noticed years ago, that when there was not even a bit of noise in the classroom, I mean perfect silence, you could tangibly feel the concentration ( and therefore intelligence!) of the entire class increase.  But with even a little distraction, that atmosphere was ruined.  If you have felt the same, trust yourself, it is true;  students need more perfectly uninterrupted quiet classroom time to have a fighting chance to garner enough concentration to achieve advanced levels of thinking.

I’m not saying group work is not ever valuable, only that it is greatly overrated.  It is useful as a tool applied when students are self-controlled and at the level of independent behavior and thinking where the exchange of ideas is meaningful.  But it is at the end of the line, not the beginning.  In other words, it is developmentally the last step that should be used in instruction, not, as commonly done, used as a knee-jerk method to employ at every available opporunity.  It is a tool best used after long periods of concentration and independent thinking have been developed, not as a means to create  this kind of thinking.

Those of us subjected to this constant pressure to use group work when students are not developmentally ready for it have witnessed at best, the lack of any meaningful dialogue going on, at worst, an excuse to blab or gossip, and every time-wasting variation in-between.

If you told me my child were to spend vast amounts of time independently concentrating on advanced ideas during their secondary school career, or vast amounts of time in groups discussing things, I know which I think would be the more productive.  I would want them to have the opportunity to think for prolonged periods of time in a concentrated atmosphere, because social interaction, even concerning academic ideas, is much easier to come by.  Geez, you can and should do it at lunch.

So my point here is a perfectly quiet classroom is a tremendously valuable and underrated tool for academic development, and that it should be emphasized more than group work, and teachers should be praised and encouraged to have classrooms which provide opportunity for students to enjoy this priceless and ever rarer commodity.

I do not picture Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address or Einstein working out the Theory of Relatativity with noise around them (to be fair, I think Alby worked out some of his theory while watching the kiddies at home, but his mind surely did not develop in the midst of chaotic noise).  When you witness your students really making progress, trust your own instincts as to what made that happen, not some theory du jour from high above that has been shoved down your throat.  My experience of group work has been that students mostly aimlessly blab or turn it into social time or don’t have enough intellectual ammunition to make it fruitful, so I spend more time giving them that intellectual ammo through reading, vocabulary, answering questions in written format, emphasizing proper grammar when speaking, and all of the other things that produced writers like Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner, but for which the modern educator appears to have little use (since I’m onto great American authors and have a penchant for non-linear consciousness I’ll add Cormac McCarthy here; wow, what a writer!)

As it relates to discipline, I recommend a week or two of silent work in the front of the year, to develop those habits and thought processes which will have plenty of time to manifest themselves through other channels on the back end.

Give your students from time to time, or much of the time, the gift of a silent classroom to give them a chance to achieve high levels of independent concentration.  This prolonged concentration in a quiet environment is what really allows intelligence to get to the next level.

Comments

  1. Patricia DeGemmis says:

    I am a huge advocate of teaching students to work in silence on their own with a chance to discuss what they have done with whole group or sometimes even in small groups or partners. I do find that group work needs to be learned and it takes a long time to teach students how to dialog in a meaningful way instead of using the group time to gossib and blab to one another.
    I do have a question: how do you stop some students from humming to themselves either when they are supposed to be independently working quietly or even when I am reading aloud or speaking to the class?

  2. Once in awhile, Elise :)

  3. Elise says:

    Great comments. Does Craig ever respond?

  4. Ervin says:

    Craig,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. It amazes me why administrators insist on group work when it is laid before their eyes that it doesn’t work for students who have not attained a higher level of independent thinking. Even when they’re observing, it is still obvious that the smarter or behaved students are the only ones working, some are just pretending, and others are blatantly off topic or doing something else. U2′s words couldn’t have more meaning, “How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?” :) I’m glad we share the same opinion because I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. :)

    Ervin

  5. Debbie Unruh says:

    Craig,
    I teach the Alphabet Phonics, Ort and Gillingham Program, for students who have difficulty in reading and spelling grades 1-7th. The program includes three decks of cards. The letter deck, the key word and sound deck, and the spelling deck. Students are to say aloud the sounds and letters in each deck in order to help with processing their reading and spelling skills. Because much of the class requires verbal responces I have a hard time getting my students to be quite when its time to be quite. Do you have any suggestions for me to quite down my class. Most of my students are dyslexic or ADHD.
    Debbie

  6. bookish says:

    I am so grateful that I found your book! I began teaching in 2003 after my divorce. I went from stay-at-home mom to a reading teacher at an alternative center. It was sheer hell. I was cursed at, spit on (literally; I had to go home and wash my hair and change) and generally miserable. The following year I was “lucky” enough to land a reading job at the regular middle school next door. It was awful. Serious behavior problems and rock bottom scores. I did make a difference but at the expense of my mental health. I quit. I broke my contract and subbed instead. This past year (2011), I was offered a job starting in October. I took a middle school reading class 8 weeks into the year. They were somewhat disruptive but not horrid. I told myself I could not go through it again and I began feeling those horrible feelings of just tolerating things while I marked off the days until summer on a calendar. Then I found your book. I began using the methods about two weeks ago (the end of February). As you suggested, I simply said “things are going to be different”, and I started.
    Lining students up outside the door accomplishes several things: you can see who looks ready to work and dismiss them into the classroom first. The difficult students are then spoken to outside which means you are not lecturing or reminding students who do the right thing anyway. Also, if kids are fooling around at the door, you can stop them, tell them to breath and calm down. I tell them I don’t want ANY drama from the outside brought into my room. If there are any noises in my room while I am doing this, I call them back into the outside line. Finally, as I instruct each student individually to pick up the necessary materials (books, folders, etc.) as they pass by me, when I sit down to take attendance, it is basically already done. I can complete it in about 30 seconds because I have seen who is there already!
    I think one of the biggest things I took from your book was the concept of silence. When you tell a noisy class to “be quiet” they simply talk in quieter voices for a few minutes. then they get loud again. Silence! send the message of zero tolerance for noise. On the inside you MUST believe that silence is a gift you are giving them, not a punishment.
    Further, I think it is natural, as a human, to want to be liked. However, I realize what is more important is not that the kids like ME but that they know I like THEM. How do you do this? Notice if their artwork is on display at the mall and tell them. If you spot them in public, tell them how cute their baby brother is, remark that you know a family with the same last name as theirs up north. Any little human kindness like that can be done in a professional and kind manner and goes a LONG WAY in indicating to kids that they are important.
    Last, I cannot do the 15 minute detentions so I give them school detentions that are held twice a week by a super tough history guy. It is very effective for my students and the school is very supportive in letting you know if a student did not attend (they get another detention) or if they are double-booked etc. There is also a bus home. My school also offers in school suspension on a daily basis AND lunch detentions. These are all run by other people and it makes my life easier. You HAVE to follow through. If you do not, the kids will smell it like a dog smells fear and they will capitalize on it immediately! Stand tough! You are a teacher! Very few people have comes as far or are as intelligent as we are. Pat yourself on the back and enjoy the silence.

  7. Elmien Harmse says:

    Hi Malik

    I’ve used the method you gave me on how to respond to kids making noises in class. It worked like a bom! Thanks allot.

    Warm greetings
    Elmien

  8. Ros2010 says:

    Your methods work and work well. I am an experienced teacher who recently was served a lousy load. When the school ‘warning’ discipline system failed me and suggested it was my problem I found you. Did it work? No! It almost did then the system kicked back so fast it was like a tidal wave of discontent from the power ranks. Basically the 15min detention was disallowed and I was told the detentions had to run at the 20 min recess break. This meant no lunch, no drink,and no toilet break for me.It also meant the student ‘forgot’ to turn up. That meant a double detention – not attended either- then a compulsory 50 minute afternoon detention by which time the student was in total fight mode. Ugh. – somehow these challenging students still managed to achieve above state average marks but my goodness it was exhausting.
    My restraint was not being allowed to hold 15 minute afterschool detentions. For the short two week period I ran them before the admin cottoned on it was starting to work like magic.
    If you have another plan that is allowable in my school. I would be interested.

  9. Isabella says:

    Keep it up and in 2011 : ]

  10. Natalie says:

    Thank you!
    I have been frustrated with the amount of emphasis placed on group worked for years. I am a recent college graduate and have experienced being forced into fruitless group projects and discussions for most of my educational career. Granted, group discussion at the college level is often valuable, but still over-emphasized. I especially dreaded group projects during which I would meet with a group and spend most of the time discussing anything but the task at hand. I agree that one learns the most researching and studying for oneself in a quiet environment. I am now getting my Masters in Education and am tired of always being required to include more group work in my lessons for 3rd graders. Anyone who has worked with 8 year-olds knows that group work is often fruitless and sometimes even detrimental for such young students.

  11. Malik says:

    Hello,
    I have a solution for Elmien. You can outsmart that smart kid in any number of ways. One is, when it happens, look toward the noise, not angrily, but quietly, seriously,majestically, while pausing your teaching. The culprit will not be the ones who look nervous and furiously working, but rather will have a challenging body language, could be anywhere from boldly staring to working with a grin. there may be also other grinning monkeys. Stay near them for the rest of the period. Or reseat them very calmly without blaming them. They will not repeat this for that period. Speak to each of them alone again, calmly. Call their bluff with the consequence.Say something like ” You were off task in class and there was humming going on.”Either they will all accept the consequence, or, one of them will rat the other out. Be cool, never angry. The premise is the same. No disruption will be tolerated. These kids are looking to get you angry. But instead, show them that your priority is their working, and it is all about the work.
    I understand how hard your situation must be.
    Hope this helps.

  12. Elmien Harmse says:

    Dear Craig,
    Predictably your system purchased by me a year ago worked the same miracles as in all other cases. Yet I’ve found one scenario where I could not find a solution. I am sure you must have come accross this. Learners start to make a soft humming sound when you say something or give an instruction. It is absolutely imppossible to pinpoint the culprits.

    I do not want to punish the whole class as this will breed resentment amongs the marjority of “good” learners who are really working hard and are innocent. Still there are quite a lot of learners involved in this scheme.

    Can you help?? How can I stop this thing which threatens to bring about a breakdown in a system that has really transformed my career??

    Many sincere thanks for all that you’ve meant to me professionally.
    Elmien Harmse

  13. Regarding Speal’s comments on Montessori:

    I think you answer your own question; absolutely, whatever students are ready for, they should not be held back at all. There are students who will work well together and quietly from a young age, sure, and there High School students who don’t. My methods are to prepare teachers for poorly behaved classrooms, but the rules are to serve the class and learning, not the other way around. It’s the old the laws are made for people, not people for the laws idea.

  14. Dorothy E says:

    Craig,
    I teach in an equity school with a large number of students who are bus-dependent for transportation. I know I can call home and tell parents they need to arrange a pick-up, but many work second shift jobs or have no car.
    I thought of lunch time, but our lunches are staggered. I would have students coming in the middle of another class. Have you had this problem, and/or what did you do about it? Please advise! School starts on Monday.

  15. Michael Cicchelli says:

    It was pretty much put to me last year by my senior principal that my classes would work in groups or I might not get my yearly contract renewed. I complied but am for the more traditional teaching styles that you advocate. Also, I can issue a lunch detentionbut but if students challenge it (via their parents complaining to the principal) my detention would be overturned. The administration seems to scared to have upset parents and as a result our school discipline is deteriorating, in my opoinion.

  16. Barb Waggoner says:

    Craig,
    Silence is golden. I truly believe this is true in the classroom. Middle school kids need about 3-5 minutes before their brain engages when silence surrounds them. Good news on cooperative learning. Last year we heard that direct instruction is making a big comeback. Students actually learn more when the teacher speaks to them in the classroom. Students show great growth when taught by the teacher rather than by other students. Barb

  17. speal says:

    I wonder what you think about Montessori classrooms? I have observed more than a few, and I have seen that children as young as 4 and 5 have been able to work together with little or no direction from their teacher. They do this with a high level of concentration, which is a hallmark of Montessori classrooms.

    In order to accomplish this, however, the teacher spends several weeks in the beginning of the year training the kids to work independently first. When kids show difficulty in focusing on their work (at the independent level) she pulls them back, and they sit next to her until they can control themselves.

    I think the problem of children not functioning in groups is that they haven’t learned to discipline themselves, really. All the stuff about collaborative work,etc. will never work unless students learn how to control themselves: to turn away from distractions in order to succeed at a long-term goal. That’s why individual work is so necessary (and more successful) with such children.

    I’m not saying that group work is best,or even that Montessori classrooms are the best-but I wonder how long the teacher will have to stand and be the disciplinarian; have you seen at some point that the kids finally learn how to discipline themselves a little bit?

  18. GregHall62 says:

    Hey elementary teachers. My name is Greg and I teach fifth grade. Are there some elementary teachers who have used these principles? Please respond. Thanks!

    Greg

  19. JULIE says:

    It is the same here in Australia. Collaborative learning ‘strategies’ are rammed down our throats at every oppertunity. I have just attended a two day Professional Development workshop and during that time we were not given lectures but split up into groups whilst the lecturers used us to ‘model’ Placemat, Jigsaw and numerous other time wasting activities. The final straw came for me when we were told we had to teach students ‘socal skills’ to make group work. I then asked a question (based on my empirical observations). Why if students had been taught using Collaborative learning since Grade One was I as a Secondary teacher having to waste time teaching them Social Skills in Grades 8,9,10,11 and 12?The reply was that they must have had teachers (wicked things) who had not taught Collaboratively. I answered what not once in 7 years? The reply was you’d be surprised. My final comment was: ‘I find that hard to believe considering how it has and is pushed non-stop at all times as the answer to all our problems!’ Long live the lecture and students studying in silence.

  20. julieann says:

    I teach 8th grade science in an urban public school district that has bought into the whole “collaborative learning” thing – literally. They’ve coughed up MILLIONS for consultants specializing in it and we teachers are called to the carpet if anyone from downtown comes to visit and doesn’t see students in “active collaborative groups.” We’re even called out if our kids’ desks aren’t in group formation so they can face each other.

    It’s total nonsense. These kids get NOTHING done when they are supposed to “collaborate”. Even my honors classes can’t resist the temptation to go off-task when in a group. So I finally rebelled and put my tables in standard rows where everyone is facing the one person they need to be paying attention to – ME. They want us doing 90% “hands on” activities with these kids, but I’ve put a stop to that too. I’ve taken the stand that “hands on” and labs are a priveledge they have to earn. Why? Because I’ve discovered that to most middle schoolers, labs and hands-on are “playtime” and very little learning gets done – no matter how hands-on and creative it is. I KNOW my students and I know that they get much more done and more of the content sticks when it’s quiet and independent. It also allows me to see who is really getting it and who is just hiding behind the 80/20 rule that happens in most groups – student and adult.

    Granted, my admin is not very happy with me about it, but when my test scores come back, we’ll see who was right…

  21. There are strong movements in education which pressure teachers to believe ´researched-based´studies and pronouncements from above over their own experience and observation. If your common sense or empirical observation (meaning what you see in front of you) clashes with theories you hear, you should trust yourself!

    Craig

  22. Maree says:

    Hi craig,

    I am a student teacher and mother of 2 primary school aged children. Until I read your page on silence I was really confused about what I was being taught at university and what my gut instinct and observations were in my sons composite 1/2 grade class

    I totally agree with your position on group work. I have seen very few grade 1/2 children stay on task during group work. During parent help time I have even found it hard to concentrate, let alone the kids with auditory processing problems or learning disabilities. The slower kids copy the work of the faster kids with little or no understanding on their part, or the slower kids just muck around or zone out because they can’t concentrate and the other kids in the group have powered ahead of them. It’s crazy and even experienced teachers persevere with this.

    Can’t wait to receive your ebook and hear it all straight from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Malik says:

    Craig,
    I have never doubted the value of silent concemtration for a moment, yet I did doubt my abilities as third year grade 7 Science teacher for being unable to have effective outcomes with ‘group work’ which inevitably change into discussions of fashion , tv or worse still, teenage arguments.This year, I have implemented your method, in the low income urban school where I teach,albeit I might have lightened up on my students a couple of days. What I found was that, when I lightened up, I found less effective concentration; who on earth can convey information and receive it at the same time? However, yesterday, I had the students complete a scaffolded graphic organizer,individually, they had to write every word down themselves, color code it by category, share colors, without looking at the text and without talking. I had even my lowest behaviorally impaired students complete the assignment; you could hear a pin drop. Result- Great Work and-only
    One failing grade out of one hundred and even he did great coloring. Vive la silence!

Leave a Reply