The Power of SilenceBy
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.