Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

Kathy Madjidi

In considering potential applications of silence in higher education, I propose that the solo could be incorporated as an integral aspect of student development.

In many indigenous cultures, making space for periods of silence and reflection is an integral part of education. One of the most significant examples of this is the “vision quest,” a traditional rite of passage to mark important life transitions such as moving from adolescence into adulthood. The vision quest is a sacred ceremony, a time for isolation, fasting, and the seeking of direction. Practices vary according to each culture; however, the vision quest is generally preceded by a period of intensive preparations.

As described by Black Elk, the Lakota quest begins with an Inipi, a sweat lodge purification ceremony. The individual is then led out to a sacred spot, and a circle of stones is placed around him or her. For the next two to four days, with little or no food or material protection, the individual must stay within this circle. Moving through emotions such as boredom, hunger, fear, acceptance, peace, and even ecstasy, each individual embarks upon a journey into the silence of their own “inner space.” Some are visited by spirit guides and offered a vision; others find new meaning and direction for their lives. For some, the meaning of this quest will not be fully understood for years to come.

As practised in Rediscovery, an Aboriginal-based cultural and outdoor education program, the vision quest is modified into a 24-hour “solo.” Youth 12 years and older are prepared through a week-long camp program for the culminating solo night. Throughout the solo, camp leaders and Elders keep a 24-hour vigil, with a campfire, prayer, drumming, and singing to surround the youth with prayer and support. For one youth, a she-wolf came and laid beside him, protecting him through the night. Many find it an opportunity to reexamine their own self-image and group roles – a camp bully might be the first to leave his or her spot early, whereas a seemingly timid participant will complete the solo and return feeling empowered.

Whether by allowing students time away from school to reflect on their educational and life objectives through an intensive experience such as a solo, or by incorporating regular structures for silence into teaching and learning in the classroom, silence provides fertile ground for students’ growth.