Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

Marcia Epstein

In his essay on the value of silence in teaching, medical educator Raja Bandaranayake described an experience he had while in China in 1976. Following his assignment of a task to a group of students, he endured five minutes of silence in considerable bewilderment – unsure of himself, the translator, and the students.

As I was wondering how I should intervene, I noticed one participant write something on his pad. As though this was a silent signal, each of the others, in turn, followed suit. This process lasted another five minutes or so, but silence still prevailed. When it was over, one participant spoke in Chinese, others followed, and gradually an animated discussion developed, with intermittent references to their pads . . . . The group had engaged, during that initial period of nerve-wracking silence, in silent brainstorming. Not for them the loud storming that most groups engage in, before performing the task at hand. Writing their individual thoughts down helped them contribute thoughtfully, not haphazardly, to the subsequent discussion.

As the story suggests, silence is like speech in having cultural norms and conventions. While it is usually regarded in current Western culture as an absence of sound, a passive state, silence is also an activity. In the classroom, it may indicate resistance or protest on the part of students, or a consciously wielded tool for the promotion of Socratic dialogue: as educators, we use it to prevent ourselves from supplying all of the answers right away. Silence is also an element in purely receptive learning, freeing the listener from the internal distractions of evaluation and argument.

Work Cited:

Bandaranayake, R. C. (2001). “The value of silence.” Medical Education. 35(12), 1168.