Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

that which already lies (silently) half asleep
Arshad Ahmad

I have observed the greatest of all mysteries human learning.

I am the eye on the “audience.” Since time immemorial, I have encountered so many students that I can see inside of them. I understand their feelings. They know that I will not judge them; that I, like them, am believed to be a tabula rasa. So, they behave openly and candidly before my gaze.

When a teacher breaks the silent space between the students and me, he or she hopes (and assumes) that the students’ silence is full of respect, reverence, and reflection. Well, let me share a few secrets about a classroom full of silent students. Better still, allow me to be specific about how the students really feel about what is going on inside of them.

It is easy to see that the students’ brains are usually throbbing. Some are actually hurting. Their eyes often reveal their discomfort, as do their gestures; they would rather be somewhere else. In fact, their brains hurt because someone inexplicably expects them to be transformed just by being lectured at.

Most lectures produce noise that comes in relentless waves. The brain is designed to order noise; to measure, decode, and make sense of it. Most unfortunately, teachers often ignore what we know about the brain: that it has limited processing power and restricted rates of retention. In fact, it has an attentive capacity of about 10 minutes at a stretch. And, most sobering of all, the brain’s retention can only happen if what is being said builds on, or relates to, what the brain already knows.

The stomach agrees with the brain. It too suffers from the discomforts of overflow. Conversely, both the brain and stomach know that little is accomplished if they feel empty. They both crave something delicious: something they can savour one morsel at a time.

The brain also empathizes with the backside which, despite its typical size and resilience, achingly warms seats for extended periods of time. The backside’s ache is only distracted by the legs’ twitchy constraints. And the arms? The brain hurries them along in frenzied note taking, leaving them disinclined to signal to a teacher when they might have a question. It all makes me glad to be flat.

Yes, I am the mirror that reflects the matter deposited from the teacher’s brain. As students attempt to decipher the lecture, I continue to watch them. I observe how the tongue – that normally wags with other tongues at the slightest distraction, idle chatter, or gossip – comes to a standstill in the classroom’s conspiracy of silence. For the tongue implicitly understands the futility of asking, or saying, anything, since this will make the teacher speak even more!

Breaking this silence can also elicit scorn and sarcasm from the students’ peers. Even when a teacher bids them to speak – to enter his or her world – it is often a frightening place fraught with uncertainty. Much safer to just listen, or pretend to understand. To not get singled out. Better to feign boredom. Or daydream. Preserve one’s dignity.

Despite the silence in classrooms, talk for its own sake is curiously regarded not only as the best indicator of learning, but of a student’s abilities! A significant portion of a student’s grade may be assigned on this basis. But most students remain trapped; they succumb to the ritual of silence. After class, I sense their relief as they approach the door. They can be themselves again.

Today, the teacher gathers up his papers. He seems tired. And I wonder: can silence signal comprehension, just as much as talking out loud can? Why does it take more effort to think about what should not be said than it does to think about what could be, or should be, spoken aloud?

The teacher scribbles on me – sometimes with great passion – dissolving chalk into the membranes that sustain me. He wipes me clean to ready me for the next time he displays his mastery. Then he does something unexpected. He writes with a loving hand:

“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies [silently] half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.” (Gibran)

He reflects for a minute. Then he walks out the door. Next time, will he listen more?


Work Cited:

Gibran, Kahlil. (1923). The prophet. [ .html#023].