Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie


the power of wow!
the exclamation that makes and breaks silence
Kirsten Hardie

The “Power of Wow!” is a learning exercise developed by a UK National Teaching Fellow and undergraduate graphic design students. The exercise embraces the “teaching with your mouth shut” approach of Finkel, in which the student voice is central to learning and the teacher remains quiet. However, with the “Power of Wow!” the student’s voice is communicated by objects. Neither students nor teacher talk. Silence is only to be broken by the exclamation of “Wow!” A genuine utterance of this single word ultimately confirms the success of the students’ work.

Silence in the context of learning has many meanings. The “shh” in the hush of the culture of education is, however, a learnt behaviour, a social protocol that we respect as part of the learning process. We are taught that silence displays a reverence for teaching, an engagement that indicates restraint, listening, and studious doing. Silence provides a distance, a space where the student can remain alone in thought, undisturbed. An interruption of silence may therefore be translated as an interruption of learning: an intervention that disrupts or disengages the student. It may suggest the student’s inability to listen, or a lack of interest in the teaching: it means learning lost, teaching disempowered

The library, the exam room, and the lecture hall are traditionally the domains where silence is practised yet within these contexts silence can create tensions: tensions that can militate against learning and teaching. Silence has the power to weaken learning and teaching. It can distract the student, make passive learning easier. Silence can mask emotion as it keeps feelings in check. Silence may be taken as a sign of the uncommitted, the unquestioning, the disinterested.

The use of the word “Wow!” can have a tremendous effect upon learning when it is deliberately sought to interrupt a silence, to provoke an emotional response that communicates meaning and makes feeling audible.

Graphic designers speak through their design work: the design gives voice and emphasis to their messages; for example, the communication of a giggle can be graphically created through the visual wiggle of the word. A student’s understanding of visual language is critical to their creative practice: critical to how meanings are communicated, and how audiences read and respond to them. To develop design students’ understanding of the impact of the visual, this specific learning activity augments and amplifies their thinking in relation to how they read and respond to design.

The “Power of Wow!” exercise is positioned as the culmination of the students’ introductory studies to visual culture and semiotics. Their design discourse and visual literacy studies are tested through their exploration of how objects can speak: theory is put into practice. Each student is requested to select an object, an image, a thing that will provoke the honest response of a genuine “Wow!” from their peers. The students are encouraged to consider their choice and their audience carefully as an exercise in critical and creative thinking. The selected thing is to be kept secret until it is revealed. No introduction or discussion is required; each item is presented independently, spotlighted for the audience’s immediate response. The exhibited object is required to do the talking; the aim is to obtain the proclamation of “Wow!” Multiple “Wow!”s confirm success: an “Oh Wow!” being the ultimate accolade.

The silence adds a heightened tension and anticipation as viewers wait to be awed. An “Oh” or “Ah” does not meet the set criteria. Only “Wow!” will succeed. This activity generates significant other noise: the “Ha Ha” of laughter, the “Ah” of disbelief. But silence is resumed, self-imposed in preparation for the next revelation. Ordinary things can be incredible when placed within this context. An indoor firework or a bottled cobra can provoke unexpected exclamations: they have the “Wow!” factor. Surprisingly, a cheap (£1.00) box of 24 frozen hamburgers secured the biggest “Wow!” The relatively mundane can have big impact. Students explore the intricacies of language and their immediate, unchecked, and emotional response to a surprise: the wondrous.

Silence allows the object to take supremacy; it operates in its own “power field” (Lewin) as it transmits a force created by the groups’ interdependence to determine its “Wow!”: “The group’s task is such that members of the group are dependent on each other for achievement . . . a powerful dynamic is created” (Smith). The group realizes that design dialogues exist; objects can talk and hold multiple meanings that have cultural variations; different meanings are translated in different contexts.

The students listen to objects visually. Understand that multiple meanings can be communicated, and that their immediate reading can produce an immediate response that confirms a design’s success. “Wow!” is made powerful through silence.

 

Works Cited: Finkel, Donald L. (2000). Teaching with your mouth shut. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook. Lewin, K. (1936).

Principles of typological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Smith, Mark K. (2001). Kurt Lewin: Groups, experiential learning and
action research. [http://www.infed.org/thinkers/etlewin. htm].