“You know when you go up to a whiteboard, and you don’t say anything, and you just write down, I concentrate more.” Alexandra, student, 12 years old. (Morrison, 2017)
"Each of us has been by far the best teacher each of us has had." Caleb Gattengo
‘I don’t know, 15 minutes? ,’ Keahi said.
'Let’s be clear. You talked for 41 minutes of the 50-minute lesson,’ I replied. My mood at that moment was irate, but my sympathies were with the learners — how the heck did the teacher talk for more than three-quarters of the class? No wonder the behaviour had been awful. She read my thoughts, and I could see she was visibly upset.
‘I just don't know what to do,’ she said. Her flat, green eyes were glassy, and her voice was cracking. I suddenly felt bad and wanted to take back my attitude.
‘Don’t be despondent. I reckon we can solve this,' I removed my glasses and began cleaning them. 'I know how you can get on top of this teacher talk.’
And so I introduced another teacher to the ideas of Caleb Gattengo, an innovative educator who taught languages and mathematics by not speaking (Young and Messum, 2011).
In the following weeks, Keahi and I worked together on this problem. I will paraphrase what we discussed many years ago, hoping it will give you an insight into how to improve teaching.
🗯 (Keahi) Why use silence?
🗯 (Sipho) Talking at students for a long time is a sure way to provoke boredom and frustration, create behaviour management issues and establish a toxic classroom culture. Talking too much makes teaching simplistic and neglects students. We don’t allow students to learn; instead, a one-way lecture occurs with genuine dialogue and understanding laid aside (Alrø and Skovsmose, 2002).
The silent teaching approach offers choice to students, as without the teacher talking, students have more control over learning; teachers intervene less when students are stuck, engendering independence.
🗯 But removing the voice is challenging.
Absolutely. 💯 But remember that becoming an outstanding teacher is challenging.
One challenge is the constraint of being unable to explain or answer questions orally, which forces a more complex thought process from a teacher.
Silence permits a teacher more time to process their reactions; it provides a more extended space to think. It directs focus squarely onto the properties of the lesson or task. The scaffolding to accompany the task has to be done with thought, and the silence encourages greater creativity from the teacher when preparing and during the lesson.
In other words, the options open to a teacher are more complex than ‘explaining the answer’ or ‘telling the answer’. And learners garner the benefit.
🗯 Can you give me an example of this scaffolding?
Of course. Creative questions could be given (silently!). Instead of speaking, they may be written on a whiteboard or given individually to a student. Here are a few examples of questions (taken from 'Thinkers' by Bills et al., 2004).
- What is the same and different about…
- Is this always, sometimes or never true?
- Provide another example of …
🗯 How do students learn in a classroom where the teacher doesn’t talk?
Talking is one way of communication (Pimm, 1989). If it were the only way, we could have set up the classroom by telephone!
Using the silent method means learning (and teaching) through all the other means available: task design, written communication, and verbal (not oral) communication, such as hand movements and different body language. Students learn from each other (and they can speak)!
A teacher noise vacuum preserves the students’ headspace
🗯 Why else should I use this method of teaching?
We intuitively fill silence with noise; it has become a part of our human social interaction. The teacher not speaking enables a learner’s voice to be expressed and heard more fluently (Gattegno, 1971). The space created by the lack of noise is filled by students talking and verbalising the subject/task/question. It places a buffer on a teacher jumping in and giving answers, what Mary Boole terms ‘teacher lust’ (Tahta, 1972).
And it invites students to tap into their natural wish to learn (Russell, 1926). Furthermore, the onus of teaching shifts to peers, offering an instructional dynamic in which the knowledgeable other is a peer.
There are fewer distractions for students. A teacher noise vacuum preserves the students’ headspace by keeping it free from the teacher’s voice, creating room for independent thought (Morrison, 2020).
It creates a more inclusive classroom by involving less motivated students.
One of the most striking benefits is removing judgment traditionally exerted by the ‘expert’ teacher through voice. Power dynamics subtly shift; while the ‘expert’ teacher initiates by awarding the pen, this act can strategically address behaviour or lack of understanding. It creates a more inclusive classroom by involving less motivated students.
Lastly, the lack of talking offers a unique diagnostic tool, allowing the teacher to focus more on assessment and gauge, in real-time, whether crucial concepts are being understood.
🗯 I want to try this. How can I implement silent teaching?
- The process begins when the teacher writes a question, problem, or task on the board without uttering a word.
- The absence of oral instruction continues as they hand the board pen to a student (Morris, 2011).
- Gestures and body language play a large part in teaching silently, and non-verbal cues are more prominent in what a student can see (e.g., Calero, 2005 ).
- When the student attempts to solve the question on the board, the teacher reacts by writing a happy smiley face if the answer is correct or a sad face if it’s incorrect.
- And the teacher remains quiet.