In the good old days of teacher-led content, method and instruction, the teacher was everything in the classroom and students were to be "seen as not heard." Teachers used to speak and write on blackboards with chalk and then via Overhead Transparency Projectors (yes to my younger readers, both blackboards & chalk, and these projectors did actually exists and were actually used by teachers and frequently). Then came the whiteboards and whiteboard markers and televisions in the classroom and who says technology is awesome now eh? Regardless of all this resource support, it remained until the best part of around 10 years ago until teachers on the whole really started to question the level and quality of their teacher speak and the potential damage and/or limitations of such oral publications.
In a fascinating study by Auckland University, the researchers coded teacher talk for a period as to whether it was in response to a student query (pastoral e.g. toilet release or academic clarification), teacher pastoral, or teacher academic (instructional or philosophical) and individual or group focused. The findings were startling. The vast majority of teacher talk was towards the whole class cohort and for the most part was 1)instructional, very closely followed by 2) pastoral. Very little of any of the lessons saw students dominating and/or leading the talk in the classroom and for the most part, their queries to the teacher were of a pastoral nature or request.
What were the recommendations of the researchers? Basically for teachers to shut up, excuse the bluntness. They argued the more teachers talked and particularly so on pastoral matters, students withdrew from choosing academic discussions amongst themselves and with the teacher. The suggestion was also put put forward that understanding questions put to the whole class were for the most part only answered by the most confident, followed by the confident and capable, to the undoubted pleasure and relief of less confident and/or less capable students. These latter students were quite happy to be seen and not heard. A final interesting point raised by the researchers was the low level of questions put forward by the teachers compared to statements and just how few statements or questions were of a 1:1 nature. Even if the statement or question was presented to the whole cohort or 1:1, the researchers also found that the teacher wait time was so brief only the most swift students had time to respond and due to the inherent time pressure, often responded with the most superficial of responses.
I should point out that this above study was around 5 years ago and to a certain extent, I'm not sure how much has actually changed and when I say changed, I mean for the better! All teachers whether they admit it or not like the sound of their own voice and due to the way we learnt or to be more accurate they way we were taught or to be even more accurate the way we were lectured, it is difficult to break away from this mindset and practice.
The more silent I become however, the more I realise the effectiveness of the silence and the talk when I do speak. In 2016, I use Google Classroom as my primary means of disseminating lesson requirements to students whether physically present or otherwise. This is indeed a transformation of learning as although I have a loud voice, even this teacher can't compare to the digital reach of Classroom. Such use also means that students hear my voice even before entering the classroom and furthermore can revisit my digital voice as often as they need to, without the need for me to say the same thing numerous times.
Teacher silence is also very powerful in that it gives students a sense that the request for their responses is not just tokenism but more so valued and actually desired. I've often thought if my Level 1 English class was renamed Level 1 English Question Time, the focus of this time would be more understood and greater applied. In a brilliant article, reminding us of Mary Budd Rowe' 1972 promotion of "wait-time" and "think-time", the authors reassert:
The concern here is not that 2.9 seconds is bad, while 3 seconds is good, and 5.3 seconds of silence is even better. The concern is to provide the period of time that will most effectively assist nearly every student to complete the cognitive tasks needed in the particular situation.
In my experience, a wait time of five seconds or more would initially be very uncomfortable for the teacher, least of all the students. I know in all honesty, I struggled initially until I realised that first of all the student has to take in the question, then come up with a range of possible responses, maybe also seek clarification of the question and then present their best response. If we think of this process being necessary of all our students, even the most capable and confident would need at least 5 seconds, in all probability 10 seconds or more. What is also interesting is that the article points out for the silence to be effective, the pre and post contexts must be aligned with the silence offering. In other words, students must know that they have time on their side before needing to respond and can therefore prioritise quality and depth over brevity and speed. Furthermore post the silence period, it is essential that the thought and response process is acknowledged as much, if not more than the actual accuracy of response.
It can also be strongly argued or to be honest I'm arguing, that the more teachers are silent in the classroom particularly class-wide, the more there is gravitas and time attached and allocated to student to student discussions and teacher to student 1:1 discussions. These are the academic conversations that in my opinion offer the best learning and checking opportunities for both teachers and students. It is in these conversations (yes, not monologues) that students have time, space and the necessary emotional safety to really learn at their own pace and literally through their own words. For the teachers, such conversations are immensely powerful as they inform oneself on individual understandings over whole-class capabilities. Although I still place a premium on oral conversations, I am also simultaneously using Google Forms to get recordable feedback on student academic understandings. By using both methods, I am ensuring that students via digital or verbal are able to present safely their learning progress or concerns.
To be fair, teachers more and more are getting used to the sound of their students' voices in terms of feedback and feedforward but it needs to more and more via methods determined by the students more so than the teachers. When we give silence in this context to our learning spaces, we are not giving time and encouragement to students, we are also ensuring learning over teaching is the priority in the class. In such classrooms in terms of the teachers and the learning, maybe just maybe silence is golden.