In search of silence…

We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’t’s; we need books, time and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but once upon a time lasts forever.

PHILIP PULLMAN

Silence; It’s a hot topic at my school – rationalising it, achieving and maintaining it – and, probably as a result, I am increasingly aware of both the value and the absence of it, in education and in general. It is a peculiar thing, really; the most intangible of abstract concepts, disappearing as soon as its existence is stated… it is impossible to know for sure what it contains for anyone other than yourself. It is the absence of something as opposed to a ‘thing’ in its own right, and yet it can hold and communicate so much. It is a void full of possiblies and possibilities… a resource so potentially readily available and yet, seemingly, so difficult to grasp. So, shhhhhhh; here are my thoughts on our use of silence as a tool in education.

It is, first and foremost, a practicality. With narrow corridors, split breaks and lunches, and a number of ‘open’ classrooms (with an entire wall missing and, therefore, open to the corridor), it just makes sense to have silent corridors. Silence in general, actually; it is our natural state. And it’s a practicality; for the avoidance of disturbing the learning of others, and for the assurance of swift transition between lessons… It just makes sense. I am most aware and reflective about it when I am not at my own school. The normal sounds, the hustle and bustle, of a secondary school corridor have become a bit alien to me; alarming even. I’ve come to associate those noise levels with two things; the lively discussion of learning in classrooms, and the chatter and general hubbub of the students’ break and lunch times. For me, now, it has no place on the corridors where the learning of others can be affected. It has no place at times of transition when every minute wasted represents learning lost. And it is, first and foremost, a practicality. But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches far beyond any practical raison d’être.

Silence creates a purposeful environment. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong end of the stick here, don’t be fooled; our students are noisy. And, like all children, they mess about, shout and carry on, and move unnecessarily fast and without due care and attention. This is fine. There is, however, a clear distinction between the places and times of learning and those of socialising and recreation. The community hub of our academy, the heartspace, is alive with children being children; a thoroughfare through the middle of the building; all of the children’s lockers are located here; there’s usually a lot of toast about. My office is right in the middle of it and believe me, it is far from silent. Directly adjoining the heartspace we also have the iBase – a learning commons where the children can read, work, research, discuss, set up clubs and societies et cetera; the yard – where (for reasons I will never fully understand) they run around, seemingly at random; and the staff room… actually, this space is usually pretty quiet. It’s kind of a balcony overlooking the heartspace (though I’m not tall enough to see over the wall) but you are much more likely to find staff in the heartspace itself, munching a slice of toast. The rest of the school though – the classrooms and corridors – are places of purpose and determination. Aspiration and ambition. There’s no time or reason for idle chit chat; there’s an important job to be done and no time to lose!!!

One thing I learnt on my PGCE (and then re-learnt, the hard way, as an NQT) is that the first few moments of a lesson matter. Like, really matter. Be at your door, greet the students, have a task ready… set the pace, tone, and expectation on arrival. But what if they arrived at your door already ready? Calm, quiet, and clear as to what the expectations are because that’s what they experience from classroom to classroom and everywhere in between? Isn’t that the ideal starting point for learning? The ideal starting point for behaviour for learning? For me, an important aspect of being a teacher is scaffolding success for the students; creating systems that enable and facilitate them to ‘get it right’… and silent corridors are one way of doing this. They’re less likely to be late because there’s no temptation to stop for a chat. They’re less likely to speak out of turn, or not turn their learning behaviour back on quick enough, because there’s been no change of parameters in the transition between lessons. They’re more likely to be able to get ‘on task’ as soon as they arrive because they were never ‘off task’ in the between time; the purposefulness of the learning environment has been maintained.

Walking, side by side with your friends (and enemies!), in silence takes self-discipline. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even when no one is watching, takes integrity. Giving 100% of your effort day in and day out takes determination and drive. These are not simply the personal qualities required to make a successful transition from period three to period four; these are the personal qualities required for success in general. They are transferable skills.

Silence creates a reflective environment. I sometimes wonder what the children are thinking about while they walk, silently, to their next lesson. Maybe they’re processing some new learning or beginning to plan a recently set homework. Maybe they’re reflecting on how their day is going; have they taken another step on their journey up the mountain to university (or a real alternative), a top job and a great life? Or, maybe their mind is completely empty at those times… complete peace, stillness and serenity; a tabula rasa for the next lesson. I cannot remember the last time there wasn’t a kind of fragmented and randomly ordered ‘to do’ list doing a spin cycle in my brain. They could be thinking about what they’re having for tea that night or what’s going to be on the telly, and that’s fine; ultimately, I don’t think it really matters, the point is that they can.

For a teacher, an average day probably consists of sharing a lot of information that they already know and remaining within a consistent theme, e.g. geography/maths/art, interspersed with the odd bit of PPA. For a student, an average day consists of a relentless bombardment of new information on a range of different, and often completely unrelated, topics; it is a lot to take in and they don’t even get PPA! Well designed and planned social and recreational areas/times should provide students with the opportunity to unwind; to sit and chat with friends, read, run around at random… but do they provide an opportunity for private, personal reflection? Certainly, if I saw a child just sat staring into space I would strive to intervene! Where are their friends?! What club or activity might they like?! Has something happened at home?! These social and recreational times are important and need to be preserved … but when can the children reflect? When can they take a moment to let their brain process and sort all of that new information they have received? In moments of peace, like when we dream, our minds can wander from one thing to another and, even when our thoughts seem unrelated to the reality of what is important, begin to organise and prepare for whatever might happen next. I don’t know what the students are thinking about as they walk, silently, to their next lesson, but I do know this; they are free from the sounds and experiences of the classroom and also those of their break and lunchtimes… their mind is free to meander, and that is important.

Silence creates a safer environment. I was recently at one of those kinds of meetings that SENCo’s find themselves at frequently and was asked, by an educational psychologist, whether my school had a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable children. I suppose we don’t; there is no designated area for vulnerable students… and the assumption that we should have one raises a number of issues for me. What would having a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable students imply? That the rest of the school isn’t safe? That the rest of the students don’t require safety? Are they immune to vulnerability or just not entitled to protection from it? Or, do they need to reach a certain level of criticality before anything is done to help; until then they’re just coping? All children are vulnerable simply by virtue of being children. All children require and deserve to be safe; the whole school has to be a safe space for them. As well as the least vulnerable children being entitled to safety, the most vulnerable children are entitled to choice. They shouldn’t have to be segregated to experience safety and they shouldn’t be denied access to the social spaces and learning facilities of their school and community either. They shouldn’t be made to feel like the only way they can ‘belong’ is by being subject to conditions. This is the received wisdom of accepted segregation as a form of equality. It’s what perpetuates inequality in adult society. It’s not fair. And I haven’t gone off topic, I promise… the natural state of silence is a major contributor in providing a safer school for all students.

Achieving and maintaining silence requires presence. We collect our students after morning starters, break and lunch and escort them to lessons. Every time. We stand at our classroom doors to supervise the corridor and receive our next class between lessons. Every time. We share break time with the students and we eat with the students. Every time. The students are supervised and supported in every instance and this, perhaps counterintuitively, facilitates their independence and autonomy. Students who may be vulnerable to bullying, those who struggle to manage their own behaviour, those who struggle to manage their time and belongings, are not segregated for their own or anyone else’s safety and they don’t have their developmental and social opportunities hindered by 1:1 support between lessons; they simply do what all of the students do. And the less vulnerable children? Unaffected; unless, of course there’s a problem – a fall, a seizure or hypo, a behaviour incident. These sorts of incident can be picked up quickly on a silent and supervised corridor. A school designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and least able children is a school that can meet the needs of all of its children; intrinsically and inclusively. That’s equality.

Our students are all young – we only have years 7 to 9 currently – and I’m happy to acknowledge that how we do things will need to change as they get older; we already have a slightly different approach for year 9 compared to the younger year groups. But it can be done with real consideration of their needs as children and young people; educational and personal. To me, at 11, 12 and 13, even 14 and 15, years old… they’re just kids. They need and deserve our support on their learning curve to adulthood and, if we aren’t willing to put that in place, then maybe we are going to have to segregate the most vulnerable, escort them to lessons, and just hope for the best for the rest.

Maintaining a natural state of silence isn’t easy. I mean, it isn’t difficult as such, but it does mean doing the little things… maybe some boring or inconvenient things… lesson after lesson, day after day, week after week.   But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity, that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches so much further than simply being a practicality.

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9 thoughts on “In search of silence…

  1. Keep being told by students who cannot comprehend, nor read independently that they can read in noise which includes earbuds in their ears. They and their noisy friends then rely on teacher to edit and re draft their work ..and yes, check that their answer does actually travel somewhere in parallel with the original question. Strange then in an exam when they insist on silence…… Cannot keep calm while this happens.

    • Being allowed earbuds in lessons sounds like a nightmare! How can they concentrate? How does the teacher get everyone’s attention quickly? Crazy!

  2. “We share break time with the students and we eat with the students. Every time.”

    Really? What about your own rights to down time – presumably you’re getting a full lunch break on top of the time you’re spending with students? I can see the benefits of having staff and students socialising at lunch time, but your own employment rights matter too.

    • We don’t have to be in the heartspace at break (unless on duty, about once per week), it is just the nicest place to be! Teachers can choose to be there or not. Eating lunch with the students is part of our contracted hours and is made clear at appointment. When compared to other schools we have a little more PPA time, on average, to make up for it. It certainly is a long busy day, there’s no denying that! It isn’t, however, an infringement of our employment rights.

  3. I really like the ideas behind the silence; getting the mindset ready ready for learning etc. I’m currently battling to achieve some of this with my year sixes but they find it so hard.

    • I think we have achieved what we’ve achieved at DTA, at least in part, because of the strong whole-school culture and opt-in… And that, in turn, is largely been available to us as a start-up school. I imagine it would be difficult to achieve if a) it wasn’t being tackled as a whole-school issues with great consistency of expectation and b) if you were undoing old habits in order to make way for new ones. But those two things – culture and consistency – I think are key and available to all schools… Just harder under some circumstances than others!

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