OPINION: 'The Power of Silence in a Classroom' by John Knight

class discussion day of silence facilitation john knight opinion power stimulate discussion Feb 15, 2022
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One of the greatest challenges I’ve had in teaching Seminar at St. Mary’ College of California has been to stimulate all my students, including the most reluctant, to contribute their ideas to our discussions for a true experience of shared inquiry. Twenty-nine years ago, one student in my American Culture and Civilization class for international students provided a spark which helped me address this challenge. She announced that she would not be participating verbally in class as it was the Day of Silence. Later, I learned that this day had been set aside by students at the University of Virginia in 1996 to show support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. These students felt that by being silent participants they draw attention to those who have been silenced by hatred, oppression, and prejudice. The challenge they experienced in that class reminded them of the voices that were and still are not heard.

This led me to wonder if my students might be emboldened by experiencing an entire class without speaking. So, the next year I experimented in my English as a Second Language (ESL) composition class. To my delight the attempt was successful, and a seed was sown.  Shifting a teaching method had the effect of stimulating thought and lively discussion by even the most reticent of speakers. A repeated experience in another class enjoyed similar results. Thus began my practice of conducting class in complete silence for one day a semester.

I initiate our "Day of Silence" class by distributing handouts introducing the National Day of Silence and instructions on how to proceed using the whiteboard, flip chart paper, binder paper and tape. In small groups students devise a question from the ones they have previously prepared and write it on the board or flip chart paper. Our mute discussion then begins.

To demonstrate what happens, let me summarize a recent discussion we had on Don Quixote. At first the students were unsure about what to do. With some written and nonverbal prompts from me, they began to huddle in groups, searched their texts for ideas and pulled one another to the flip charts. Slowly the following questions emerged:  "Do you believe Don Quixote has too much knowledge from books and not enough from his own experience with reality?” “Can this be why he is insane?” “Is it better to be knowledgeable or wise?” And from my quietest student – “How do we judge that wisdom?"

Now the real action began. They penned answers and ideas under the various questions. Some wrote their thoughts on separate pieces of paper and taped them near the appropriate chart. One student pulled her classmate to a chart and pointed to a comment she had written. As I perused their ideas, I noticed two main topics had developed: First, does the knowledge we assimilate from core texts truly prepare us for life? Or do we need actual experience to develop the wisdom required to survive?  Second, what are the consequences of Don Quixote's and our own actions.

After 60 minutes we summarized our efforts. We agreed that it is important to look at all points of view to make an intelligent decision. Many of the comments began with a version of “I didn’t see that point. Do you think it fits with xxx?” Every student had posted numerous ideas and questions. So, we could actually see that our actions, even in discussion, have consequences.

In our review of the class, many remarked that having the questions and responses up for view all period gave them time to think and respond. This resulted in a stronger give and take between them. One student even wrote, "I didn't feel stupid." And they were happy to have had the opportunity to address all the questions. But there were pitfalls as well. "I hate being silent" was one.  And sometimes it didn't feel like a group effort but more of a person to person or even a solo discussion. Nevertheless, the most telling comments came in response to how the positives of a silent discussion could be transmitted to our regular conversations. They included having more time initially to convert ideas to questions. Students mentioned that since we had such a lively discussion with everyone participating, the usually quiet students had more courage to speak up, and they discovered they were a definite asset to our dialogue. 

The most powerful thought came from a student who felt the ideas of discussing in silence could be related to real life as well our reading. She wrote, "I enjoyed the silent discussion. In relation to Don Quixote and today's world, it made me realize that we really have to stop, listen, think, and respond to what other people are saying. Nowadays, people think and act upon impulse because of the outcomes they want for themselves, like Don Quixote. In silent discussion, we . . . were able to read, think and respond within reason. This kind of discussion forces us to actually listen to what others have to say, and everyone had the chance to answer and have their voices be heard. This does not always happen in our regular class." What a lesson for all of us, especially in an ongoing pandemic world!

So, I invite you to be a little crazy. Introduce your students to a novel approach to any class discussion. Have fun in reasoning together about questions and problems.