Real silence

This blog post is intended as an extra layer in the conversation surrounding the use of silence in schools to help children study. After Anthony Radice wrote a blog post which talked about the forgotten importance of good ol’ fashioned Prep Time, I of course concurred but then questioned whether there were any dedicated silent periods in the majority of primary schools. A couple of teachers on twitter said that they had silence in their classrooms, but I’d like to argue that whatever they’re doing, it is no where the same or effective as Prep Time. I’d also like to add my own thoughts on how and why I would increase the ratio of silent study to teaching time in state schools if I had some kind of magical power.

Firstly, are there ever any really silent periods of study in primary schools? If teachers are saying that there are, then my concerns would be:

  1. Since we are supposed to be teaching 100% of the time, if a visitor/consultant/member of SLT bundled into the classroom during a period of silent study, would the teacher not get a bollocking for slacking off?
  2. If the teacher admits to doing something overtly ‘productive’ in the eyes of Ofsted (as I was told early on, ‘You need to be seen to move children on in their Learning. How do you know they’re not thinking the right thing?’), perhaps by sitting with a group and giving extra help/teaching, then there won’t be silence. Regardless of what tweeps say about #nobestwaytodosilentstudy, if there is a teacher and a TA constantly teaching or helping children during a period of silent study, then it is not silent study. You see, there is either silence or there isn’t.
  3. Even if the teacher were to be bold and actually go ahead with making children work in silence, this would be an ad-hoc decision and it wouldn’t last anywhere near as long as traditional Prep Time.
  4. Distractions are much more commonplace in primary schools, I think. The internal/infernal phone is constantly going off (‘Could you let Tracy know that she is going home with Uncle Billy today’), there are children who come in late (very late) and some children absolutely refuse to stop pestering their friends by either fiddling too much with rubbers and rulers, or announcing constant wittering commentary about every little thing that they’re thinking or doing (‘Ha! Look at this line I just drew! It’s all wonky like a see-saw!).

I’ve often thought that sometimes extrovert teachers say that there is silence in their classroom, when what they are talking about is their version of silence. How often have I heard from teachers, ‘Oh gosh I couldn’t study in total silence! How awful! I think it’s much better to have a hum of noise or chatter in the background, or maybe some music. Nobody could possibly like total silence. It’s practically barbaric to inflict that on children!’ These teachers announce that there will be silent writing, and then will promptly put some music on and perhaps start a scrolling set of pictures ‘to inspire creativity’ on the IWB. Said teachers will also punctuate the silence regularly with constant repetition of the success criteria, or suggestions of ‘Wow Words’ to use. In their heads, there is silence, but in the minds of the introverted children their thoughts are being shattered into a thousand pieces with screeching violins, brightly coloured gargoyles and incessant nagging.

Of course, I have admitted to using periods of silent study in my classroom too. You would expect that, since I am a rare primary teacher who is also an introvert and therefore understands that introverts aren’t merely ‘defective extroverts’ (as the extroverted world would believe us to be), but a group of Thinkers who mull things over before opening their mouths. We are more interested in solving problems, pondering the wonders of science or deciphering the intentions of others rather than constantly trying to hog the limelight. I always try to be fair by announcing that a certain amount of time that can be dedicated to talking about the work (to appease the extroverts and SLT, who always seem to be extroverts themselves), but that after this time there will be silence ‘For the sake of our friends who need and want to concentrate by themselves’. The children welcome this and the relief is almost palpable (sometimes there are few hurrahs) when I announce that it’s time to knuckle down. And then of course the known children who just cannot help but witter on get moved away from other children.

If you do as I do quite regularly, then the following positive things happen:

  • Children get better and better at concentrating.
  • Massive improvement in quality and quantity of written work. For example, fewer spelling errors and neater handwriting.
  • Chatterboxes do change a little and begin to think of others. I like to encourage the introverts to assert themselves by having the confidence to say, ‘Would you mind leaving me alone to think now.’
  • Weirdly, fewer arguments, tantrums or friendship issues.
  • The children who can’t be bothered to listen and learn during my input suddenly get smoked out because they can’t just ask their friends for all the answers. Then, they tend to make more effort to do what is expected the next time round and ask questions if they want the teacher to explain something again.
  • When I mark, I can tell exactly who needs an extra intervention and my extra time can be devoted to them, rather than having to make the children who can’t control themselves (and who might have otherwise chatted about Minecraft) do some extra work to make up for their wasted time
  • Children who have got used to having an adult with them, practically doing the work for them and repeating the input, are forced to think for themselves

Given the above, you could say that everyone’s a winner in this situation. Except, I don’t think this use of silent study goes far enough. What’s the missing link? The missing link is that Prep Time is a ritual, whereas a teacher’s random decision to instigate some silence is definitely not. In the former situation, children come to expect it and by having Prep Time for the same time every single day, they also learn the good habits of regular self-study (instead of procrastinating). Again, it is the disadvantaged children who lose out if we choose not to appreciate the true value of a ritual such as Prep Time: they don’t have a chance to learn at home, as their advantaged peers do, to dedicate a fixed and regular amount of time to silent study. Their advantaged peers have parents who put in place that crucial routine for doing homework, times tables or spelling practice and, of course, silent reading.

As you know, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian thing, trying to understand the culture that underpins methods of teaching and learning that happens in maths classes in Shanghai, for example. To me, there was another subtle je-ne-sais-quoi that went beyond the initial understanding of your classic ‘ping-pong’ maths lessons, daily interventions to keep the whole class together and the use of varied and intelligent practice to help consolidate learning. What I have realised is that, staring right at me, was a ritual just like Prep Time. Perhaps I am taking the analogy too far, but it is almost like the process of becoming a mathematician in Shanghai is like a path of devotion, particularly when it comes to the use of practice. You see, children practise what they have learned in maths every single day and for a good long time. They practice at home, alone and in silence. This is a daily ritual, something akin to a meditation in numbers, with new connections and insights revealed through purposeful study and the repetitive practise of calculations. There is refuge in numbers and the desk which has been purchased for every child (who may live in poverty or cramped conditions) is like a shrine to self-cultivation which, as Confucian philosophy states, makes us not just more intelligent, but better people. Confucians understand and accept of the importance of ritual and habit as a way of becoming more cultivated, productive and also happier. I think we used to have this wisdom too, but it has since been lost.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would instigate Prep Time for all children in state schools. It’s not just about having a place and time to study alone, it’s about getting into good habits, being able to concentrate, self-cultivation, making your own connections and committing useful facts and procedures to memory; it’s also about being a happier person.

Happier children.

Who’s with me?




2 thoughts on “Real silence

  1. Never truer words said/whispered! I believe that all children should understand both the rights and responsibilities of Voice. In other words, there is a time for talk and a time for silence (different disciplines). I grew up in quiet classrooms and thrived, but at times, I needed to talk around certain subjects with my peers in order to have my thoughts verified and challenged…
    No one set rule or answer to the issue you raise, in my humble opinion.


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