During my PGCE year, I used to teach far more ‘exciting’ lessons. I would have relay races and treasure hunts and group work and discussion and board games and team challenges and so, as you would expect, my classes were typically quite loud. As it happens, this was never an aspect of my teaching practice that was particularly criticised or commented upon. In fact, in one self-evaluation after a lesson observation, I noted that the class had been louder than I would have hoped for, to which the response was: ‘yes, but they were talking about Maths, which is excellent!’
Although my lessons, for the most part, are far less ‘exciting’ than when I first began, I’ve still rarely insisted upon silence in my class. I had frequently heard comments such as ‘oh, I don’t mind a bit of chatter as long as they’re getting on with the work’, and so this became part of my practice. Insisting on absolute silence during work happened rarely in my classes; I would witness that they were perfectly capable of being silent during exams and assemblies, but this did not transfer to my lessons.
Undoubtedly, one reason for this is that I was apprehensive of implementing such an unambiguous rule. After all, the only way in which rules have impact is if rewards and sanctions are in place for meeting them. When you instruct students to work quietly, you have some leeway and chances to offer reminders about what you expect. With silence, there is nowhere to hide. In fact, one of my tutors suggested it was always best to ask a new class for ‘quiet’ rather than ‘silence,’ so that you can build a positive relationship rather than immediately having to reprimand students for speaking.
During the past few months, though, I’ve increasingly insisted upon silence in my classrooms. Sometimes this is only for a few minutes; sometimes this is for the full lesson. I cannot stress the impact that this is having on students’ work output, which for many, has improved dramatically. I had lulled myself into a false sense of security regarding the noise in my classrooms, and I had told myself that silence was a feature of classrooms of the past – I want my students to enjoy their learning and be engaged, and noise was a necessary part of that.
This weekend I attended a Teach First conference. During one session I was in, numerous other attendees were continuing whispered conversations during the delivery by the speaker. This was overwhelmingly frustrating, as I was finding it impossible to focus on what was being discussed. When we were given the opportunity to complete some paired work, I really struggled, due to the increase noise level in the room. I could not work with my partner effectively, as I was unable to think about the directed task.
All the time I have been prepared to facilitate students talking while completing independent work, I have been doing the deepest disservice to a significant proportion of the students that I teach. My tolerant approach may work for a few students, but the majority require a calm, quiet environment which I have not consistently been successful in delivering. I am not suggesting there is no room for group work and discussion, or even peer support. However, I am going to be more decisive about when silence is required. Too frequently, silence is seen as a nice optional extra to a productive learning environment, rather than a fundamental component.