I like children in my classes to work in silence a lot. History, the subject I teach, is built on reading and writing and these are best done in quiet, orderly atmospheres which give pupils time and space to think. While discussion to form and develop ideas is of course important ,and makes up a significant part of most of my lessons, this is only a piece of the puzzle. To solidify and crystallise ideas and concepts, and to practise, it is important children spend time working on their own.
The silent, independent writing parts of my lessons are often highlights for me. If the reading, whether done aloud or independently, has gone well, and discussion and explanation has been effective, the room assumes a scholarly, library-like feel with only the soft scatch of pens on paper and the turning of pages breaking a meditative tranquility. Some of my favourite moments in teaching are found in these quiet minutes, light streaming softly through classroom windows, seeing the cogs move, imagining I can hear the thoughts running through the heads of those in front of me. When we have this precious, purposeful calm I don’t interrupt with questions, explanations or funny stories because this breaks the concentration pupils need to do the work I’ve set. Intervening can also have unwelcome knock-on effects; it can make students feel they don’t need to pay attention in earlier parts of the lesson because their teacher will be available to explain what was already covered with the rest of the class individually to them later; it also worries children, who overhearing suggestions given to someone else, become anxious that what they’ve written isn’t quite right, lose confidence and ask for support they do not really need. Indeed, very regular and immediate help can contribute to learned helplessness with children coming to believe they are unable to work on their own at all.
Another unintended consequence of individually supporting students during silent working sections of lessons is that it is more difficult to maintain it with the rest of the class when you’re bent down or sat beside an individual child, making it impossible to be sure that the work produced by a child is theirs or that of the person next to them. Unnecessary intervention can turn a studious, quiet room into a savannah of noisy meerkats. Finally, intervening heavily makes it impossible to know when looking at work later whether or not pupils really understand teaching or whether they just aped a superficial response based on prompting. Of course, it might be argued that some children do require individual support and, in some cases, this is true, but as a general rule if instruction has gone well then most pupils should not require extra help to do the work and, if they do, the problem usually lies in what happened before the part of the lesson in which pupils were expected to work on their own; trying to fix this by intervening heavily to compensate is not a solution.
So I keep silent too. If it’s a class struggling to meet my expectations I’ll stand and use techniques described by Doug Lemov as “Be Seen Looking”, to make sure all pupils know they should be working alone. My favourite, ‘move’ for what it’s worth, is the tilting my glasses onto the tip of my nose and looking at unfocused children over the top of them if they look like they might be losing focus. I am short-sighted and so less able to see without my glasses but, as yet, nobody has noticed this. I will also, after children have had enough time to think on their own, sometimes quietly and unobtrusively circle the room, reading work over the shoulders of children without interrupting. This gives me a much better sense of whether or not the class as a whole has grasped what I want them to, and allow me to adapt my teaching in response. It also means I am able to tell whether or not children are just copying.
For classes used to my methods, who work well independently, an even softer touch is required. For these I may sit at my desk, doing my ‘Be Seen Looking’ from sitting, and only move around the room quite infrequently. Occasionally, if appropriate, I may even do a spot of marking or assessing, or even planning, with a quick look up now and again to check everything is going well.
I am, as I think I’ve made clear, quite comfortable with these methods and I hope even those that disagree will at least accept I’ve thought them through.
The problem is what to do if someone else, be they a Department Head, member of SLT or Ofsted inspector, comes into my room while children are working silence. Suddenly, while totally confident that what I’m doing is best for the children I am teaching, I become scared and usually lose my nerve. While I know morally I should just unashamedly carry on with what I’m doing this in practice is very difficult to do. Much more often my anxiety causes me to fire questions at my students, shamefully expecting them to perform like seals with balls on their noses for my new audience. I may pointlessly repeat an explanation of something I’d gone over earlier in the lesson or even start suggesting things they should put in their answers, in way I would personally advise a less experienced teacher never to do. I’m not proud of it; in effect, pretending to be a bad teacher in order to be regarded as a good one.
This same fear makes teachers up and down the country bounce from their seats like terrified jack-in-the-boxes and wander fear-crazed and aimless between desks every time they see a face at their classroom window
Teachers are quite logical in doing this. Sitting at a desk, or not directly teaching for whatever reason, has come to be regarded as cardinal sins in many schools. I have heard more than one senior leader describe teachers sitting at desks as a personal bugbear and one even said they had seriously considered removing teacher chairs from classrooms to stop them ever sitting down. While I get that some teachers sitting down may be doing so because they are lazy, it is illogical to describe all sitting teachers as idle ones when they may actually have very good reasons for expecting their pupils to work while they sit.
The reason for this silliness, as for so much else that has gone wrong in education, is that we are still confusing performance with learning. Learning and progress is invisible. So, in order to measure it we are dependent on proxies and rubrics, which rely on the observable actions of pupils. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, done thoughtlessly it warps good teaching and learning because it places disproportionate value on some aspects of the process over others. Questioning, explanation or jazzy bell-and-whistle activities are highly visible and so, in many contexts, seen as better than quiet, silent work, which gives an external observer very little to go on.
The problem with this is in the distortion. While of course, visible teacher and pupil activity is very important, so is quiet time in which to process and consolidate what has been taught. By creating the impression teachers and pupils should be visibly active all the time, we rob children of time they need to spend on more introspective work. It is this issue that caused the unfortunate rise and rise of the dreaded mini-plenary, which effectively officially endorsed the view that the most important thing was not learning, but rather that any learning should be observable to someone else.
I know all this but still I find myself afraid. Because I expect children to work independently a lot, there is pretty high chance that anyone randomly dropping into my lessons will find my pupils working in silence.
Is this OK?
I think it is but I’m often not the one who gets to decide. So, I would appreciate advice from Ofsted, SLTs, Department Heads or indeed anyone else, about what teachers should do if someone comes in to observe and finds a class working happily in silence.