Silence as a Teaching Tool

silenceThis is a short post about an important lesson I learned early in my teaching career: silence is a teacher’s friend, not something to be feared.

It’s natural for a teacher to do everything he or she can to fill in those awkward times when no student is answering your brilliant questions. After all, the number one cardinal sin of radio and television is dead air, right? In the classroom, every moment must be occupied with either the teacher talking, or students actively responding, right?

However, time runs differently for students than it does for teachers. While the teacher is sure his or her lecture is clear, perfectly paced, and every student is understanding everything being presented, it’s another matter for the students. They are trying to remember and write down what you said four or five sentences back, while processing what you are saying right now. Throw in a question from the teacher, and now they are supposed to come up with the correct answer.

One of the most rewarding changes I made to my teaching style was to slow down and not worry about uncomfortable pauses. Different students process information in different ways and at different rates. They need time to catch up with me, and formulate a coherent response to my questions and comments. If I fill in every awkward silence with the response I’m looking for, students will quickly learn that they don’t need to make the effort to come up with their own.

So, if you’re a new teacher, the best advice I can give you is to sit back and wait when you pose a question to your students. It will be awkward at first while you stare at each other, but soon they will appreciate the fact that you value their input enough to give them time to properly compose it.

(Hat tip to my colleague, Katherine Zimmer, who reminded me of this during an insightful conversation this morning.)

I’ll leave you with Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”:



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