Silence is golden: using silent discussions to promote inclusivity and critical thinking
Dr Lucy Spowart
What is the idea?
Whether online or in the classroom, a discussion is typically thought of as being a verbal dialogue between two or more individuals. In a silent discussion all verbal communication is banned and written communication is deliberately privileged. Learners are asked to respond in writing to a particular question, statement or image, whilst maintaining complete silence. The facilitator specifies the time the silence needs to be maintained.
Whilst learners respond individually, as the number of responses increases, a dialogue develops. Where learners don’t understand a comment or want more information, they are encouraged to convey this in writing.
Why this idea?
Whilst active learning is known to promote deep learning (Exley & Dennick, 2009), many active learning approaches require students to engage in verbal discussions. Quieter, more introverted individuals can be marginalised in such activities as can students from countries where silence plays a significant cultural role (Frambach, Driessen, Beh & van der Vleuten, 2014; Lees, 2013). Worse still, silence can be associated with a deliberate lack of engagement, disobedience or conflict (Granger, 2004; Hanh, 2020). However, there may be a plethora of reasons underlying student silence including: insufficient time to digest information; a fear of making mistakes and being judged; language competence; demotivation; inappropriate teaching methods and a lack of confidence (Delima, 2012; Hanh, 2020).
Using silence as a pedagogical tool has a number of potential advantages:
1) Students can participate simultaneously thus promoting more democratic forms of interaction, preventing a situation where louder voices dominate;
2) Silent activities can promote inclusion by catering for different learner needs;
3) Anxieties frequently associated with contributing verbally may be reduced;
4) Individuals are encouraged to actively reflect BEFORE responding thus promoting critical reflection;
5) Emotive or contentious issues that may give rise to strong opinions are well suited to this activity;
6) Silent discussions are highly flexible being suited to both small and large class sizes. A class of up to 100 could undertake this activity by moving in small groups silently between discussion boards (Trust me, they can!).
How could others implement this idea?
The discussion can be structured in different ways, depending on class size, and whether delivered online (e.g. using tools like a MiroBoard) or in a classroom using flipchart paper, whiteboards or writing walls. When working with large classes (~100) in big spaces such as lecture theatres, the teacher should prepare enough ‘discussion boards’ to keep group sizes manageable (< 8). This ensures that each individual has the space to contribute to the discussion.
The activity typically has a number of steps:
1. Choose a topic to debate and discuss. This could be a question, as illustrated in the picture below, a statement, a problem or an image. Prepare your discussion board (or boards if you have several groups working simultaneously)
2. Establish the ground-rules – for the activity to work the silence must be maintained.
3. Allow time to think – Once each group is at their discussion board give time (typically 2 minutes but it depends on the complexity of the topic) to read/observe in silence, digest and think.
4. Respond and interact – Learners then respond by writing their thoughts or questions about the topic and sharing their thinking. This can be done by providing pens to write on white-boards/walls or by using post-it notes (as below). As more learners post their thoughts they should be encouraged to respond to each other with further written comments.
5. Reflect – The silence is broken and the teacher facilitates a whole class discussion. A skilful facilitator can draw together the key points and encourage further critical reflection on the content and the process. The intention is NOT to judge or assess individual contributions, but to draw together the key emerging themes and/or clarify any questions or misunderstandings. This final step could also involve an additional written reflective element.
Transferability to different contexts
This activity can be adapted to a range of different disciplines and contexts. However, since the spoken word is frequently privileged, it is important to ensure that instructions are clear and that learners understand and ‘buy-in to’ the underpinning rationale. When using the activity for the first time it is advisable to start with small groups and to work in silence for short lengths of time. Involving additional facilitators can help to maintain the silence and concentration required. As learners and facilitators become more accustomed to the activity, group size, and the length of time the silence is to be maintained, can increase. To suit different spaces, the discussion boards can be moved/shared between groups rather than the groups circulating.
To further promote inclusivity (catering for the needs of dyslexic students, for example) the topics/questions/images on the discussion boards could be shared in advance of the session adopting a flipped classroom approach (Al-Samarraie et al., 2020) to the task. Similarly, a MiroBoard may be made available for a designated period of time before and/or after the facilitated session.
Links to tools and resources
- TeacherToolkit, the silent discussion: https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2017/04/23/silent-discussion/
- MiroBoard: https://miro.com/
Al-Samarraie, H., Shamsuddin, A., & Alzahrani, A. I. (2020). A flipped classroom model in higher education: a review of the evidence across disciplines. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(3), 1017-1051. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-019-09718-8
Delima, E. M. (2012). A reticent student in the classroom: A consequence of the art of questioning. Asian EFL Journal, 60, 51-69.
Exley, K., & Dennick, R. (2009). Giving a lecture: from presenting to teaching (2nd ed.). Routledge Falmer.
Frambach, J. M., Driessen, E. W., Beh, P., & van der Vleuten, C. P. M. (2014). Quiet or questioning? Students’ discussion behaviors in student-centered education across cultures. Studies in Higher Education, 39(6), 1001-1021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-019-09718-8
Granger, C. A. (2004). Silence in second language learning: A psychoanalytic reading. Multilingual Matters.
Hanh, N. T. (2020). Silence is gold?: A study on students’ silence in EFL classrooms. International Journal of Higher Education, 9(4), 153-160. https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v9n4p153
Lees, H. (2013, August 22). Silence as a pedagogical tool. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/opinion/silence-as-a-pedagogical-tool/2006621.article
Shushing girl by philm1310 from Pixabay.
Post-it notes on whiteboard by Lucy Spowart is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence