There are three aspects to silence, for present purposes: one independent and two related:
- The independent aspect is that sometimes you want it. This is a major preoccupation for schoolteachers, but not so much in post-compulsory education (well...I wish). Examined more closely, you don't want silence so much as the demise of "off-task" conversation when students are meant to be working on their own. As ever, the general rule is to ask for/demand something positive rather than negative. Instead of "Stop talking!", seek:
- "You're working on this bit on your own, remember? There'll be an opportunity to compare notes later."
- "I'm all for collaboration, but sometimes you have to know that you can do it on your own. This is one of those times."
- "Respect! Some people are trying to work."
- The other related aspects are that you get it when you don't want it.
- No response to questioning (or just the class swot or joker responding) and sullen, passive resistance to exercises and discussion topics.
- Faltering, tentative (and usually banal) responses.
Silence is simply a symptom. The problem is to get at what it is a symptom of.
- I'm going to leave out of account sheer fear. Very few of us have retained the capacity to reduce our students to quivering wrecks through withering scorn for their contributions, sarcastic humiliation, and physical assault. A good thing, too (on the whole, although there are times...).
The first thing to note is that the cliché of the "conspiracy of silence" is accurate, although it is not always intentional. For a class to be silent requires a high degree of cooperation or collusion, which is why it is rarely a pure phenomenon. We have to extend its definition to grudging responses, obtained only in response to considerable effort, and elicited mainly—it appears—to pacify the teacher because to remain totally silent would require even more effort. This level of cooperation suggests that there is something significant going on at the cultural or systemic level.
"My car won't start" is a classic illustration of equifinality. It may be that you have no fuel, that the battery is flat, the starter motor has packed up...What is it? Silence is a wonderful example of what systems theorists call the "principle of equifinality", i.e. you can get somewhere from a number of starting points, and one effect can be achieved by many causes.
For our purposes, there are two main possibilities (which are not mutually exclusive).
The first is that you have mobilised basic assumption dependence, so that students are (unrealistically) so much in awe of you that they daren't venture an opinion, because anything they say is bound to be inadequate. This is discussed elsewhere, but stop muttering "Chance would be a fine thing", because it does happen more often than you might think, and you might not notice it at all because it feels too good—while it lasts.
Loss of motivation
You've lost them. Sometimes it's nothing to do with you, since the world of the class is not immune from contamination by the real world, but some possibilities to consider are:
Probably the most common factor, and possibly communicated by you. While relentless enthusiasm for a not-immediately-appealing subject can lead to the same effect—and students believing you are some strange kind of obsessional geek—the opposite is more frequent. All of us think from time to time, "this is dry stuff, but we have to do it..." and just get on with it. The problem is that we get on with it by going through the motions of presenting it, sending a message to the students that it is not possible to be engaged with the material. Cognitively, the presentation may be perfectly competent, of course.
- A few years ago, I observed a lecture on how to calculate various values in the design of electronic circuits. It was clear, well structured, and used effective visual aids, but it was deadly boring and the lecturer had to work hard to get any response to his questions. None of the students volunteered any questions of their own. He explained afterwards that he had to "cover the theory", and they would explore the practice later in the lab session. He implied that the lecture was a kind of initiation ordeal the students had to undergo. I knew nothing about the subject, so I could not make many useful suggestions, but I did identify that as long as he believed this, he would communicate it effectively to the students.
- A few months later another lecturer on roughly the same subject (incidentally this time in a further education college, where teaching matters more than in the university [discuss]), got some response from the students without comment and proceeded to construct a model of the circuit using their wrong answers, showing how it couldn't work. It was a kind of reductio ad absurdum technique. He did not get through as much of the syllabus in his hour, but he did get the students to appreciate why they needed to understand it. He generated a little cognitive dissonance which he planned to exploit later. He knew it would not carry him through the whole syllabus, but he could vary it later.
was not trying to make a dry subject "fun", but
for him it was a challenge to prepare the learners to learn.
They don't want to co-operate any more. This may be because:
You have worn them out. They have mental indigestion. They have been bombarded with discrete bits of information which they cannot link together. They have no "handle" on the material, and to put it frankly, answering questions will only encourage you. The process message in the silence is (in the caption of a Gary Larson cartoon I once saw), "Please, sir, can we stop now? My brain's full!"
They feel patronised. That means they feel that every bit of interaction has the potential for humiliation. Even your response of, "Very good!" has acquired the sub-text of, "I suppose that is the best that I can expect from these stupid little twerps." This is a mind-set which is very difficult to alter once it is established. Even explicit apology (apart from that for the occasional lapse) does not work and simply reinforces the process. Cut your losses, try slowly to regain credibility, and try to do better next time.
You have pitched the learning at the wrong level. Either it is so elementary that learners feel insulted that they are having to respond to stuff so basic, or they haven't a clue what you are talking about. This is not really a problem if you identify it soon enough: move up and down the scale, rather like tuning a radio, until you find the level at which you do get responses and build on that.
Tip: one thing which induces mental indigestion is marking transitions in a session by saying, "Right, we've dealt with that; now we are going on to this..." It is good practice in that it marks the transition to another major topic, but conjures up a vision of further independent topics stretching into eternity. Go back to a mind-map or orientation OHT to show how it fits together.
Of course, one defensive way of avoiding the problem of silence is not to seek any responses at all. Just keep going regardless. On reflection, I did just that this afternoon. It was a one-off session for a group of former teachers returning to practice. I had an exercise for them, and a few jokes and anecdotes, and plenty of visual aids—but it was more like an after-dinner speech than a real teaching session. I never put myself in the position of having to find out what their reactions were and still less what their understanding was. To her credit, the colleague who followed me started with an exercise on what they had got out of my presentation. There's a moral there somewhere...