Class Management

Silence

There are three aspects to silence, for present purposes: one independent and two related:

For more detail, see"Talking"

The roots of silence 

Silence is simply a symptom. The problem is to get at what it is a symptom of.

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).

Dependence

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:

Boredom

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.
    This was not trying to make a dry subject "fun", but for him it was a challenge to prepare the learners to learn.

Resentment

They don't want to co-operate any more. This may be because:

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.

Even with serialist learners (if they do exist), link it back to the whole. Show how the topics relate.

Once again, an illustration of Denis Healey's first law of politics: "When in a hole, stop digging!"

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...

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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