Silent teaching, part 1

Sometimes less really is more!

During a particularly bad case of man flu in which I felt the throat had been ripped out of me, I was cheered by the fact that it occurred during the school term, rather than being the usual holiday scourge. The malady was such that the bloody rasping occurred only when I spoke, but other than that I felt fine. Not being a work-shy fop, but mostly because I had recently spent a week out at Muffin Towers (Longhirst), I thought I’d take my classes anyway, and, retaining my pentadactyl function proceeded to type out a greeting to my first class on the whiteboard.

“I can’t speak, but when you hear The Flumps I would like a quality audience so I can give you further instruction.”

By the end of the day I found I had taught three successful lessons, including some silent science demonstrations, using a flipchart to communicate. Below I have attempted to distil some of the reasons for this unexpected triumph:

How I managed the classes

With the lights dimmed I displayed the greeting and explanation of why I was not speaking. The theme to the Flumps was chosen from the music bank as the tune which would signal when I wanted a quality audience. Even the most tardy attention givers were quicker to come round than usual. Things seemed to move much quicker, in large part I suggest, because I did not have to wait to address the whole group before giving instruction. Each progressive task or activity remained on the board for some time, eliminating the need for me to repeat the same thing umpteen times. Though I did carry a pen and large notebook on which I could ask and answer questions in individual and small group situations, I was genuinely impressed by the level of questions that were addressed to me.

Almost immediately those naff interactions that plague us all, such as where’s the bin, have you got a sharpener, my pen’s broke, can I lend a pen, and even some of the more reasonable poor learner tendencies were less prevalent. Only at the beginning of the lesson were students coming up to me when they were stuck or they wanted to check something.

Because they could not get instant gratification, or even a rebuke for being lazy, as verbal response (they had to wait for me to get out my pen and notebook), they soon discovered that it would be quicker to try another route and did what I had been trying to get them to do all year, which was to sort their own problems out independently.

My sixth form group particularly enjoyed the practical session they were in. My written instructions were updated throughout the session and, unless there were key learning points or safety instructions, I could add commentary to specific groups or named students in the background. It seemed that more credence was given when the instruction was given via the whiteboard and again, as I mentioned earlier, the instructions remain on the board for a while, removing the need to get all students off task together listen or to for repetition.

By the end of the session what was on the whiteboard was effectively a blog that could be reviewed. They referred firstly to each other, made much better use of their exercise books in which prompts to the problems for this lesson could be found, searched out text books and went online. I was able to show short videos. I realise that a large part of the success was that me not speaking has an impact as something unusual, but since then I have made a conscious effort to distil what went well, and how it moved my students to be a little more independent.

I am not, of course, advocating that we refrain from talking to our students, but those interactions that we do have can be of a higher quality when we take those extra few seconds before offering responses. The terrible chasm of silence in one-to-one situations between student and teacher will often lead to the student saying something else, perhaps thinking the problem through out loud– this true for teachers and students alike.

Incidentally, it took no longer for students to achieve a quality audience when I simply waited for silence than it usually does with a countdown.

Fergus Hegarty

…another teacher’s experience trying out the same technique next week!


3 thoughts on “Silent teaching, part 1

  1. Helen Wilson says:

    Hi Ferg

    Thanks for posting about this – a serendipitous experience!

    I can see a massive benefit for SEN students in particular if instructions are held on the whiteboard rather than given verbally. I’ll have to have a think about how to apply it as a TA though or is this one to ‘cut out and keep’ until I’m teaching?


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