On the Value of Quiet in our Schools

28 Sep 2019

In typical introverted fashion, I can only really feel confident delivering presentations at Education events if I write a script in advance. I then spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time trying to learn the material. This was the vision for my talk at ResearchED Scotland; in the wise words of Robbie Burns, however: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley…”

On the Value of Quiet in our Schools

I’ll start this morning with adisclaimer, this is ResearchED after all, so I better make my inherent bias completely clear. “Quiet” is a word that without doubt defines my personality: look up introversion in the dictionary and you will find me there.

I am happier at home with a book, or writing than out socialising, I am bordering on invisible in staff meetings and I am fairly useless at small talk. The fact I am an obsessive runner completes the cliché. Apologies in advance for any post-presentation floundering attempts at conversation, although I will be probably be hiding somewhere recovering from this!

I started to think more about the notion of ‘quiet in education’ for deeply selfish reasons: I often tend to finish a day of in school interpersonally exhausted, with a distinct lack of conversation. For my wife, the dictionary definition of extroversion, this causes more than its fair share of issues. For the many more introverted teachers and leaders that are present in school settings, the extroverted demands of teaching can make the profession more challenging.

I also get frustrated with some of the messaging in education, and the fact that in many ways, schools embody the extrovert ideal. Collaboration and dialogue dominate: they are loud, relentless and often focussed on the external, rather than the internal. For quieter young people, we have a responsibility to make sure they can get the most out of their experience in schools. We also, as I will argue in this talk, should do more to become cheerleaders of elements of quiet.

Society itself can  further promote that extrovert ideal: to speak up, to contribute, to endlessly share seems to be the way we, and in turn young people, are encouraged to live. Social media drives this agenda: quiet reflection, modesty and internal processing is perhaps no longer valued in the way it once was.

So in typical introverted fashion, I have spent this year writing a book, going on a quiet odyssey through education. This has involved delving into research and interviewing introverted students and teachers about their experience in education. In this talk, I will look at three areas I have been researching and writing about: quiet students, quiet for teachers, and quiet skills.

Quiet Students

This is David (image). He is in fifteen, starting an important year of exams. He works extremely hard and wants to do well. And he is doing well, with one apparent caveat: he very rarely contributes in lessons.

He has just returned from his parents’ evening. Two of his teachers stumbled slightly when he entered the room, glancing at their data sheet to remind themselves of his name. Then the phrase “David is hard working but very quiet”, was used of five different occasions. “He really should contribute more”, was used three times.

I would argue that the use of this pesky conjunction “but”, is doing more harm that we might recognise. The pressure that David will now feel on return to school the next day to contribute verbally will be immense. Although well-intentioned, none of his teachers offered any guidance about how he might begin to metamorphosise into a talkative student over-night. And what of his self-efficacy as a learner? What will happen to his confidence levels after receiving such repeated feedback?

What if we started to re-evaluate what contribution really is in our classrooms? Instead of trying to influence these students to take on extroverted characteristics, what if we also encouraged them to channel their quiet strengths to achieve their potential?

We want students like David to recognise that they have immense strengths, that their diligence, focus and desire to do well can be used as role models for others in their classes.

So what five subtle changes might we make to our teaching to enable our quieter students to thrive.

Names

There will be students in our classes whose names are hardly every spoken, who seem to drift through lessons and days in relative anonymity. The interpersonal work we do as teachers with these students is vital. Nobody wants to feel like they are on the outside of any environment, and quieter students can often feel this way. Making sure we use our quieter students’ names, engage with them on an individual level, and find out what their passions are, can make a huge difference in building relationships with them. Once these students are more comfortable in our classrooms, we can then try to scaffold their participation in whole class dialogue.

Process time

How much time do we genuinely leave for thinking and reflection in lessons? I know that I certainly don’t leave enough, and that often the rush of the lesson clock seems to get in the way. For our quieter students, this time to think and process information is essential, they need the space to verbally rehearse what they might be going to say. Giving time to have quiet conversations before being expected to contribute can also help with this, all helping to create an atmosphere of thoughtfulness – rather than the rush of generic question and answer strategies in which a great number of students switch off.

Alternative contributions

Can we build in opportunities for students to write an answer, rather than say it straight away? It will encourage more depth of thinking around the room, rather than relying on the hand full of extroverted students who will volunteer answers, everyone is expected to be actively thinking and processing lesson content. That will also allow us the time to circulate and clear up any misconceptions that might exist about the content.

Silence

There is still a drive for collaboration, group work and exploratory learning in education. All have their place and are vital skills for young people to learn. But is there the same reverence and importance placed on silence? Often the role of silence is purely draconian, a punishment for poor behaviour. We need to instead coach and persuade young people that working in silence is vital for their development, processing of skills and learning.

In my own lessons I call it ‘sacred silence’ and try to have a silent section in each lesson. I have been lucky enough to have a range of voices contribute to my book, to learn how other teachers use various aspects in their lessons. One that has really resonated with me is from Professor of English at Liverpool University, Joe Moran, Author of ‘Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness’ and ‘First You Write a Sentence’. In his case study for the book he wrote the following:

“In a world of constant babble and blather, I hope that such slightly awkward silences might inspire in my students a thoughtfulness about how much can be known and how much we really understand each other. An English class could be, if nothing else, a break from the endless noise of the endlessly mediatised lives of young people – a brief respite from being constantly available to others via those familiar dancing thumbs on a touchscreen. It could be a replenishing pause – a space to stop, breathe and think.”

Verbalise and celebrate ‘quiet’ skills

Instead of quiet always being correlated with a pesky ‘but’, what if we took as many opportunities to celebrate the nuances of quiet as possible? That might involve recognising students who listen intently, who demonstrate real thoughtfulness or who show real care and attention to detail. It is also about having dialogue with young people on different personality types and respecting the fact that some students will want to contribute more than others. Surely that as an integral part of any work with young people: coaching them on recognising value and difference in a complex world.

Quiet Teachers

In researching my book, so many teachers contacted me to tell me they were initially warned off teaching, told they were far too ‘quiet’ to be a teacher. There is, of course, an element of extroversion required in teaching, and quieter personalities need to embrace ‘performance’ to an extent in the classroom.But we also need ‘quiet’ in our teaching and in our time in schools. So how do we find an appropriate balance?

Over-narration

This is not a harkening back to an age which derided teacher talk and claimed that we should only facilitate learning. Instead, it is about us being more reflective about what we say and how we say it. I teach English, on a full-time table. I talk, endlessly. It is one of the reasons why my conversation is worse than usual at the end of the day. I am also prone over narrating lots of aspects of my lessons and curbing this endless talk and communication has been a focus of my lessons this year.

By thinking carefully about the quality of our talk, and even the volume of it, students start to lean in more and listen more attentively to points we are trying to make.  Our words have more weight, are more memorable and are more likely to be retained.

The old-adage ‘quieter teachers make quieter classrooms’ is also often true. By presenting an environment of quiet calm and focus, our students can often start to reciprocate with similar behaviours.

Classroom environment

Classrooms are often undeniably ‘loud’: with brightly curated displays covering every wall. What is we instead, embraced the principles of minimalism? This advocates a system in which we have only what is necessary and we purge ourselves of all the superfluous “stuff” that is crammed in our spaces. We spend most of our working days in our classrooms, and the way in which we use them is vitally important for how we, and our students feel in them.

Stripping them back to what is essential, making them places of calm and quiet, can help to improve the focus and concentration of our learners, and start to influence our own well-being.

Wellbeing

We all know that teacher burnout is a significant issue. Well-being is also utterly unique for each person in the school walls. If researching personality theory has taught me anything, it is in the words of the American writer Marilynne Robinson, “People are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right?’

But one of the reasons why teaching can be so overwhelming is because of the lack of time to find a moment of calm, a moment of quiet, and a moment of perspective.

There is a pressure to fill out every minute of the day, with interaction built upon interaction. What we perhaps need to do is curve out what Susan Cain in her wonderful book ‘Quiet’ calls restorative niches.

Finding moments outside of the interpersonal demands of the teaching day, moments of quiet, can really help restore us. It is not about being anti-social, it is about recognising that we need this time to recharge and present the best version of ourselves. If we don’t, the stress and anxiety begins to build and we find ourselves exhausted and, in the worst of cases, burnt out.

My mother is the epitome of an introvert and was a wonderful primary teacher. She went out for a walk every single lunch-time, to recharge and reconnect. Other teachers have shared their own strategies with me online: meditation, diary writing, even hiding in toilets are among the various strategies!

Finding what works for us to quieten the overwhelming demands of teaching is also vital for longevity in the profession. For our young people also, we also need to facilitate a sense of space and rest-bite from the endless pace of the world around them.

Teacher Improvement

 Is there anything more extrovert orientated than a typical inset training day?  CPD in general for teachers seems often to be geared towards some charismatic presenter who has a range of collaborative activities up his sleeve, followed by some time for group discussions and presentation. Most of the time teachers sit with growing frustration, their epic to-do list haunting them.

I recently completed a Masters in Practitioner Enquiry, and for the dissertation I explored retention and motivation in teachers in the first five years. I interviewed and surveyed over 150 teachers, and the perceived lack of genuine opportunities to improve as a teacher was one of the recurring issues that caused frustration.

Teachers are incredibly passionate about developing in the classroom, but often feel that they are not given the time and the differentiated approach they need to improve. Instead their CPD involves sitting through activities that they feel is not going to benefit their own classroom practice.

How can we take ownership and quietly develop our own teaching? I am at the start of studying an education doctorate looking into this in more detail. The   research tells us that one-off CPD sessions are very rarely useful, instead it needs to be something sustained and measured over time.

Finding a coach can be a very useful way to give the space and time to quietly reflect on our own teaching, helping us to take ownership over our own improvements. Practitioner enquiry is also another way in which we can make steps to decide on an area of our teaching that we want to evaluate and develop in. Both begin to explore the nuances and complexity of teaching in more detail.

Leadership

There is often the belief that to be a successful leader, you have to be radiating extroverted qualities. Those who talk the most and talk the loudest, are perceived to be the leaders, regardless of how effective and thoughtful that talk is. Yet, I would suggest that the very best leaders I have worked with have embodied the quiet qualities: humility, empathy, attention to detail and inner motivation and drive.

They also define the most overlooked of qualities, the capacity to listen intently and seek to understand what someone else is saying. Often this can be the issue that teachers have with leadership teams – the notion that they are not hearing what staff are saying.

We need to try and find ways to empower quieter staff in schools to take on more leadership responsibilities and share their internal, often profound, reflections on what is happening in our schools.

Quiet Skills

Learning is, as we know all too well, a complex and layered process. Our classrooms are often dominated by the external and surface of activity, ignoring the quiet web of internal activity that has a significant impact on how well our students do. Three areas of ‘quiet’ skills that I believe are vital:

Intrinsic motivation

High up on the list of student desirable qualities is, of course, motivation. Without our students possessing it, our lessons are significantly more of a battle. Intrinsic motivation is what we are really trying to cultivate, that internal drive that is not founded on external rewards.

Part of what will drive this in our students is our own teacher presence: our enthusiasm, passion and ability to evoke curiosity and interest in our students. Trying to find moments in which to make our subjects as relevant for them as possible, will also help them to see the value and purpose in what they are doing.

Also vital in trying to generate real and lasting motivation for our students, is to build and cultivate the self-efficacy of our learners. We can do this by giving them opportunities to experience academic success: to appreciate the satisfaction from crafting a complex essay introduction or through mastering a mathematical equation. This, balanced with feedback, can encourage them to want to internally grow and develop as learners.

Focus

Multi-tasking has become the way that we are encouraged to function in modern society. Sustained and focussed concentration is harder and harder to find, particularly with a world of distraction and instant gratification only a click away. For young people this addictive call is even more pervasive.

Classrooms need to cultivate focus and concentration and thinking about this notion of multi-tasking is an important area to begin. Are we channelling our students’ focus and concentration on a single activity or task? Or are we causing cognitive overload by asking them to think and focus on various things at the same time?

PowerPoint can be one of the main issues in this: often we are talking over streams of information and splitting the fragile attention of our students at the same time. In turn, the PowerPoint diet of each lesson involving walking in to yet another presentation, is hardly the most intriguing of ways to inspire learning. Instead, appealing to emotion and curiosity is a useful way to sustain focus over periods of time, particularly if we can build this into the start and close of lessons.

Metacognition

The most obvious of the invisible, quiet and internal processes that take place in our schools is, of course, how our students are thinking. Could there be a magic solution to help influence our students’ ability to understand and reflect on their thinking? Metacognition may start to provide some of the answers. Very simply, it is the process of thinking about thinking. As the experts in our subjects we have an ability to think carefully through all aspects of what we are teaching – and it is this knowledge and thought processes we want to share with our students.

This involves actively modelling to students our thinking, talking them through each step of a learning activity, then encouraging them to do the same. It is about guiding them on how to plan effectively for a task, asking them to connect it to previous learning and helping them to slow down before they dive into a task. Before they hand over their work to us, it is essential we also get them to carefully reflect on what they have done. They should question the skills they have used and try to identify what they have done well and what they need to do to improve. Preventing a culture of reliance and getting them to take ownership is the ideal situation we are aiming for.

To conclude: why should schools be championing the values of quiet? Most obviously, it might help quieter, more introverted students thrive and feel that they have unique qualities. In turn, giving space and time for thinking and modelling quieter skills might help our other students develop the discipline, focus and interpersonal skills that are vital in any profession.

For teachers and leaders, making quiet time to restore ourselves and prioritise our wellbeing will help make teaching a more sustainable profession. Taking the time to quietly take ownership of our own teacher improvement will also help us take control of what we are all passionate about: improving the quality of learning in our classrooms.

 

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Jamie Thom

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