“Silence is not empty; it is full of answers.”
Active and Passive
Silence in the classroom comes in two basic forms: active and passive. Active silence (working silence) is recognized by “gears turning” in the minds of the students: tilting heads, nodding, a slowly building smile, gazing with focus, gleaming or widening eyes, leaning in, eyebrows raised, sighing, and other thinking signals. Passive silence (inattentive or uninterested silence) is the absence of those things and includes signals like: slouching, eye rolling, eyes locked downward, arms crossed, staring blankly, leaning away, hands in pockets, and perhaps nodding absently or inappropriately.
Most teachers know that wait time is important after asking a question, but Socratic Classroom teachers must go beyond simple wait time (at least seven seconds). The math is simple: If you want the students to speak and think more, you must speak less. If it seems active, keep waiting, and perhaps ask the question one additional time. If it is generally passive, don’t rescue the situation; facilitate it. Ask the students to do a turn-and-talk, ask a variation of the question or perhaps ask a new question.
If you’ve asked a particularly tough question, add even more wait time. And then more. And then more still. (I once waited a painfully long 37 seconds before a group got going). Wait them out until they are unsure of their answers and begin thinking anew. Wait more. Let the students squirm around in their minds wondering why you are waiting so long. Let the daydreamers zone back in and wonder what’s going on. Let them doubt their initial answer(s). Wait even more. In a state of being unsure, the students might discover new ideas and make new connections. Try it out some day. It really is magical.
The Beauty of Silence
What can you hear in silence? More than you think! As the above quote indicates, silence is never empty; it is full of thinking and wondering, questions and answers. Most of us need more silence in our lives to relax and de-stress. Watch and listen to this fascinating TED Talk about John Cage's composition 4'33".
The Problem in Silence
Many teachers make the classic mistake of not letting questions and wait time do their magic. They ask a question, wait a bit, and then become uncomfortable themselves. They then fill the thinking space by repeating the question. Then rephrasing the question. Then asking the new variation. Then repeating, each time not letting silence do its work. Instead, look for the signs of active silence, let the question do its work, and give students the time they need to contemplate.
Listen = Silent
Lastly, I always like to point out to students that the words “listen” and “silent” are anagrams (they have the same letters). It’s a simple and elegant way to suggest to students that to truly listen requires the mind to be silent. It is also a good introduction to active listening and barriers to listening.