Silence and stillness

Silence and stillness in the classroom

The 21st century is a noisy place.  As a culture, we have forgotten what silence sounds like and it has become a rare and even a threatening experience. Many people spend all day surrounded by noise and some even fill their nights with noise as well. A young student teacher told me he left the radio on all night because he ‘hated silence’ and was never willingly without sound of some kind. Schools and classrooms full of children or young people can feel particularly noisy. Teachers sometimes feel they have to spend the whole day talking, even shouting.  In such a context, is silence possible and why should it have a place in a modern classroom?

 What is silence?

Human beings never experience complete silence. Even when there are no obvious external sounds we can hear our breathing and the sounds of our bodies. Forrest, (in press, retrieved from www.philosophy – of – education. org 16 March 2012) notes that silence is difficult to define in words – because it is, by its nature – wordless.  Alerby and Elídóttir (Alerby and Elidottir, 2003) suggest that silence means different things to different people and that it can be desirable, enjoyable, aggravating or embarrassing but that it is an important and essential part of human life.

 The value of stillness and silence

 The first reason for a teacher to use silence in the classroom is because it is good for the teacher. Silence, a quietening of mind and body, helps us to flourish, to think clearly and creatively. Teachers often ignore their own wellbeing and their own flourishing and focus exclusively on the needs of their students. Higgins (Higgins, 2010) notes the tendency of teachers to suffer from a ‘nagging asceticism’ and to discount their own welfare. Learning to build silence and stillness into every lesson is important for the teacher first and then for their students. Silence, according to Caranfa, is essential for true learning to take place because it allows us to see and to feel the subject, rather than to relate to it in a logical or rational way. It allows knowledge to be personalised and ‘to serve the life of happiness,’ (Caranfa,  2004: 227). It also allows the teacher to experience the ‘joy of teaching’ (2004: 229).

Alerby and Elídóttir argue for ‘the value of silence in teaching and learning’, (Alerby and Elidottir, 2003: 46) which they refer to as a pedagogy of silence. Stillness and silence have always been associated with learning though not necessarily in a positive way. Silence can be imposed by fear or group pressure and can be oppressive – minority groups are silenced and denied a voice. I would argue that that kind of silence is not educational and does not serve the purposes of teaching or learning. The silence of teaching and learning should be an expectant silence, a silence that is created and sustained by the children themselves, a silence that is gentle, hopeful, creative and playful.

In order to encourage children to verbalise teachers ask questions or prompt a response – and then wait. And most teachers find it very hard to wait long enough for the child to respond because silence can feel uncomfortable. Research in the 1970s by Mary Budd Rowe (Rowe, 1986) found that teachers typically wait less than one second after they ask a question for students to reply – then the teacher asks another question or answers it themselves. If teachers can learn to increase their average ‘wait time’ – or use of silence – to three seconds or more, students’ use of language and reasoning can improve as they are allowed to think through and clarify ideas. Waiting that little bit longer than is comfortable is an important teaching skill whatever we are teaching and whatever age and ability the children have.

Silence is also essential for reflection. Teachers find it hard to find time for reflection and hard to give students time to reflect, too. But silence is just as important as speaking. As Alerby and Elídóttir point out, ‘It is in the silent reflection that our thoughts take shape and make the experience into learning,’ (Alerby and Eli´dottir, 2003: 46).

The value of ‘non doing’

Haskins notes that the notion that being still and not doing something is valuable is a ‘radical departure from the commonly held belief that has taken deep root over the last half century: that activity and productivity are the true measures of success,’ (Haskins, 2010: 16). She also notes that teachers who are persistently pressured to improve test scores will find it difficult to engage with slowness, stillness and silence.

The importance of ‘non doing’ and its link with learning is not a new idea. In the early years of the 20th century F.M. Alexander developed a technique to cure his voice problems that took non doing as one of its basic principles. Alexander argued that you have to stop doing something you habitually do in order to learn a new way of doing things. The educational philosopher John Dewey saw the potential of Alexander’s technique as a way to facilitate deep seated change in all areas of life – and as a way to learn and develop throughout the life span (Shusterman, 2008). The Alexander Technique teaches pupils how to stop and quieten both mind and body and to become aware of one’s self and one’s environment before attempting to move or think in a slightly different way or to learn something new. Actors and musicians have been using this technique for years but its principle of non doing and stillness can be applied much more broadly in the classroom, both in learning and in teaching.

Inner and outer silence

Alexander used the word ‘inhibition’ to describe the practice of pausing before carrying out an habitual action. Higgins (Higgins, 2010) discusses a similar concept but uses a term he borrows from the poet John Keats, ‘negative capability’. Negative capability is the ability to remain in a state of doubt or uncertainty without at once leaping to a conclusion.  Higgins argues that it is an essential aspect of learning, the ability of the learner to inhibit the temptation to grasp the first meaning that occurs to them, to be silent and still before the subject of study and to wait for other possible meanings, and understanding, to emerge. The learner needs, in other words, to learn to be silent inside, as well as outside.

Cultivating inner silence is also important for the teacher. Being present, paying full attention, listening to the pupil in all their complexity, is an essential aspect of teaching. It is very understandable that teachers, particularly when faced by children who seem to find it difficult to learn are tempted to turn at once to labels such as ADHD, or ‘low self-esteem’ to explain their students’ struggles. However understandable, it is important that we learn the value of restraining this urge to label and see that it has limits. Because humans are always more than the labels we put on them; they are complex, ever changing and ultimately, mysterious. As Smeyers, Standish et al point out, ‘the other has an interiority that remains a mystery to me and the forgetting of this – an attempt to override it – will be a kind of violence’, (Smeyers, et al., 2007). Learning to pause before we label is also an important teaching skill.

The ability to listen deeply to the other is an essential aspect of building relationships and listening deeply requires silence from the listener, both outer and inner silence. The teacher who listens, with genuine open interest, and who provides the space for students to formulate and express ideas will be creating strong relationships in the classroom.

 Barriers to the use of silence and stillness

One barrier to silence is the sheer amount of information, noise and sound that surround us. Every day we are confronted by mobile phone calls, emails, facebook updates, tweets and blogs, 24 hour news, thousands of newspaper articles, scholarly articles and conferences. However, as Corrigan points out, ‘more and louder language does not necessarily mean deeper connectedness among people’.  Words alone do not provide meaning or understanding. ‘Without room for silence, the language in our classrooms risks being reduced to just so much noise in our students’ already cacophonic lives,’ (Corrigan, 2011: 9).

Corrigan points out that ‘Most of us are addicted to noise. Even one minute of silence in a classroom or at a conference can produce palpable discomfort because we aren’t used to silence,’ (Corrigan, 2011: 10). A teacher who is addicted to noise is unlikely to make extensive use of silence in the classroom. However, even teachers who are comfortable with silence may feel they are not doing their job properly unless they, or the students, are talking.

Ollin (Ollin, 2008) argues that teaching and learning have come to be strongly associated with student and teacher talk and that lack of vocalisation is often seen as a lack of engagement. She suggests, however, that a teacher’s abstention from comment, intervention or movement can be as important, and sometimes more important, in promoting learning as speech and action and she refers to these as ‘the more subtle skills of good teaching’, (2008: 278).

Much of the shift from didactic teaching methods to group and paired work in classrooms is based on the work of Vygotsky, (Vygotsky, 1962) who emphasised the importance of social interaction in the development of cognition. However, as Ollin points out, he also emphasised the process by which cognitive development is internalised and the importance of silent, inner speech where thoughts remain private and vocalisation is a matter of choice. This aspect of his thinking has received less attention and adds weight to the argument that classrooms should be places of silence as well as speech.

 Pedagogical approaches that use silence and stillness

The environment

Haskins notes the importance of the environment in creating opportunities for silence. She notes the beneficial effect that a ‘quiet place’ within her classroom had on a child who had attempted suicide – how he used it often and grew to love the classroom. Such a quiet place – or sanctuary – may be simple. She suggests a chair and a small water fountain or plant or Japanese rock garden, with sand and pebbles for the child to arrange,(Haskins, 2010: 16). Ollin describes a teacher who made use of the environment by what she called ‘silent positioning’, having one place in the classroom where she stood when she wanted the students to focus on her and stop talking. This had never been explained to them but they had come to understand what it meant.

 Story telling

Story telling is a teaching technique that uses silence as much as speech. Working with younger children, I use a slow, quiet method of storytelling, influenced by Montessori education, which involves simple, neutral props representing characters or objects in the story, moved in silence on a small piece of felt. The words are spoken simply and quite slowly and in the pauses between the words the objects are moved. This technique can be used to help both teachers and students become more comfortable with silence since the silence is being held by movement and by a visual stimulus. Following the story with silence and explaining to the students that this particular silence allows for thinking and reflection is what Ollin refers to as ‘meta silence’, the deliberate discussion of the use and purpose of silence.

Whether or not this particular technique is used, all storytelling makes use of silence, both the silences contained within the story and the silence at the end of the story and these silences allow the story to speak directly to the listeners at different levels. I also maintain my own silence about the meaning of the story. Caranfa (2004) says that silence is the third party to a conversation. By keeping silent about my own interpretation or response to the story it is my hope that the story, the listener and the silence can engage in their own conversation about meaning and the listener come to a conclusion of their own, which can remain private.

Community of Enquiry (#P4C)

Forrest (in press) links the practice of silence with the establishment of the democratic classroom. She notes that the teacher’s voice dominates the ‘soundscape’ of a traditional classroom and advocates the use of a community of enquiry to help balance voices in the classroom more equally.  I would argue that the community of enquiry approach developed by Matthew Lipman (Lipman, 1993), sometimes called P4C or philosophy for children, makes use both of silence and of inhibition, at different stages in the process.

After an initial stimulus is presented to the group, either through a story, newspaper article, picture or other medium, participants spend time alone in 1 or 2 minutes of silent reflection, before sharing their ideas with other people. Once questions have been formulated, the process of linking takes place, where participants voice the links they see between questions and move pieces of paper, with the questions written on them, closer or further apart to represent these logical links. While one person is moving pieces of paper the rest of the group practice inhibition, they neither move nor comment, they wait in silence. The person may then articulate their reasons for arranging the questions as they have done; again, the rest of the group refrains from comment, from agreement or disagreement, they keep silent. During the enquiry itself, there is no interruption, no cross talking – while one person speaks, the rest of the group is silent. There may be periods when no-one speaks.

The process of a community of enquiry is one that familiarises all the participants with the use and value of silence. My own experience of being part of such a community, both as a facilitator and as a participant, has been that the silence contributes to the creation of a safe space in which to think and articulate ideas and to engage with the ideas of others.


Caranfa argues that, without silence, our discourse degenerates into mere empty words. Without silence we do not listen to each other, (Caranfa, 2004). Silence allows the fusion of emotion with reason and, through silence we come to a knowledge of ourselves and one another. We can increase our own and our students’ familiarity and comfort with silence in simple ways – through the silences of storytelling, the silence and inhibition of a community of enquiry, through paying attention to the silence of ‘waiting time’ or through introducing deliberate pauses into our day. One young Australian teacher I know has introduced her class to ‘Little drops of quiet’. Starting with just 30 seconds at a time but building up to 10 minutes as they grow more skilled at silence, her young children are learning to enjoy creating silence for themselves. In that silence, according to Caranfa, both teacher and student are actually creating and re-creating themselves.


Alerby, E. and Eli´dottir, J. (2003) The sounds of silence: some remarks on the value of silence in the process of reflection in relation to teaching and learning. Reflective Practice, 4 (1) 41-51.

Caranfa, A. (2004) Silence as the foundation of learning. Educational Theory, 54 (2) 211-230.

Corrigan, P. (2011) Silence in Progressive Teaching. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 24 (1) 8-11.

Haskins, C. (2010) Integrating Silence Practices Into the Classroom. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 23 (3) 15-20.

Higgins, C. (2010) Journal of Philosophy of Education – Volume 44, Issue 2-3 – The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice.  Wiley Online Library.

Lipman, M. (1993) Promoting Better Classroom Thinking Educational Psychology, 13 (3) 291

Ollin, R. (2008) Silent pedagogy and rethinking classroom practice: structuring teaching through silence rather than talk Cambridge Journal of Education, 38 (2) 265-280.

Rowe, M. B. (1986) Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of teacher education, 37 (1) 43-50.

Shusterman, R. (2008) Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics. Cambridge University Press.

Smeyers, P., Smith, R. and Standish, P. (2007) The Therapy of Education. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962) Thought and language Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


2 thoughts on “Silence and stillness in the classroom”

  1. The bullet in the piece on the Alexander Technique about using the technique to help children and adults with disabilities or special needs caught my eye. Since you have a lot of information about character strengths, I’m sending you this. Know Their Character Strengths,, is a short positive psychology exercise in which parents select up to 3 character strengths (from a list of 24) their son/daughter uses in a specific activity they enjoy doing. Parents are also asked how they might express appreciation for this character strengths use and how they might encourage their son/daughter to use these strengths more in their life.

    We are at our best when we use the character strengths that come naturally to us. Becoming more aware of their son’s/daughter’s character strengths and encouraging their use can help a parent see them and connect with them in a deeper way.

    I was motivated to create this by my experience with a family member with an intellectual disability and by psychologists and educators who have been applying positive psychology to intellectual and developmental disability, most notably at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, and the VIA Institute on Character.

    Do you know who might be interested in this as a resource for parents—make it available to a support group, post it or send it out in an e-mail distribution list?


    1. Hi David
      I know of VIA’s work and think a strengths approach is really helpful, for all children as well as those with additional needs.


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