Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique, What's On

Prayer and the Body: A Workshop

  • A workshop for people of any faith or none
  • Explore what an embodied spiritual practice might look and feel like
  • As part of the workshop we will make and share bread
  • Free workshop, donations to cost of church heating welcome

Facilitators: Jenny Fox Eades, Alexander teacher and Third Order Franciscan; Nick Eades, Qi Gong and Tai chi practitioner

Saturday 7 December 2019

St Peter’s Church, Windmill Street

Macclesfield, SK11 7HS

11am – 3pm

Wear comfortable clothes, bring a light lunch and a blanket or shawl

At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is’

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Cynthia Bourgeault and Centering Prayer

Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.

I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.

She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.

All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.

Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.

The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.

And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.

If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Four Guidelines

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Be Still and wait: prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique – reflections on a workshop

What I LOVE about teaching the Alexander technique in groups and workshops are the WONDERFUL people who rock up to them! AND how much I learn. And last Saturday’s workshop, Be Still and Wait: Prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique, was no exception.

A few were people I knew already – including my husband who was an extraordinarily kind, unobtrusive, supportive gofer. Mostly, they were people I didn’t know – from Manchester, from Whaley Bridge, from Wildboarclough.

I was nervous. I hadn’t run a workshop on prayer and the AT before. But mostly I was thrilled that people had come to explore and to be open – and above all to PLAY – with these most important topics. And I opened by saying that I am not an expert on either the Alexander technique nor prayer. But I am a student of both and that I was grateful for fellow students to study with.

And my first question could have generated another workshop just on its own. What, I asked, does the Alexander Technique mean to you now, in one word or short phrase? And what does prayer mean to you now, in one word or phrase?

And they said, after time for thought and discussion, that the Alexander technique means……openness, friendship, skeletons (!), balance, rootedness, awareness, posture, environment, connection, self-awareness, embodiment, harmony, alignment, poise, possibility.

Honestly, I was in awe of those responses! From people with a very little, or in some cases no, previous experience of the technique. Those who are relatively new to a discipline sometimes see it with a freshness and clarity that those who have studied for longer can miss.

And they said that prayer means ……silence, stillness, deep silence, laughter, connection, alignment, comfort, openness, harmony, uncertainty, conversation with God, environment, spiritual awareness, spiritual connection, balance, and friendship.

And we looked at our lists with some amazement, all struck by the overlap, the similarities and connections between them. And I COULD have asked – are there any words or phrases from either list that could NOT go on the other? But we had sat and talked long enough and I wanted them up and moving 🙂

So I will save that question for another workshop.

So what did we do then? Well, we did some contemplative anatomy, something I have learned from one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman, Peaceful Body School. We looked at the fact that we have, not two arms but one arm structure and at how wide and spacious that arm structure is. And then, in threes and in silence, we made bread, softly, creatively, with love and gentleness and awareness of that spacious arm structure. It baked while we ate lunch, filling the space with a wonderful aroma and waking up the sense of smell as our morning activities had woken up our senses of touch, sight, hearing, kinaesthesia and proprioception.


And I read, after lunch, from a book by Kabir Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. And we engaged in patient, waiting, open listening and discussion. And we went for a walk, channeling our inner dinosaurs because the room was quite chilly by that time. And then we gave one another bread, the bread that we had made with love and attention and openness.

And we used our senses of touch and sight and kinaesthesia and proprioception to explore and choose and add a Christmas decoration to the Christmas tree in the church we were meeting in.

And then we said our goodbyes and said what we were taking away from our four hours together, four hours of playful exploration of the Alexander technique and prayer. And mostly what I take away is a memory of how beautiful humans are, how kind, how generous, how thoughtful, how funny. We are not all like that all the time. But we all CAN be like that, some of the time. And that, in this season of Advent, of waiting, gives me hope.


My workshop plan – a playful plan for a playful workshop. And no, for students who know me well, we DIDN’T get through a fraction of it!

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Prayer, social justice and children

A reflection inspired by the following passages….

 ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich

‘The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity…we can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment’ (Dewey, 1922, p. 13)

‘People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’’ (Luke 18, 15-18)

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12, 24-25)

The Third Order: Doing things in threes

I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, or TSSF, which means that I try to follow Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis and of St Clare, who was Francis’ close friend and guide. At the heart of Francis’ life there was a tension which reflects a tension many of us experience, that of the balance between inner work or contemplation and prayer and outer work or activism. This lived out tension was one of the things that attracted me to the life and example of Francis and to the Third Order. And I draw on the example of St Francis as I try to live out a commitment to social justice in my home, in my work and in my church.

An underlying theme behind the work that I do, and behind my home life and my spiritual life has always been well-being and in particular the well-being of children and young people and those who care for them. In work, home and church I try to create an environment in which people, old and young, can be well – and can experience the Divine, the source and giver of Wellness.

In the Third Order, we do things in threes. We have three aims, three pathways to achieve those aims and three key notes. Our three aims are firstly, to share the love of God in Christ as we understand that; secondly, to spread a spirit of love and harmony– or to work for social justice – and the breaking down of barriers between people; and finally to live simply. The three pathways through which we try to achieve those aims are work, study and prayer. Our three keynotes are love and joy and humility, and without these three characteristics or graces, we believe we cannot achieve our aims.

We are not all required to pursue all the aims equally or to practice all of the pathways to the same extent. Each person finds their own balance in their own particular circumstances and across our community overall we hope that we will also achieve balance.

Social justice in education: our cultural view of children

My own particular interest and focus in thinking about social justice is in the area of adult/child relationships and how children are viewed in our society.  I have worked with children and young people throughout my life and I have been a parent for 27 years. And I think that, culturally, adults in Britain have a problematic relationship with children. Both in the way that we educate children and in how we parent children our attitudes often seem to me to be characterised by injustice and by a lack of love, joy and, indeed, humility. In Britain we tend to either idolize and worship our children or demonise them. On the one hand we can worry too much about our own children, paying them excessive amounts of attention and letting them dominate our lives and thought and hopes. On the other hand, encouraged by the media, we can see them as problems, as ‘feral’ or simply as ‘terrible twos’ or ‘terrible teens’ respectively. We focus on what children lack, on what they cannot do or cannot do properly.

I think that this view of children and young people as a ‘problem’ and somehow ‘lacking’ rather than as fellow travellers and full and unique human beings can lead to unhappiness for all of us and to a lack of mutual respect.

One of the quotes above is from the philosopher of education, John Dewey, an American professor writing in the 1920s. Dewey is an interestingly radical philosopher. His views of education are still regarded as dangerous and subversive by politicians of the right and the left and he is alternately demonized and idolized by politicians and by educators, almost none of whom know anything about what he actually said.

But what he said WAS radical and I think it was profoundly influenced by a deep commitment to social justice. Two of his ideas are particularly important to me and underlie how I see children and how I have tried to parent and to work with children. One is that we never educate directly, only indirectly – we create the environment in which learning takes place. The second is that true learning is mutual – I learn from YOU as you learn from ME and we are both changed by it. And what is particularly radical about Dewey is that he applied those principles equally to children and to adults – he didn’t think that children are, so to speak, a separate species to be educated and treated in a way that is radically different to how adults should be educated or treated. So he didn’t start, as I think our education system largely starts, from a sense of what children LACK or CAN’T do, but from a sense of what they already know and can do. He thought children could think for themselves and had views and experiences worth paying attention to.

When I first worked with 4 year olds at the start of my career, as a very young teacher, I hadn’t read John Dewey. But I did have an instinctive sense that children were worth taking seriously. I very much treated my class of 4 year olds the way I would have treated a class of adult learners – though we perhaps had more fun sometimes – and the children, for the most part, behaved accordingly. Yes, sometimes, everything went pear shaped but mostly they responded to being given responsibility, trusted, listened to, treated with respect by behaving responsibly, being trustworthy, listening to me and being respectful. In other words, usually they behaved with and showed an immense maturity that all too often they are seen as incapable of showing.

I tried to create a safe, respectful, stimulating environment and took what I now realise was a relatively humble view of my own ability to directly TEACH them anything and a correspondingly high view of their ability to learn and for me to learn from them. I studied the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with my 4 year olds when they were all watching it on TV, ignoring the horrified comments of my colleagues that ‘they wouldn’t understand it’. The comments I overheard in my play area/White Witch’s Palace showed me they understood it perfectly. And I quote, ‘If YOU don’t do as you’re told I’LL turn you into stone!’

That was one simple way I tried to put into practice what I would now see as a commitment to social justice. Later in my advisory work with schools I deliberately used democratic teaching methods with younger teachers, such as P4C, or community of enquiry. This is a dialogue based teaching method which involves respectful listening and requires the teacher to listen as much as the children. And I used oral stories and storytelling – another democratic teaching method. When we tell an oral story the meaning or interpretation of the story is not imposed on a listener, whatever their age. Rather the listener creates meaning for his or herself and interprets what they hear in the light of their own lived experiences. It is why all of our great faith teachers told stories and left us to work out what they mean – to us.

Social justice in the home: learning from our children

When I had children of my own I consciously tried to take these principles of equality and mutuality into my parenting. As a young parent I read a book by the contemplative Christian writer Henri Nouwen, who said that children were the most important guests we would ever have. And that phrase stayed with me. I was a far from perfect parent as my children would be the first to say. But I did always at least try to make the space to listen to my children, to treat them, fundamentally as equals, and to be willing to learn from them and to be changed by them. I always apologised when I got it wrong and aimed to create a hospitable, loving environment in which they could learn, in which they could be well. That willingness to be changed by my children is even more important to me now that I am aging. I find myself very deliberately asking my young adult children to challenge my thinking, particularly in the fast moving and changing arena of gender and sexuality. The temptation as we age is to cling to the past and to narrow in our thinking and it is listening to the prophetic voice of the young that can help us resist that temptation.

Children in church?

I attend an Anglican church. And it seems to me that the Church of England, by and large, tries to educate its children about the Christian faith the way that our state education system educates our young about history and chemistry. The traditional Sunday school model separates children from adults, older children from younger children and, I think, defines children by what they LACK, seeing them as potential Christians – not by what they already ARE, which is children of God with a knowledge and experience of God to share with us. There is a tendency, even in churches, to see children as a problem.

When the children go out the back and leave the main service, as they sometimes do in my own church, I feel that we are diminished as a community and I feel it as an injustice. And while the injustice is being done to both groups, since both groups suffer by it, children are not in a position to challenge or change the system and adults, at least some adults, are.

But what I propose as an alternative is NOT going to win me any friends! If the children stay IN the service, and even play a full part in that service, the children won’t necessarily thank me for it. They won’t thank me because they will have to learn to respect the adults’ needs for occasional order and quiet, to listen to stuff that may seem quite boring at times and NOT run around yelling, as they can now, or playing with the toys out the back. And that will require effort on their part. And some of the adults won’t thank me because the children will bring noise and disruption into our nice quiet ordered worship and they may perform their leadership roles, if they are given them, imperfectly. And accepting that will take effort on OUR part. The easy option is to carry on as we are.

But is the easy option, when it comes to the life of faith, the one to take? I question whether it is. I question it partly from a pragmatic view point. It is the case that a large number of children who go through that traditional ‘children out the back’ model of Sunday school give up on church when they reach their teens. And I am not surprised. While they were ‘out the back’ they were not being given responsibilities, listened to, engaged with as equals, as fully ‘children of God’ – so they were not really fully part of those churches and never learned to ‘be’ church for themselves. And if you are not a full part of a community why would you continue attending once you have the freedom to choose for yourself?

But mostly I question the wisdom of the easy path from a social justice view – we need children to be fully part of our communities of faith so that we can listen to them, learn from them, be changed by them and so that they can learn to listen to, learn from and be changed by us. And that may – it almost certainly will – be messy, disruptive and uncomfortable. As is perhaps appropriate in the life of faith. But we need our children to become, as Dewey says, links in the endless chain of humanity. Just like us. So that all of us may be well and all may be well and all manner of things may be well – for all of us. Our children may be small links, short links, but they are important links all the same.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J., 1922. Human nature and conduct. 2012 ed. Online Publisher: Publishing.

This post is based on a talk given on April 7th 2018 at the ‘Responsible Stewardship for our Times’ Event organised by Rumi’s Circle


Silence and stillness, The Calm Classroom

The Calm Classroom: the most important ingredient

In my previous post I discussed the importance of the environment in creating a calm classroom. One feature of that environment that teachers often overlook, and in fact the most important feature of all, is themselves. Philosopher John Dewey said that the most important feature in any human being’s environment was other human beings. In the case of a classroom the teacher is – or should be – the most influential feature of that environment.

This is a huge responsibility and a huge privilege. Every look, every movement of the teacher, how they speak, how they dress, all communicate information and all affect the children or young people – or adult students – they are working with.

So, in terms of creating a calm classroom, the state of mind of the teacher and their ability to be quiet in themselves is crucial. A teacher who rushes around, who speaks loudly all the time, who does not know how to be still, will find it hard to communicate the skill of being quiet and still to their students.

If you suspect you are at the frenetic end of the human spectrum, what can you do to learn to be different if you want to? One practical thing you can do is to insert a pause before and after actions – just a tiny pause. This has the effect of creating a sense of stillness in you and in those around you.

  • Pause before you move
  • Pause before you speak
  • Pause before you act

Try this simple, practical step towards creating the calm classroom and monitor its effect……pause-button

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.

Character Strengths, Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day : spirituality – the season of advent


Today, with the help of my pupil project team, I led the first Advent assembly at St Paul’s Poynton (ok, a little early, Advent starts this Sunday!).

The children came into a dark hall. They listened and watched as we started to tell the story of the Road to Bethlehem, hearing ancient words from the prophet Isaiah, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.

We lit a candle, for Isaiah, to light the road to Bethlehem. We sat in silence, by the light of that candle, enjoying the silence, enjoying the beauty of a moment with nothing to do, nowhere to go, just quietly waiting – waiting and watching.

Why did we ‘waste time’ like this this morning? Why were the children not cramming an extra 5 minutes of literacy or numeracy into their day? Why bother with a difficult character strength like ‘spirituality’ and why bother with advent in a multi-cultural society?

Well, when I first developed the Road to Bethlehem story with Riddings Infants School, in Scunthorpe, in 2004, we felt that 5 minutes silence, stillness and beauty was an important experience for today’s children – and for today’s teachers, too. We wanted the children to learn to read and write – and to be able to be still and reflect, to notice the beauty of the world around them. We wanted the staff to have a moment of stillness to reflect and breath.

So I invited the staff to explore the ancient Christian festival of ‘Advent’ – a time of preparation and waiting – in the run up to Christmas. During the weeks of our Advent Festival there were moments to be still, moments to pause from the rush and the busyness of the Christmas term, moments to think that perhaps there might be more to life than numeracy and literacy, valuable though these are. Waiting is not a priority today – we want everything to be ‘now’ and ‘instant’ – but in the past, people valued the skill of waiting and we wanted the children to experience it for themselves.

And we wanted the children, the pupils of Riddings Infants, to have magical memories of school, of beautiful moments, so that when they become parents, they will feel positive about their own children’s schools, perhaps breaking a cycle of fear and mistrust about education that can be handed down the generations.

Spirituality is a difficult word to define; it is about things of the spirit, the spiritual life. I sometimes say it is to do with thinking about things ‘bigger’ than ourselves. It points us to something beyond ourselves, beyond our own desires and wishes.

This morning it was my privilege to tell, with my fellow #pupil #storytellers, the first part of an ancient story that we will continue over the coming weeks; to sit, with children, in silence and wait for something magical, something spiritual – the birth of a child; to remember the ancient story of the Road to Bethlehem and to look forward, in hope, to the weeks ahead.

We didn’t talk about religion, we shared an ancient story and we enjoyed a moment of silence together.

We practiced ‘spirituality’ rather than worrying about what it meant. And we did a very unfashionable and counter-cultural thing – we waited….

My version of the story, The Road to Bethlehem, was inspired by Young Children and Worship by S. Steward and J. Berryman, 1989, London: Westminster John Knox Press