Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Quiet Revolution: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Quiet Revolution: Opinion

Article excerpt

Using silence effectively in the university classroom is an art with pedagogical benefits, says Helen Lees.

A recent issue of Times Higher Education drew welcome attention to the value of silence as a pedagogical tool in higher education.

In "If silence is golden, we should invest in it during seminars" (8 August), Robert Zaretsky, professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, suggested that silent pausing in seminars, for instance, could be a good idea: in my view, he's quite right. However, to say that "there seems to be little research into the pedagogical uses of silence" is incorrect: many researchers have been working on this for years. Research into the pedagogical uses of silence is wide-ranging and interdisciplinary.

My own work looks at theoretically supported, practical, positive uses of silence in classrooms. Some schools, such as the St James, Quaker or Krishnamurti schools, have a long history of using silence deliberately for pedagogical reasons. An informed fashion for silence is growing in other areas of life, too. Clinical trials - mostly looking at mindfulness and meditation - show that it has health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and lessening agitation, and courses in this practice are now prescribed on the NHS for those with recurrent depression.

There are many reasons why bringing silence into university classrooms might be a smart move.

Silence in classrooms offers the potential for more democratic forms of interaction. To use it, students must accept the need to remain silent for their own sake or for the sake of others. Over time, this can lead to a sense of teaching-based group intimacy that, ultimately, can enhance the discovery of knowledge.

Appreciating the pedagogical uses of silence can be particularly helpful when teaching students from Japan, China and Scandinavia, where silence plays a significant cultural role and is valued. The Finns, for example, are well known for not talking unless utterance is important.

Moreover, students seem to like silence in higher education teaching. Karl Patten investigated the experiences of silence among university students in the US before retiring from Bucknell University's English department. …

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