There’s something magical about a silent classroom. Students are focused, heads are down, pens are busily scratching away. Participation Ratio is high, and you can almost feel the learning in the room. It’s not so easy to achieve though, and it sometimes feels fickle and elusive, slipping out of your grasp as soon as it has descended. No sooner have students sunk into silence than the noise starts to bubble up again, and before you know it the spell is broken and your classroom is silent no longer.
Some people don’t like periods of silence in their lessons, and that’s fine. This is not a blog for those people. This is a blog for those teachers – like me – who like students to work quietly at various points. It’s also a blog for those teachers – again like me – who sometimes struggle to maintain that silence.
Let’s take your lesson start as our prime example. Students are coming into the room, and there is a starter on the board. You want them to settle quickly and get started on the work in silence. Your first moves are things like:
- Strong Threshold (stand in the doorway and greet them as they come in)
- Narrate the positive (well done, David – you’ve got started first! Who will be second…)
- Be Seen Looking (crane your head both in and out of the room, so students can see you are watching them)
- Pastore’s Perch (once students are in the room, you move to a spot where you can keep the majority of students in your field of vision – normally the front corner)
If these words and techniques don’t make sense to you, please see here.
Ok, so you’ve done all that, you’ve got them in and you’ve got them quiet. The room now becomes silent silent. But then a student tells you they’ve forgotten their book, you tell them to stay at the end of the lesson, and before you know it, noise has bubbled up. Students are talking to each other and you have to raise your voice or do a countdown to get them back quiet again.
Why does this happen? Why do students go from silent to a bit noisy to a lot noisy so quickly?
We’re going to start answering this question by drawing a graph of noise against time:
As you can see from the graph, things start noisy, then quiet down with time, and then reach a point of silence. To get that silence, you do techniques like the ones we mentioned above:
Silence has a character, a flavour almost, and it isn’t this thing which once it’s there, it’s there forever. It has a fragility to it, a measure of how easy it is to break. Things which don’t break easily are strong, so let’s do another graph that maps the strength of the silence against time:
We see that silence’s strength increases with time. While that line is increasing and the silence is strengthening, it is liable to break. And if you stop doing your strategies, that line will bounce straight back up:
So we have to continually fight to bring that noise level down, and our gains are hard won and transient. Take our foot off the pedal, and we lose everything.
Another important issue with that line flicking up is that the line always starts as students just making a bit of noise, then it turns into them having a quiet chat with a neighbour, then a student three seats away, and ends up eventually in outright poor behaviour. Noise begets noise and if that line goes too far, you end up having to deal with active and deliberate disruption.
I think so far, everything I have said is quite intuitive. The next bit isn’t, and I’m going to put our two graphs on top of each other to explain why:
If you look carefully, you should see that at the point where silence is reached, the silence still isn’t as strong as it could be – the green line hasn’t reached its maximum. Sure, it’s been quite quiet for a while (if not silent) and students have stopped talking or making noise, but they aren’t really in the work. It hasn’t fully absorbed them yet, and the slightest distraction can cause them to bubble back up again. When you call a register, or answer a question or tell a student across the class to get started, you break that spell and the other students – whose attention has not yet concretised around their task – start to bubble up too. Before you know it, you have a noisy classroom:
But, and this is the important bit, if you give the students a bit more time to work in silence, they will be in that place of absorption in the task. They will become engrossed and focussed, and less liable to distraction. At that point, the silence is strong and robust, and you can give it a little push and it won’t buckle. I call this kind of silence Golden Silence – when students are quiet and engrossed, and small distractions won’t throw them.
Once Golden Silence has fallen, calling your register, or quietly standing next to a student and talking to them about their missing exercise book or whatever won’t force that line back up again, once you’ve hit Golden Silence things are a bit more robust. Obviously not infinitely so, and a large distraction (or a number of small ones) is still going to cause that line to creep up, but things are a lot easier:
Here’s the summary, and then we’ll get to some scenarios:
- Getting things quiet is really important
- Once things are quiet, you still need to wait a bit before introducing any noise
- A point is reached – Golden Silence – when you can introduce a bit of noise/distraction and still be safe
Now for some scenarios. I’ve gone for a “instead of…try…” format for some common scenarios, but obviously there are more applications than I am going to be able to list. Would be interested to hear of your most common ones too, so please feel free to be in touch.
Scenario 1: calling the register
Instead of calling the register when
- Students are entering the room
- Or when students are getting their stuff out their bags
- Or when tudents have just got quiet and started working
- Waiting in Pastore’s Perch and scanning the room
- Waiting a bit more
- Waiting just a little bit more to make sure Golden Silence has fallen
- Then calling the register
Scenario 2: responding to student questions at a transition
You have just delivered some instructions to the class and they have started on the work. A student immediately puts their hand up with a question.
Instead of taking that question
- With the student talking from where they are and you responding from across the classroom
- Or by walking over to the student and engaging in conversation with them
- Or by walking over to the student and engaging in really quiet conversation with them
- Giving a non-verbal signal to put their hand down and wait
- Waiting for Golden Silence
- Going over to the student really quietly
- Standing over the student with your body still facing into the room (i.e. so the smallest number of students as possible are behind your backs)
- Talking to the student really quietly
Scenario 3: rectifying an error in your instructions
Imagine you gave the instructions “ok guys get started on question 34 now” and students immediately start talking to their neighbours.
Instead of trying to get them quiet
- By saying really loudly “do it by yourselves please”
- Or by saying really loudly “David I said quietly” (both of these routes just add to the noise)
- Stopping the class completely using your countdown or whatever method you normally follow (I do countdown, narrate positive, be seen looking)
- Waiting for all students to be stopped completely
- Then saying “Sorry, I wasn’t clear with you about how I want you to work. In complete silence you are going to do question 34” (front loading means of participation)
- Waiting as per all of the above
Scenario 4: another adult in the room is talking loudly
You may have another adult in the room (an LSA, an observer etc) who starts having an audible conversation with that student just as they are beginning to get quiet.
- Ignoring it and hoping for the best
- Going up to that adult and quietly saying something like “hey thanks so much for helping Alfie but is it ok if you try and be as quiet as possible when you do so? I’m trying to get the students used to working in silence without any distractions”
Do it with a smile, and make sure to catch up with them afterwards and explain at greater length.
Scenario 5: multiple instructions
You will often have to ask students to do lots of things in a row. Instead of
- Doing that all in one go, e.g. ok year 8 we’ve finished going over the Do Now, please go to the front of your books, write the title, date and learning objective and get your periodic tables out
- Breaking up those instructions, e.g. ok year 8 we’ve now finished going over the Do Now, please go to the front of your books…[waits for rustling to die down]…thanks. Please now write the title and date…[waits for this to be done]…now can everyone fetch their periodic tables please…
You can make the above even better by injecting front loaded means of participation, e.g. Try:
ok year 8 we’ve now finished going over the Do Now, in complete silence please go to the front of your books…[waits for rustling to die down]…thanks. Without talking please now write the title and date…[waits for this to be done]…now can everyone quietly fetch their periodic tables please…
Of course, you will want to anticipate all this for example by having the date already written on the board. Otherwise, a student will call out “what’s the date?”, and before you know it a couple of others have answered them, noise has been introduced into your room and you need to wrestle that line down again.
Another addition is anticipating students who don’t have the correct equipment:
I don’t want anyone to do anything until I have finished speaking. Some of you may have forgotten your planners. That’s ok, I don’t want to hear about it now, I will come talk to you later. If you have your planner with you, I want you to quietly find your periodic table in your planner.
This works for anytime students have to fetch something. Prevention is better than cure, and make sure your students always bring their equipment. But if they don’t, make sure that you don’t countenance any kind of discussion about them until Golden Silence has fallen.
As ever, there are many provisos when it comes to behaviour generally, and the assumptions I have made in this blog:
- No one strategy – or set of strategies – is guaranteed to work completely. Sometimes, you’ll need all of them to get silence, and sometimes won’t need any of them. Sometimes, they won’t work at all (if this happens and you have no support, this may help). But I have found the strategies very helpful on average.
- The graphs are qualitative, and the rate at which silence descends, or Golden Silence is reached will vary from class to class and teacher to teacher.
- I don’t have any research that proves that what I am saying is right, nor do I fully understand the reasons behind why it all works. I just know that for me, it has done.
- I do not make claims to being particularly good personally at managing behaviour. As I have said before, I don’t have that “silence a room with a glare thing,” I hate dealing with behaviour, and these are the strategies I therefore use to try and stop poor behaviour from starting in the first place.
Anyway, as ever I hope the above helps, and if you would like more concrete tips on behaviour check here.