What does learning sound like?

Caveat alert! The following is based on my context as a secondary school Geography teacher. 


I have had some interesting discussions recently about noise in classrooms. The question often centres on whether pupils should work in silence. As is so often the case the discussion quickly becomes polarised despite the fact that neither side actually advocates monk like silence at all time or pupils screaming their lungs out. As with so much else in teaching and learning it is all about knowing what you want pupils to be doing when and, importantly, why you want them to be doing it.

One thing visitors to my classroom often comment on is how quiet it is when pupils are working. I rarely insist on silence but I do have three clear rules for the part of the lesson where pupils are practicing applying their knowledge. If pupils are going to speak it must be:

  1. About the work
  2. Quiet
  3. To the person next to them.

I do this because I want them to be able to concentrate. When I was a kid I noticed that when my mum was driving into a town, or through a complicated junction, she would turn off the radio. When I started driving realised that I did the same. It turns out that most people do this and they do it for a very good reason. When we want to concentrate hard on something we remove distractions. When pupils are practicing something I want them to be thinking hard about it; memory, after all, is the residue of thought. 

Pupils working in silence also makes it much easier to spot those pupils who need support. You can see those people who aren’t working and don’t appear to be thinking about their work and give them the support they need. It is also much easier to quietly give pupils feedback on their work and have those personal conversations that make all the difference to teaching. 

This does not mean I want them silent all the time. Before they start writing it helps them to articulate and share their thoughts. For this I like “think, pair, share”. Any discussion with more than two people often leads to one person being ignored or being able to avoid contributing. One mistake I made earlier on in my teaching life was giving far to long to these discussions. I am much more proactive now in monitoring conversations and as soon as they drift off track I bring them back together.

Occasionally the classroom will be a little noisier for longer. Every once in a while they will work in a group on something (there’s a blog for another time!) and sometimes they will support each other with a piece of work. Last week I had taught a class how to draw beach profiles from the data they had gathered on their fieldwork. It is a quite complex task that some pupils pick up much faster than others. They were speaking to each other as they worked out how to draw them and overcoming difficulties. When it came to writing their analysis of the data (something they will need to recall for their exam) they naturally fell back into working in silence. 

My classroom is certainly much quieter than it was when I started teaching but the word I’d prefer is “purposeful”. I think carefully about what pupils should be doing at different stages of the lesson so that they make progress (or learn something) but over time they start making these same decisions. They know they need quiet to concentrate when the driving gets difficult and they are metaphorically switching off the radio. 

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