Recently I shared my research paper The Phenomenology of Silence with a professor from Montclair State University. She was intrigued with how I use silence in the classroom and saw correlations with her own research on how to help children learn more effectively through interruptions. She asked me to write more about how I use it in the classroom.
As a young math teacher at Oak Flats High School in NSW Australia in the 1980s, I threw all of my energy into teaching. My philosophy was to make it fun and use humor as a tool to keep my students motivated. I used silence as a punitive measure to control the noise level in the room. While I could run silent classes the tension was unpleasant.
That was before I went through a hellish personal tragedy. I quit teaching and traveled to India, Bali and Europe. During this extended leave from teaching I studied meditation and mindfulness practices along with austere spiritual practices from several different traditions. Twenty years of soul searching finally brought me to Berkshire County in Massachusetts. I began teaching again.
Coming back into the third-millennium classroom in 2006 was a shock. The pressure on teachers and kids had increased exponentially since Oak Flats. Everybody was plugged in, wired for sound and pulled in a million directions at once: top-down initiatives like No Child Left Behind, adversarial policies like zero tolerance, and warp-speed social lives buzzing in their brains. Not the ideal setting for sharing the joys of higher mathematics.
In my initial years I was assigned a notoriously challenging group of freshmen students. The wisdom at the time was to assign the math phobic teens ten periods of math per week instead of the standard five periods. Because these students had weak number skills and hated math they felt tortured. The students were furious and blamed me for their inhuman schedule. Their resentment forced me to contemplate my future in education. The questions I contemplated included:
From this reflection I came up with a system of principles I called C.O.R.E. (cf. CORE Principles) and the use of silence. Within weeks the students were more engaged, respectful and happier. It was a pedagogical miracle.
Over the next four years I introduced my techniques to all my classes. The momentum built and built until other teachers started to notice. I was asked to speak with new teachers and veteran staffs alike about what I was achieving in the classroom through these unorthodox methodologies.
One day I introduced my methodologies to my senior class. Several of the students had spent their freshman year with me and eyed me suspiciously. They remembered their tortured first year with me. One student who had been surly and resentful as a freshman looked at me with an expressionless face throughout the lesson. We had not had the friendliest relationship over the years. He had been suspended for twelve months for arson and bullying. He had earned a terrible reputation around the school.
At the end of our lesson that September morning he lingered at the door after everyone had left. He turned to me and said, “This is the first thing that has ever made sense to me at school.” He turned and left my room. Goosebumps ran up my arms and tears came to my eyes as I sat down speechless.
This story and others reflect in many ways the miracle of silence in the classroom. My students start to come alive, become natural and express more respect. Surprisingly students with ADD and even Aspergers' Syndrome have expressed a love for the respite silence brings them in their busy school day. Out of this is born an atmosphere of safety, tolerance and respect for themselves and each other. A joy for the teacher!
I begin every lesson with silence and stillness.
"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports