There is nothing in teaching quite like the feeling of being in a classroom full of students clamoring to make their points (it’s particularly nice, of course, if those points are about the subject I planned for the class to cover). Coming from a background that prized discussion over all other classroom activities, I have always worked to stoke the level of energy and participation in my classes.
One of my favorite teaching moments was when a colleague complained to me that a bitter argument had broken out in the student Commons over the Investiture Controversy after an in-class debate and the supporters of Henry IV were now not speaking to supporters of the pope. (Is it bad to confess that I was secretly thrilled?) A classroom full of students working silently in rows is my idea of Purgatory.
A class I’m teaching this year, however, has made me rethink the value of silence.This year’s AP Art History class is unarguably one of my strongest ever. Their comments are perceptive, their essays graceful and their quizzes flawless. I never have to hound them to get their work done–I find this a bit disorienting. It is also one of my quietest classes.
I agonized over this at the start of the year. I looked at the girls sitting silently in front of the pictures and thought “I’m boring them. What did I do wrong?” I found myself babbling to fill the time–never a good thing. Then I started hearing from colleagues that one girl or another had reported that art history was her favorite class. I thought about what I knew from teaching many of them in 9th grade, and I realized that they were quiet then, too.
On further reflection, I think there are several kinds of quiet students. One kind is silent in class because she lacks confidence, which is diagnostic of a problem. One kind is silent because it’s easier to let other people do the work, which creates a problem. One kind, though, is silent because she’d rather think than talk, and I’m beginning to think that may be a strength.
I have students in some classes who have their hands in the air before the last speaker is half way through, students who will take the opposite side of any argument just for the pure challenge of it. At some point, this sort of speech stops being a conversation about the subject and becomes an end in itself. A loud class is not necessarily a class in which minds are being changed.
Then there are students who always have a good answer if called on but doesn’t usually raise their hands, students who just don’t want to talk unless they have something important to say. I used to spend a lot of time trying to thwart this tendency, but it occurs to me that this type of student seems to be learning a great deal, even if that learning is sometimes harder to see.
I’ve tried some different things in art history this year. Because I still don’t like classes in which I talk all the time, I’ve created structures which push a bit against this group’s natural reticence: I draw a name from a hat and ask the chosen student to think out loud about the image in front of us. I play games with cards, making connections between works, to facilitate a different, more free-wheeling kind of discussion.
But I also have made more space for silence in my classroom. I let pauses hang longer, and I structure thinking time explicitly so that students know it’s okay to use that time: “Let’s take a minute or so to look at the Ghent Altarpiece and think about your reactions to it, and then I’m going to ask you where those reactions come from.” Framed that way, the discussion is stronger and deeper than it’s ever been, because more thought has gone into it. And nobody has been left behind, still thinking, while her classmates rushed to judgment.
This year’s students have made me a better teacher by reminding me that art history is, first, about thoughtful looking. I plan to use my new strategies in other years, with more outgoing classes, and I think they’ll be the better for it. I may institute a pause at the start of class, in which no one–including me–is allowed to talk before we’ve thought.