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The Uses of Silence

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Silence is a topic that educators seldom talk about. For a variety of legal, pedagogical, and ideological reasons, we have avoided serious consideration of silence in the classroom. Advocates of pluralism in public education staunchly (and rightly) oppose attempts at introducing silent prayer in public schools, and court decisions have supported them. Fundamentalists who once directed their energies towards promoting of "moments of silence'' for sectarian prayer now seem more concerned with preventing students from engaging in any reflective activity that might be connected with New Age religions.

The movement in pedagogy today is not toward cultivating creative silence but toward active, language-rich classrooms. A solid multidisciplinary research base supports this movement. Reciprocal teaching, inquiry methods, cooperative learning, and collaborative learning all call for thoughtful and lively student talk as core learning experiences.

However, deliberate uses of silence are also part of our research and teaching traditions. Educators in all disciplines acknowledge well-established practices that call for silence:

  • Observing of scientific experiments.
  • Composing--both written composition and art work.
  • Reading, making notes on, and editing peer writing.
  • Seeking textual evidence for statements made in class.
  • Pausing during "wait time" after questions.
  • Test-taking time.
  • Sustained silent-reading time.
  • Doing craft and shop activities.
  • Practicing and executing athletic activities.

Other practices in the pedagogy of silence have been reported by teachers. "Listen to the Silence" is a language-arts exercise in which students sit quietly and attend to the backdrop of sounds in their environment, then write and talk about things they heard. One strategy for dealing with mathematics problems involves seeking insight by suspending analytical thought and quietly waiting, with the intention and expectation of understanding. Through guided-imagery exercises in various disciplines, students inhabit silence productively, becoming aware of the flow of thoughts and feelings that they might normally ignore.

These activities bear no resemblance to the enforced sepulchral silence of teacher-dominated classrooms of the past (and, too often, of the present). Silence pursued for new insight is decidedly friendly--regenerative when it is sustained, and conducive to creative response when it is part of 3 dynamic of reflecting, listening, and speaking. In Coming on Center, James Moffett puts it this way: "People who can suspend discourse think and speak better when they turn it back on." He recommends techniques such as meditation visualizing, suspending inner speech, witnessing one's consciousness, and observing one's breathing. For Mr. Moffett silence is not anti-language but an appropriate--and important--aspect of developing students' language skills.

To Christian fundamentalists, this smacks of New Age indoctrination. To civil libertarians, it opens the door to prayer in the classroom. But these are knee-jerk responses--right knee and left knee, respectively. Radical religionists have attacked antiseptic materials like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Tactics for Thinking and Holt, Rinehart, & Winston's lmpressions series as manifestations of the occult. Their mindset is expressed in Dark Secret of a New Age by Texe Marrs. He claims that "atheism and Secular Humanism... were only first crude attempts by the Devil. In the New Age movement and religion, Satan has latched on to something far more effective and direct."

Civil libertarians are terribly nervous about meditative silence, but they are working from a position that fosters expansive thinking. For example, groups such as the National Council on Religion and Public Education have long endorsed study of comparative religion, the role of religions in history, and the Bible (and other scriptures) as literature in public schools. A logical extension of their pluralism would call for non-mainstream and non-Western modes of knowing-again, with proper insistence on a nonsectarian approach. In Reflections from the Heart of Educational Inquiry, Arthur Foshay, a former president of the John Dewey Society, says that "our knowledge of how to take advantage in education of the transcendent experience is impeded by our cultural reluctance to acknowledge that such experience deserves serious attention, since it is not obviously rational."

The question of whether and how to teach the uses of silence is difficult, but that is no reason to foreclose on further consideration. By empirical standards alone, the cultivation of inner awareness merits attention. A recent Stanford University meta-analysis of research led by Kenneth Eppley found meditation and other relaxation techniques useful in reducing anxiety. In a Canadian study by Yvonne Greene and Bryan Heibert, students practicing both meditative and cognitive self-observation showed reduction in stress symptoms.

The very languages of Western scholarly discourse and Eastern meditative traditions converge as they rise. The researcher Gavriel Saloman discusses mindfulness as a factor in transfer of learning. The Burmese teacher S.N. Goenka is among many who use the concepts and vocabulary of modern physics in describing meditation. In Awakening the Inner Eve, Nel Noddings and Paul Shore discuss intuition in education in terms of similarities between Zen Buddhism and the ideas of Pestalozzi, Martin Buber, and Jerome Brunet.

Equally important, scholars from a wide range of disciplines have recognized that meditative techniques are not inherently linked with religious belief. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly characterizes any transporting experience--whether intense immersion in work, athletic activity, meditation, or religious rituals--as "flow,"a state that contributes to mental health, regardless of particular contexts of belief. The psychotherapist Stanislov Grof describes transpersonal phenomena clinically as the feeling that one's consciousness has expanded ego boundaries and transcended time and space limitations.

Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher, notes that his pedagogy cuts across belief systems, making use of Buddhist techniques without calling for Buddhist belief. In 1989, Salman Rushdie wrote candidly as an atheist in Granta, defining transcendence as "that flight of the human spirit outside the confines of its material, physical existence which all of us, secular or religious, experience." His view parallels that of the theist Claudio Naranjo, who sees meditation as restorative in the natural order, accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In one sense, silence has always been a major educational goal. So many of the subjects we teach--literature, history, music, art--put us in touch with the highest of human aspirations and experiences. When we are most successful, our students have a sense of wellbeing which is intimately linked with the inexpressible, the ineffable--that is, with silence. As the music educator Bennett Reimer has said, "when we approach the transcendent quality of experience, the breadth we feel is more like silence than sound (even when musical), more like quietude than action."

What is needed is a reconsideration of silence as method, as a continuum of techniques ranging from simple collecting of one's thoughts about a topic to use of guided imagery and meditation. A pedagogy of silence, besides being good mental hygiene (in Mr. Csikszentmihaly's sense)would enrich the classroom language environment (in Mr. Moffett's sense). Beyond that, a conscious pedagogy of silence would engender greater receptivity to the worlds of transcendence toward which literature, the arts, and productive living point us.


Charles Suhor is the deputy executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English in Urbana, Hi.

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