Education Opinion

The Sound of Silence

By Susan Graham — May 30, 2011 3 min read
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We have to keep those hallways quiet!

Research says the scores increase when end-of-year tests are taken online, so our students will be pulled from classes to be tested over the next three weeks in three computer labs. No talking in the testing area. And keep it down out there in the hall because they are doing testing in there.

We are not so much a school during these weeks but a testing center. We are not teachers; we are test proctors. What our students think may be interesting, but what they can recall is critical. They are grinding out the data by which they and we will be judged.

They are the producers and we are the facilitators of that production. They, and we, need them to work without distraction, so quiet in the testing area is essential. But quiet isn’t the norm in middle school, so teachers diligently scurry out into the hallways during class changes, waving signs bearing a happy face with a zipper where the curve of the smile belongs.

Shush! Zip it! We're trying to find out what you know! So don't talk!"

I understand the necessity, but it is a strange sort of pantomime game where we say: “I want to know what you know, but you have to tell me without speaking. No questions from you, no answers from me, no comments from either of us.” It doesn’t seem like a very elegant design, does it? What bothers me even more is that we’ve predetermined what the answers should be. It seems we insist that they answer in silence because the only answers we are interested in are the one’s we’ve provided. We really don’t seem to be very interested in what they think. Or how they think.

As I was waving my Zip It! sign last week, I thought of the concerns expressed by my colleague and friend Nancy Flanagan as she wrote about television’s fixation on singing as a competitive event. She maintains that

Our voices are immutable--a very personal aspect of ourselves, as unique and unchangeable as fingerprints. When someone says "I don't have a good voice," it's tantamount to saying "I don't have a good face." Your voice is your voice.

Well, sometimes your answer is your answer. And sometimes your answer may be as good as anyone else’s if you just had a chance to explain it. I know someone out there will read this and think, “Oh good grief! Last week it was about the flaws in test design. Is she now going to say there are no wrong answers?”

Of course there are wrong answers. But I’m not comfortable with assuming all the right answers have already been determined and the measure of an educated mind is our ability to recall someone else’s right answer. I say that because I have experienced it. Can a man walk on the moon? Is it possible to look inside a human heart and repair it? Can you carry a whole library in your pocket? The answer to all of those questions is YES, but when I graduated from high school, the answer to all was NO. The answers changed because someone decided “the right answer” just might be wrong.

I get why we have to “Zip It!” in the hall, but it still bothers me because silence isn’t the natural state of early adolescents. They talk a lot and they talk loudly. They interrupt each other and their teachers. They are impulsive and often inappropriate. But they are also curious and passionate. They want to know, but they want to retain the right to challenge everything they are told. While they may come up with wrong answers, they deserve the right to defend their thinking. And when we take away the opportunity to challenge the existing answers, then we limit their ability to think for themselves.

I wonder, do adults subconsciously want to constrain the thinking of children? Do we resent their challenge to the rightness of our answers? Do we feel threatened by their formulation of questions that we never thought to ask? Do we fear being marginalized by their solutions that may leave us behind?

Do we really want them to “make their own kind of music and sing their own kind of song?” Maybe what really worries us is that we won’t be able to sing along. Maybe that’s why we seem to prefer the sound of silence in our classrooms and schools and accountability systems.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.