Updated: Jul 19
It's no secret that I'm an introvert. I like to talk and share what I know (useful traits for a teacher), but most of the time I prefer to keep quiet. I also like my space to be quiet, but since that definitely isn't happening in my active, project-based classroom, it is critical for me to set aside some time in the day for some much-needed silence. Many of my students (and yours) need this time as well, but are they getting it?
School - a place of overstimulation
"...it may not be an exaggeration to say that there are few, if any quiet spaces available for children to really focus at school."
Schools are loud. A typical day is filled with the sounds of enthusiastic children, classroom discussions, lunchroom gossip, educational videos, bells, assemblies, and announcements. A 2015 study of 185 secondary classrooms across 13 schools in the UK found that the average noise level during lessons was 64.2 dB, roughly equivalent to a loud conversation, although it can reach much higher at times. According to another study from Quebec, Canada, the average volume in physical education classes was found to be 83 dB, with peaks as high as 115 dB. That's way above the limit considered to be safe, putting children, and perhaps PE teachers most of all, at risk for chronic hearing loss.
It is well-documented that noisy environments interfere with learning by negatively affecting speech recognition, reading comprehension, and memory tasks, as well as standardized math scores. Consistently loud classrooms may also be associated with physical and mental health issues, including hypertension and depression. Additionally, some behavioural issues may be compounded by noise, as research indicates that so-called 'problem students' may be the most affected by noise and distractions. You might be tempted to think that such problems could be solved with more effective classroom management, but it's not quite that simple.
Both the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that noise levels in unoccupied classrooms should not exceed 35 dB, which is somewhere between a whisper and a quiet conversation. In reality, the vast majority of classrooms are not able to meet this standard for a variety of reasons, including externally produced sounds, noisy heating and cooling systems, and just plain bad design. To be clearly understood, teachers and students must speak at 15 dB above the background noise level. Thus there is a clear correlation between classroom background noise levels and lesson noise levels.
Taken together, it may not be an exaggeration to say that there are few, if any quiet spaces available for children to really focus at school. That seems absurd when you consider how high the expectation is from parents and teachers for students to do just that, but the data certainly seems to indicate a problem. For many young people, then, school may not be the ideal learning environment that we imagine it to be.
The social media dilemma
As a teacher, I find persistent noise and socialization to be incredibly draining, but I felt the same way when I was a student long before the days of smartphones and social media. How would things have been different if I had been born 20 years later? Well, for one thing, I probably would have replaced whatever downtime I had with screen time, the way most modern teens do.
To be fair, I played a lot of video games growing up (a TON of video games, actually), but these were mostly single-player experiences tethered to a gaming console, not mobile or online games that I could whip out and play whenever I wanted. When I left the house, or my room for that matter, the screen stayed put. Not so for today's teens, who carry their devices around in their pockets and make use of them throughout the day, regardless of school policies. A 2018 survey found that 43% of teens check their social media constantly or hourly during a typical day. Among the social media apps used by students, Youtube is king with 95% usage rates, followed by TikTok and Instagram.
It is now widely acknowledged that despite its name, social media can actually increase feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression. A recent study in Nature, for example, suggests a negative association between social media use and life satisfaction, a trend most significant in 11-13-year-old girls and 14-15-year-old boys. This roughly correlates with peak puberty times, when students may be more developmentally vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media and screen addiction. Furthermore, social media use was up 40% during the Covid-19 pandemic as students struggled to stay connected. Except for one-on-one video conversations, the effect on student well-being was mostly negative. It is probably too soon to tell if social media usage rates have begun to return to pre-pandemic levels.
The benefits of quiet reflection
We have a strong cultural bias towards speech, especially in the classroom. Thus quiet students are often seen as less successful than talkative ones, and silence is mostly viewed as an awkward void to be filled as quickly as possible. By stuffing our lessons with discussions, speeches, lectures, and group work, we are robbing young people of the benefits of introspective thought.
I think our students have the idea that everything worth knowing can be found out there in the world and that nothing of value can be generated from within. After all, when a student encounters a difficult problem, is their first response (or yours, for that matter) to think about it for a while, or to simply ask Google for the answer? By skipping any sort of personal investigation, we are denying the value of internal thought and therefore missing out on opportunities for discovery. I seriously doubt whether prolific scientists and thinkers like Kepler, Newton, and Darwin would have become household names if they had had access to streaming services and social media.
Thankfully, serious and considerable research has been done to show how important silent and reflective thought can be in our lives. Keep in mind that I'm using the term 'silence' to mean "the absence, not of sound per se, but of noise which is obtrusive or salient", as David Cooper, a professor of philosophy at Durham University points out.
The value of 'wait-time', or 'think time' - intentional pauses used by teachers - has been known since the 70s, when Mary Budd Rowe identified that waiting at least 3 seconds after questioning produces far better responses. Since then, numerous studies have elaborated on her discoveries and suggested additional areas where wait times can be used effectively. A recent literature review identifies at least 13 uses of silence in the classroom, from 'time to think' to 'time to reflect'.
Eva Alerby, a professor of education and the author of many articles on this topic, asserts that silence is not only a valuable pedagogical strategy, but an important listening strategy as well.
1. Make ample use of wait time
As mentioned above, wait times are crucial for giving students a chance to think before responding, and can be used in many situations. Admittedly, this is an area I could improve upon as a teacher as I find student silence to be unnerving. It's easy to interpret silence as a sign of boredom or confusion, but rest assured, the science definitely backs the value of waiting a few extra seconds before eliciting responses.
2. Create quiet spaces for students
The library is an obvious place for students to escape the chaos and focus, but this isn't much help to you in your classroom on a daily basis. Instead, work on making a quiet, comfortable space in your room where students can think, study, work, or reflect. A 'calm corner' is kind of an elementary school concept for kids who need a safe, quiet space, but we can adapt this to middle and high school by focusing on making a dedicated thinking area instead. This can be as simple as a few comfy chairs and tables in the corner and a small, undecorated partition to prevent unnecessary distractions. Encourage your students to make a similar space for themselves at home, and actually set aside a bit of time to teach them about how to do this.
Really put some thought into the space in order to discourage discussion and allow students to think freely. You can provide noise-canceling headphones for students who need them, if available, but I recommend making it a device-free area otherwise. Of course, you can always use this space for kids who need to calm down during conflicts as well.
Beyond the classroom, there are many options for providing your students with quiet spaces to think and learn. One case study involved a school in Australia that provided its students with a silent area on the playground known as the 'peace area'. Surveys of students indicated that this was a highly valued resource.
3. Take your lessons outside
Plenty of studies suggest that nature has inherent benefits for your students, as well as being generally calm, quiet places where kids can explore or simply reflect. If you're going to read aloud, why not do it sitting on the grass in the sun, or in a forest? Go outside and paint something. Collect leaves or insects and view them under portable microscopes. There's no need to organize a complicated or expensive field trip if you have a decent playground or park nearby.
You can also start a school garden, which is an inexpensive and fun way to engage kids outdoors, and it's hard not to get some thinking done when you are working with your hands.
4. Implement silent reading or study time
DEAR, or drop everything and read is a program many schools adopt to get kids reading for a dedicated length of time on a regular basis. We did this at my school for 20 minutes a few times a week, and I'd say it was successful, although it's important to make expectations clear. We found that it was also critical to make sure teachers were reading as well. Of course, there will always be a few students who don't seem to be doing much reading, but consider that perhaps they are getting some thinking done instead, and maybe count that as a win. After all, there are far less productive things they could be doing during that time.
Study periods can be potentially useful for students, but they need to be monitored effectively or that time will likely be wasted. You can encourage students to be productive by insisting that they remain quiet, avoiding the use of devices where possible, and helping them to prioritize and manage their time.
5. Let your students work in ways that help them focus
This will depend on the teacher, but consider allowing your students to work in ways that suit their learning styles. Many students like to listen to music while completing their work. As long as they have headphones and don't distract others, I say go for it. Some students love to work in pairs, while others prefer to work alone. I allow both (although I sometimes insist on group work since teamwork is a valuable skill as well). Even sitting at a desk is sometimes too restrictive for students who would prefer to sit on the floor or walk around a bit.
"Expecting students to concentrate in a noisy classroom might be difficult for some, and impossible for others..."
Be conscious of what each student needs and give them the freedom to be successful in your class, within reason. I once worked with a very experienced social studies teacher who would sometimes send her students outside to walk or run around the building once before the lesson began. This helped them clear their heads or burn off some energy and ultimately made her lessons go more smoothly. On rare occasions, I've even let kids sleep for 5 or 10 minutes with the understanding that they're going to work when they wake up. Sometimes they really need it!
6. Consider classroom acoustics
Chances are you didn't build or design your classroom, but you probably have quite a bit of control over what goes on inside it. You may not be able to insulate your space from outside noise, but you can still reduce what is known as the reverberation time (or the time it takes for sounds to decay) by adjusting what's in your room. Long reverberation times are known to reduce learning effectiveness in much the same way as noise.
A quick fix that will reduce reverberation significantly is to carpet your room (a couple of rugs will help if professional carpeting is not feasible). Other acoustically absorbing materials include pillows, carpets, and wall hangings. According to one study in the UK, an absorptive classroom with carpeting has half the reverberation time of one without. This will make voices and sounds much easier to discern, leading to improved learning.
Lastly, consider shutting off things that contribute to background noise, including fans, projectors, heating/cooling systems, and so on. Even the lights may generate a small amount of noise and may not be necessary at certain times of the day. Use your own judgment to determine whether or not you truly need these devices to be on at all times.
I hope I've convinced you that creating time and space for quiet thinking is valuable for staff and students alike. Expecting students to concentrate in a noisy classroom might be difficult for some, and impossible for others, so don't waste your energy trying to keep everyone on task. Instead, try some of the strategies I've mentioned above and find what works for you and your students.
I'll end this post with a quick tip for the biology teachers. Whenever I teach the circulatory system, I ask students to find their pulse and measure their heartbeats for a minute. Then I enjoy the most silent minute of the entire school year. You're welcome!
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