Learning Environments

The Sweet Sound of Silence

Learning should be messy, it should be chaotic, collaborative and noisy. Students should be actively engaged, up and moving if possible, working with each other and testing out their thinking. If you’re an educator with an ear to the ground of education trends, then this isn't news to you. No longer should our students be seated in neat rows, silently working while the teacher has the only voice in the classroom. Students should have a voice in not only what they are learning but how and where.

I have embraced these ideas in many ways in my middle school English classrooms. We have flexible furniture, which means my students are able to move around the room and choose which kinds of seating (or standing) areas work best for them. They collaborate on writing projects with partners and groups. They turn to one another for sounding boards, grabbing a peer with whom to verbally brainstorm their latest plot idea for the novel they are writing.

But what about times when our kids need silence? What about when they need to think critically, write thoughtfully, focus hard and concentrate? I’ve seen my students get excited about their work when they’re able to talk it out with peers, but I’ve also seen how much they need a quiet, calm environment so they can write significant pieces for an extended period of time. And it’s up to me to make that happen for them: when the expectation is that they focus on their writing, I make sure they have a quiet classroom in which to do that. I am available for conferencing, and they know they may pull a peer off to a corner for a quick check-in, but the expectation during these times is quiet, sustained writing.

A few years ago, our quiet writing time was so, well, QUIET, that some students asked if they could plug in earbuds and listen to music. Turns out total silence can be a bit unnerving (and can make the slightest sounds, like keyboard clicking, so much louder). So for some students, “quiet” work time might mean listening to music to help them ignore the distractions of 31 writers around them. If that works for them, and it helps them stay quiet, then I’m fine with it.

But it isn’t easy to know when (and how) to insist on silence and when to allow noisy, messy, chaotic learning. How do you meet your students’ needs to speak, listen and think deeply? Please share how you strike that balance of optimum learning environments!

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.