Is silence the sign of an effective teacher?

Teacher questioning and wait time

A silent classroom was once the sign of an effective teacher.

Of course, we now know that talk is highly beneficial to learning so this is no longer the case…

Or is it?

What if I told you silence actually IS an indicator of effective teaching?

(There’s a good chance you’re thinking I’ve completely lost my marbles and, after 5 months in lockdown with my husband and dogs, that’s a very realistic possibility, but hear me out…)

The things is, we’ve focused our silence on the wrong people: We’ve been pressing mute on our students’ microphones when we should be pressing it on our own.

While a silent classroom is no longer the sign of an effective teacher, a teacher who can remain silent themselves is.

Why?

“An average teacher asks 400 questions each day, roughly 70,000 questions each year, or 2-3 million questions over a teaching career. That means teachers spend a third of their time asking questions. Yet most of the questions teachers pose are answered in less than a second- the average time teachers wait before accepting an answer, calling on someone else, or answering the question themselves.”

(Hastings cited in Moss and Brookhart, 2019)

Offline teaching or online teaching, we’ve all done it: started posing a question, decided mid-question that our students might not understand it so quickly posed a different question, then dived in with the answer to save everyone from the dreaded pain and awkwardness of what radio announcers refer to as ‘dead air.’

What do highly effective teachers do?

Highly effective teachers embrace silence.

They pose their question and then they wait.

In doing so, they invite all minds (not just the fast ones) to think about the question, they encourage students to go deeper and they send the important message that ideas matter more than speed.

Who would have thought that telling teachers to do less (or do nothing) could have so many benefits for students?

In addition to making classroom discussions and learning more equitable for students, teacher silence can significantly enhance assessment practices.

Effective assessment of learners has always been a hot topic, but it’s one that has reignited recently with so many teachers facing the challenges of teaching remotely.

‘How can I assess my students in the online environment?’ ‘I know my small group instruction needs to be focused on student needs, but how can I assess what those needs are?’

To answer this, I’m going to call on some advice from Keay Cobbin, a mentor of mine who often says, ‘The best formative assessment of students is to read what they write and listen to what they say.’

We can’t ‘listen to what they say’ however, if we give students less than a second to answer, call on someone else or answer our own questions (or ask another question).

As teachers (both offline and online) we need to embrace silence.

We need to mute our own voices and microphones and take on the role of listener and learner.

And, in order to really learn about what our students know, we need to start by posing a decent question.

Effective questioning

Back in my uni days, we had a whole 50-minute lesson dedicated to questioning and I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Surely everyone knows how to ask a question, do we really need a whole lesson on it?’

(Clearly my two-minute noodle uni diet wasn’t providing my brain with enough nutrients…)

It turns out that questioning is incredibly complex and, when used well, has the ‘potential to accelerate student learning’ (“Visible Learning – Influences”, 2020).

Good questioning isn’t necessarily about asking lots of questions though, it’s about asking the right questions.

For teachers of literacy, this is important as research shows that higher challenge questioning has been related to growth in reading comprehension for students in grades 1-5 (Taylor et al. cited in Blything et al., 2020)

What are higher-challenge questions?

In a recent journal article, researchers Blything, Hardie and Cain (2020) referred to high-challenge questions as ones that ‘pose few answering constraints and may require explanation, evaluation, or extension of the text in the response.’

They go on to label ‘wh’ worded questions as high-challenge. E.g. those that use what, why, how or when.

  • What makes Zeke so funny in this story?
  • Why do you think Tess wanted to keep the money a secret from her younger sister?
  • How did Toby balance out Tess’ character in this story?
  • When did the problem start becoming clear to you?

In their investigation into teacher questioning during Guided Reading sessions, the researchers found that teachers’ use of questioning made a difference to the quality of students’ responses.

‘The use of higher-challenge questions to scaffold is effective in promoting more linguistically complex responses that contain causal explanations.’ (Blything et al., 2020)

In other words, when teachers ask higher-challenge questions, students are pushed to think more deeply about the text and work harder to justify their thinking. (This was particularly true for ‘wh’ worded questions starting with why and how.)

Besides identifying that teachers ask more low-challenge questions than high-challenge questions in the small group instruction environment, a significant finding suggested that “teacher practice can influence the quality of students’ responses over and above student characteristics such as age and reading ability.”

So, our kids can do the deep thinking- we just need to provide them with the opportunity (and time) to show us!

My challenge to you

Whether you’re teaching offline or online, I challenge you to monitor your questioning and your silence this week.

Notice what you’re asking, how long you’re waiting and what you learn about your students when you do wait.

Get comfortable with silence!

Try it out and then let me know- do you think silence IS the sign of an effective teacher?

P.S If you’re interested in strengthening your small group literacy instruction check out my upcoming PD on Guided Reading.


References:

  • Blything, L. P., Hardie, A., & Cain, K. (2020). Question Asking During Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Corpus Study of How Question Type Influences the Linguistic Complexity of Primary School Students’ Responses. Reading Research Quarterly, 55( 0), 443– 472. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.279
  • Moss, C., & Brookhart, S. (2019). Advancing formative assessment in every classroom (2nd ed.). ASCD.
  • Visible Learning – Influences. The Visible Learning Research. (2020). Retrieved 2 August 2020, from http://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/Influences.
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