The Sound of Silence: Three Quiet Time Activities to Boost Learning

A few months ago, my buddy Rodolfo Mattiello and I got together for our usual brainstorming session before our monthly Instagram show Chá Pedagógico and all we could talk about was music. We’re constantly trying to connect different things to our fields of Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Neuropsychology so that we deliver an innovative episode of our beloved show every month. We’re both Beatlemaniacs and any conversation about music tends to steer that way after just a few minutes. But that afternoon we got stuck with Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence in our heads. We wanted an episode about the importance of quiet time and contemplation – among other things – in our classes.

That got me thinking lately. As a matter of fact, I thought about this quite a lot two days ago when I was delivering a session about the Science of Learning to around 30 teachers from Rio de Janeiro. As it is customary in my lessons, I try to break the 1h session into 25min blocks, an idea thatI borrowed from the Pomodoro Technique concept. When we reach the 25min mark, I ask my students to take a short break so that they can relax a little bit and “let their brains breath”. After the break, we resume the lesson but not before I ask them to do some retrieval practice. that is, to take a minute or so to simply think about what we’ve been discussing and then share.

The retrieval practice bits of my lesson could make many of us – particularly more traditional teachers – cringe. They are what one might call “awkward silence” moments. To make it less awkward, I normally have a cup of tea so that I can at least drink something while my students stare and say nothing. Isn’t it curious that most of us dread these silent moments? Think about all those elevators chats we had just to break the insufferable feeling of standing next to another human being for less than a minute in contemplative silence – after all, elevators are great to make us think about the meaning of life.

If you’re like me, you leave the elevator feeling like you should’ve stayed quiet. What is it about silence that bothers us so much? What is it about silence that bothers TEACHERS so much? Before we get to that, I have to say that Simon & Garfunkel’s song was actually referring to the silence that pulls people apart. They were talking about our inability to communicate, to share our feelings with one another, and how that can grow like cancer and drive people away – definitely not the type of silence we want in the classroom.

Back to teaching, think about those pair or group activities that you thoroughly planned. Let’s say you designed them to take 3 minutes. Despite your best efforts to make everyone respect those 3 minutes, I’m quite positive that you thought of something extra to give those students who finish the tasks way too fast, am I right? And I get it. I’ve done it many times and we’re just trying to make sure that those students feel challenged enough or won’t have enough free time to start losing focus or even disrupt the lesson. Trust me, I get it. But silence isn’t always bad. In fact, the busy lives we have nowadays makes us think that the more we can get done, the better. Maybe we should rethink this. Here’s a reflection to help you think about it:

Rushing to get the quick students to do “something extra” might be the wrong move sometimes because it’s part of an ideology that emphasizes the notion that busy minds are always noisy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, we do some of our best work in silence when we’re either focused or, especially, distracted. Our brains shift from the paying attention mode to the default mode network when we stop focusing and that allows us to free space in our working memory and make deeper connections, which in turn leads to better learning.

What can silence give our students that will very likely help them learn better? I thought of three things:

1. Time to think

Remember the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? He was delivering a lesson on a topic students certainly didn’t seem to enjoy but the interesting thing is that he actually asked his groups questions. The problem was: after saying anyone? two or three times and getting no response, he’d simply tell the class the answer. This is definitely an extreme example but you might want to ask yourself how many times did you ask your students a question and gave the answer less than 30 seconds after?

We may not realize this, but allowing our students at least 30 seconds to think about their answers properly will yield better answers. That gives them time to search for that information in their long-term memories and to construct the sentence and feel more confident to say something in front of the others. It also helps them reflect on the question and adjust their thinking. This “think-time” is quiet time and many teachers start to feel an itch after a few seconds. We need to control this urge to say something and simply wait silently. Check out this great article from Edutopia has a few ideas about “think-time” and “wait-time”.

2. Much-needed breaks

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times on my blog, but here it goes again: we have a short attention span and our working memory capacity is quite limited. Some researchers claim that too much information can cause something called cognitive overload. One way to reduce the likelihood of exhausting our students’ cognitive resources is to simply take a few short breaks. I love the concept of brain breaks and try to use them as much as possible. Brain breaks are quick pauses to get your students to stop thinking about their tasks. Many of my brain breaks involve some quiet time to simply relax.

If you think about it, particularly in remote classes, when students are allowed to stand up and stretch, to go make a cup of tea, to water their plants or pet their cats, they normally return to the input session more refreshed and better able to focus. If learning depends on focus and creating memories, it pays off to lose a few minutes to breaks. This is also true of any physical activity. As we use our muscles, we lose energy and need to rest a little bit. Not resting can cause injuries and that will certainly impact our performance. You can read the post below for some ideas on how to work with brain breaks.

3. Reinforcing neural connections

One of the most overlooked strategies that might actually have a quite positive impact on our students’ learning is retrieval practice. It’s the idea that by having students rehearse “freshly learned” information or skills, they will reinforce the neural connections in charge of them. Let’s say you taught your students a list of 7 words. They’ve done some activities and repeated those words a few times. Every time they’re prompted by a book activity or by you to retrieve those words, they’re doing some type of retrieval practice – and that leads to better learning.

However, there’s a very effective type of retrieval practice that we don’t use so much or that is not really used correctly. It’s called free recall. It’s quite simple actually and I’m sure you’ve done a version of it – mainly if you use the “think-pair-share” technique. You just need to ask your students to think about the things they’ve been learning and then share with someone. Going back to the 7 words, just have them write down individually as many words as they can remember. No cheating, though. They can’t look at their notes or the book. The thing about free recall is: you need to give them time to think individually to actually be able to retrieve something. That will cause silence and it might feel uncomfortable like we’ve discussed. Hang in there and check out the blog post I wrote about retrieval practice and more.

I love silence and I think I can thrive in it. I’ve always been quiet and preferred reflecting on the things my teachers were showing me than asking questions. Sure, sometimes we need to say something, especially in language classes, but a little silence can go a long way. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we need to make silence less awkward in teaching/learning environments if we want our students to think deeper, come up with better answers, and reinforce/consolidate their learning.

Here are a couple of ideas to help you:

  • When you ask your students a question, time yourself to see how long it takes you to interrupt their thinking
  • Add at least two brain breaks in your lesson and make one of them about silence every now and then. Maybe have them meditate a little bit and just listen to your voice
  • Create quiet time activities/games more often
  • Let the quick finishers off the hook more often. Just tell everyone that if they’re done, they can stay quiet until the others are finished

Here’s a final message for you. Let’s stop and appreciate the sound of silence more. I love sitting by the window of a bus or airplane to simply look outside and think about life. I love walking and just admiring the beauty of nature. The photo I chose for this blog post was taken by me at Phoenix Park in Dublin. If I had more time, I’d certainly spend a few hours there just looking around or reading a book. In fact, if you want some good quality quiet time and something interesting to read, how about you get my book, make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee, sit in your favorite spot and reflect on the crazy ideas I put together based on my love for science, fables, and philosophy?

3 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence: Three Quiet Time Activities to Boost Learning”

  1. Incredible article! I’ve never thought about the importance of silence or quite moments in a lesson. Thanks for sharing it.
    I’m a big fan of silent moments in my routine, though. I’m in the habit of doing like you, walking in my neighborhood (where luckily are some trees and many birds) and admire the nature around me. I feel sad that the others don’t see the same as I do, but it calms down and makes me happy to see them. I always thank God to be able to see and to listen to the birds singing (sorry, it was my heart speaking).

    By the way, I’ve just acquired your book, “The Owl Factor”, on Amazon.
    Thanks, André! And a big hi to Rodolfo Mattiello as well. You guys are great mentors!

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