Lecturing final-year learners in journalism, I considered two of my PhD’s conclusions. The first was that silence is a communicative element that always sends a message (Gutiérrez Menéndez, 2019); the second examined the pedagogical role of silence in teaching and learning.
Paradoxically, but unfortunately at the same time, the learners did not answer my question, “As a journalist, when you are interviewing and your interviewee does not talk, what do you do? What does this silence mean, if anything?”
My undergraduates did not know how to use this moment of pause, and they didn’t appreciate the meaning of the silence. Maybe the interviewee was too shocked or uncomfortable to answer; maybe they didn’t understand the question, or silence was a way to avoid responding. Why was this person scared or uncomfortable? Why did they prefer not to talk? Equally, my learners’ silence indicated these same possibilities: not understanding, not knowing the answer, or not being confident enough to speak out.
My research looks at the subject from two perspectives: the ontology and the epistemology of silence. Both perceptions promote reflection, cognition, personal development and wellbeing. The interdisciplinary study connects media, education and psychology; overarching fields for further study include clinical medicine and neuroscience. The core of all of these areas points to the art of stillness in learning and teaching and its ability to encourage reflection, critical thinking and creativity.
After reviewing literature in the fields of communication, media, linguistics and physics, the research focused on pedagogy from the present day back to the ancient philosophers. Greek philosopher Socrates gave great relevance to silence, not just as a medium to speak to God but as a learning tool, to think and connect with the inner self. Philosopher Augustine also suggested pausing for thought before starting to speak. Johannessen (1974) relates silence to the primary quality in comparison with speech. Picard (1952) talks about the deficiency of education in teaching learners not to listen to words but to teachers.
Caranfa (2013) has researched how the noise of today’s world is to the detriment of silence, while the use of teaching transcriptions pointed to the importance of silence in teaching and learning (Brandenburg and Davidson, 2011).
Still, silence is not always recommended (Smith, 2014). Authors who have studied silence for years have explained the negative value it can have in different cultures (Jaworski and Sachdev, 1998; Nakane, 2012; Tannen, 1985).
So, multiple studies about silence indicate that this phenomenon is a complex issue. Nobody seems to agree with its definition and a fast-paced society does not seem to have time for stillness. Habermas (1989) had already studied the effects of the ‘public sphere’ and the use of reason. In conversations, people are used to talking quickly, jeopardising the possibility to think and reflect.
These observations, along with my own experience in media and communication studies, called for a meticulous analysis of the representations of current conversations in mediatic worlds. After a thorough qualitative and quantitative millisecond examination of a radio drama – the first method – a preliminary taxonomy of silence was elaborated. The second method – semi-structured interviews with specialists in communication, education and psychology – corroborated the first, showing how this situation is affecting education and has a knock-on effect on mental health.
I have always encouraged my learners to pause before asking a question so they can formulate the sentence properly. This is obviously extremely beneficial for those who speak English as a second language, but what about the rest of the learners? The fast pace of modern life – the radio playing on the way to work, the television in the background, continuous traffic noise – does not seem to inspire this attitude.
Still, silence can be highly useful in lessons as a tool of control and authority – when students are being loud, for example, it is a great way to grab their attention and get them to follow your lead. Of course, this method will lose its power if constantly used but my interpretative phenomenological research looked at silence in a more holistic way.
One of my participants said that silence was a “great educative tool” but was not used much nowadays. Others talked about the need to give “learners the time to think and reflect” to enable them to explore their imaginations, be creative and allow the brain to fill in the gaps. There were also statements about the “expressivity, the aesthetic of it”, “regaining the sense of self, allowing [the] thoughts to wonder” and interpreting the information given in different ways.
Other meanings of silence are used in mindfulness and in therapy. However, two relevant issues were identified: today’s busy world and teachers not being confident enough to allow silence in their lectures because of the worry “that the learners would ask me something that would make me feel foolish”.
After studying literature, identifying multiple meanings of silence focused on emotions and learning about the different considerations of silence by specialists, the research suggests a controversy: silence speaks loudly but we choose not to listen.
As educators, we all have strict deadlines, excessive material to cover and hardly any time to spare. In addition, the internal and external pressures felt by teachers may have a detrimental impact on their ability to teach creatively and may only offer a narrow definition of participation. Perhaps that explains the need to encourage learners to think for themselves and my participants’ considerations about the issue of quality versus quantity. Results and grades are beneficial in terms of the immediate outcome (pass and career success) but being reflective, conscious about the process, pondering the steps taken and exploring our motivation in education will make us stop and be cognitive about our learning and teaching, helping us to make sense of our behaviour and engagement.
The research also includes the art of listening, not only by learners but also teachers. This action requires pause and critical thinking (Jaworski and Sachdev, 1998). Such an attitude does not only include listening to others but to ourselves. Following Brandenburg and Davidson (2011), we can enhance our teaching, improve our effectiveness and assess our communication (verbal, non-verbal and interpersonal).
The last part of my research comes back to psychology – in particular, emotions, mind and wellbeing. Participants talked about meditation and mindfulness, the need for pausing and focusing on breathing, and employing silence in the area of mental health – for example, in patients who suffer psychosis. Further research into silence explored the benefits of being calm to our mental wellbeing (Kabat-Zinn et al, 1992).
When learning about our learners’ silence, we can first of all revise Maslow’s hierarchy (1943). Silence can indicate embarrassment, sadness, worry or discomfort but these feelings can also communicate deeper meanings such as a sense of inferiority, punishment, defeat, suppression, bullying or threat.
At the same time, silence could mean happiness or comfort because of a feeling of control or superiority. It could mean non-interest or distraction but also curiosity and attention. That is why a learner who talks often may not always mean to participate but perhaps the opposite – and, in fact, they could jeopardise their peers’ learning. The opportunities of silence are many. Education is everything.
Dr Luz Maria Gutierrez Menendez is a researcher and an academic. She completed a PhD at the Institute of Education (UCL) in 2019 and is a fellow of SET.
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