Morsels of Inspired Instruction – Silence is Golden
(A tasty morsel of ideas in line with Yay Math’s debut published book, on the art of inspired and effective individualized instruction, coming in January 2016.)
Renowned educator and prolific author Parker Palmer, in his book, To Know As We Are Known, writes of a fascinating way a history teacher created the space for students to take ownership of their learning:
“At the first class, the teacher gave a detailed lecture. At the end of that session, with the students bending under the weight of information the teacher had dumped on them, he said: “You can tear up all your notes because much of what I said today is untrue. Some of it was so patently false you should have been suspicious – there was no electrical power in the seventeenth century! From time to time in the coming term I will slip in more lies. It will be up to you to catch them, and to challenge me if you want to get things straight. I will not accept any of my own lies as answers on exams. They are false even if I did say them. Class dismissed” (78).
I don’t have the nerve to pull of such a feat in my educational practice. Yet there is much I take away from this story, and implement every day within my learning space. Here is one insightful way we can challenge our students, and in turn, invite them to challenge us.
I call it “the non-response.” Ever ask a student a question, only to hear him answer in the form of another question? You ask, “Ok Jonathan, are these segments shown here exactly the same?” He replies, “They’re not, right?” If doubt creeps into your students’ answers, try simply not replying for a few brief beats following his answer. Also remain serene and neutral during your intentional non-response. Jonathan may react in one of a few ways.
One possible reaction would be to question himself. “Wait, so they are the same?” The immediate tendency to disavow his own answer goes to the very heart of why you didn’t reply. His choice to back off his own answer (which he had a 50% chance of randomly getting correct anyway) reveals that he does not fully know the concepts yet. As the educator, run with this opportunity to propel his learning. You may ask, “So were you guessing, or do you really think the segments aren’t the same?” If you learn he wasn’t guessing on his first answer, then ask, “Then why were you so willing to change it?”
This is the part where the magic happens. He’ll say something to the effect of, “Well you didn’t say I got it right, so I thought it was wrong.” Isn’t this very ideology the bane of so many young learners? They constantly seek approval/feedback from authority figures, hence they lack practice in garnering the inner fortitude required to form personal conclusions. You can reply with, “My silence didn’t mean you were wrong. You seemed unsure, so I was simply waiting until you were sure of your answer. By the way, it’d be fine if you were wrong, of course.”
If they truly are unsure, then naturally, the best response would be for them to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” The instant I hear students own up with comments like that, I jump right into the explanation with business-like positivity. In a sense, I don’t even give them the chance to feel any potential shame for not knowing; instead, I move the conversation back to the material at hand. This strategy implicitly rewards their momentary vulnerability both by not dwelling on it, as well as by setting an immediate bi-lateral intention to resolve the lack of understanding and create a new learning moment. And the point is, such a learning moment is beautifully magnified by the very candor that set it up.
The latest research in education discusses the value in getting students to be ok with sitting through the slight discomfort of not knowing. The use of silence on your part can smoothly walk your students up to (and just past) their lines of comfort, thereby establishing an engaged and focused learning environment. Try to go mum at certain points when you sense their hesitation. This “non-response” does them a service; it unlocks concealed doors to latent insecurities that impede their learning. Through the process of incrementally reprogramming them away from such insecurities, we may squash all that holds them back.