Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at effective ways of interjecting periods of silence during classroom discussions. It is from Chapter 29 Structured Silence, in the book The Discussion Book : 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking, by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 www.wiley.com All rights reserved.
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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning
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A crucial element in a conversational rhythm is silence. Yet lulls in a discussion are often experienced as awkward and interpreted to mean that nothing is happening. Structured Silence is a way to help people become comfortable with silence as an integral part of any discussion session.
- To embed periods of silence in discussions so that participants feel comfortable during those lulls.
- To keep discussion grounded and focused by introducing regular opportunities for people to identify important points and new questions.
- To give those who have not contributed an opportunity to shape the conversation .
How It Works
- Every fifteen minutes or so the facilitator asks people to pause for two to three minutes to think about a question that they or another person has posed.
- Examples of questions we often ask are “What’s the most important point that’s been made so far today?” “What questions have been raised for you in the discussion up to now?” “Which of your assumptions about the topic have been confirmed and which have been challenged in the last twenty minutes?” “What important perspectives are we missing?” “What’s so confusing or puzzling that we need to revisit it?”
- During this pause, participants write down their responses to the question on 3’ x 5’ cards. Alternatively, they post their thoughts on Today’s Meet (Technique 5). Facilitators stress this is anonymous.
- After two or three minutes people pass their cards to the facilitator, who chooses several comments at random and shares these with the group. Alternatively, facilitators pull up the Today’s Meet feed on the screen and invite people to comment on any responses that intrigue them.
- Based on participant responses, the facilitator and group talk about where the discussion should go next.
Where and When It Works Well
With quieter, more hesitant groups. People’s natural silence is acknowledged as an important part of the discussion.
With groups who tend to veer off in multiple directions. This helps a group stay focused on exploring the question at hand and deepening the discussion.
With hierarchical groups. This is a good way to encourage contributions if a clear hierarchy exists in the group and quieter members are intimidated about saying something critical or suggesting a new direction.
What Users Appreciate
Anonymity. Conducted properly, this exercise enables people to ask difficult questions, critique the leader, or admit to confusion without being identified.
It equalizes participation. Introverts and ESL speakers appreciate the chance to shape the course of the discussion.
It grounds discussion. Participants report that stopping regularly to respond to a question helps keep the conversation focused on the topic.
Discussion develops organically. Instead of veering from one topic to the other, the conversation builds in an organic way, with regular references to earlier comments and contributions.
What to Watch out For
Discomfort with silence. The first couple of times you do this, you can play some quiet background instrumental music so that there is not total silence.
Mistiming the silent pause. Sometimes a discussion is going so well that interrupting it with this exercise causes a loss of momentum and energy. At other times a crucial moment in a discussion is reached when people are grappling with a difficult issue or confronting a contradiction, so don’t do this rigidly every fifteen minutes. Use your best judgement and ignore it when necessary.
Questions That Fit This Protocol
Take note of the questions we often ask as prompts for Structured Silence in the “How It Works” section:
- “What’s the most important point that’s been made so far today?”
- “What questions have been raised for you in the discussion up to now?”
- “Which of your assumptions about the topic have been confirmed and which have been challenged in the last twenty minutes?”
- “What important perspectives are we missing?”
- “What’s so confusing or puzzling that we need to revisit it?”