I am rather inclined to silence – Abraham Lincoln
We take it for granted that our students can speak. They have successfully enrolled in an institution of higher learning and presumably have talked to a few people along the way. Some speak more and some less; some dazzle with their rhetoric; others lull you into a soporific daze as you wait for the pause and some need to be cajoled into a one-word answer as reluctant to speak as if they had been asked to turn over a treasure map or their puppy. But regardless of their proclivity, all speak. And so, we, as educators, ask them to speak and answer and we may include oral communication as a goal in our syllabus, or we might expect that students can articulate course concepts - but do we do anything to make that speaking productive? Are we the quintessential diplomat, knowing when to speak, when to listen, how to advance our goals – or are we mere messengers, transmitting, and hoping for reception?
As a language teacher, I am always maneuvering, steering and compelling speech. We know that there is difference between receptive proficiency (reading and listening) and productive proficiency (speaking and writing). I also know that when I speak, my students do not. And thus, I can’t gauge their understanding, so I’m rather inclined to silence.
So, why try silence?
Because nothing can be taken for granted. Because employers across industries consistently cite good oral communication skills as one of the primary attributes that their employees need. Because fields are responding to this need by researching the role of communication in learning or designing courses to teach and hone these skills. Because so often intentional instruction in the soft skills that form the foundation of solid oral communication is dismissed: it is assumed that students can speak if they have a degree; there isn’t time in a path with accreditation requirements to add another class; it is believed that this is the domain of another – Gen Ed or that communication class; teaching communication isn’t my field; as long as my students have core knowledge they will be fine. Yet, we know from Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman that how we express ourselves impacts our interlocutors. We also know from Saundra Yancy McGuire that one way for a student to improve learning and retention is by verbalizing the information, reworking it into their own language and teaching it to another.
Okay, but how?
We use silence - for seconds, for minutes, for a class and we decide what and how students speak in that time. The simplicity of our silence and their speech is that it does not require new lesson plans or elaborate preparations. It only requires that you know what you want to elicit from the students and why.
180 seconds of silence in a large class
When to use: You explain, with examples, images and clicker input, a new concept.
Students nod, take notes and the clicker practice indicates some understanding. Use
your silence to help students deepen understanding, moving from passive to productive.
How to use: Use your silence to allow students to articulate, with their words, the
concept. This verbalization teaches the student what they did (and did not) grasp
and helps them more effectively identify the holes in their knowledge.
1. Ask the students to review their notes. After three minutes tell them to close their notebooks.
2. Tell students they have one minute to explain a concept to a classmate who was absent.
3. Provide students with a logical procedure to follow. For example, suggest students organize the explanation into four sentences, each with a specific gist. (Varies depending on concept).
Step 1 – Describe the problem/purpose.
Step 2 – Explain starting point for the concept.
Step 3 – Continue with the next important point.
Step 4 – Complete explanation.
4. Ask students to avoid imprecision, for example, using words such as “thing”.
5. In groups, students verbalize their explanation.
Follow-up: In a follow-up lecture, repeat the exercise with a slight variation. Ask
half the students to quickly bullet-point a concept. Then, ask the other half of the
class to succinctly explain it. Allow them time to debrief to ensure that the oral and
written versions coincide. Present a problem which uses the concept.
10 minutes of silence in medium-size class of any discipline
When to use: Either through classroom discussions or assessments, you notice that
students have a cursory understanding of a topic and you would like to strengthen
and deepen that understanding as well as instruct students in how to present
additional points so that others take notice.
How to use: Give the students the task of identifying the complexity or mitigating
factors of a topic.
Organize the students in groups of three to five.
Review the outline of the topic.
If feasible, assign each group a different perspective to examine.
Instruct the groups to consider how their perspective impacts the topic.
After two to three minutes of conversation, tell the groups someone must summarize the discussion succinctly in three sentences. The group should decide the point to be summarized and the speaker should practice.
Give dos and don’ts for the summary. (Don’t read. Don’t digress. Do make eye contact with classmates.)
Provide the groups with models of a summary or language. For example, When considering XX from XX, the following factors XXXX……
To ensure that students not only practice speaking, but also listening, ask another group if their conclusion aligns with the previous group.
Follow-up: Repeat as time permits. Clear oral expectations with defined parameters will result in richer, more precise, more confident language.
15-30 minutes of silence in any class
When to use: Use your silence when the objectives of small student discussion
groups are a) to educate the class and b) to hone the oral presentation of complex
ideas with accessible, comprehensible language.
How to use: Use when an article or topic is multifaceted and you want students to
engage with the ideas. Use to prep students for workplace discourse such as
summarizing a meeting, their research or educating a client or patient.
Organize the students in small groups of three to five.
If feasible, assign each group an aspect of the topic to discuss and the resources needed (article pages, notes, etc.) to thoroughly analyze it.
Establish goals for the activity and assign the students roles: discussion leader, critic, fact-checker, hypothesizer, summarizer.
Brainstorm the language each role requires: lead-ins and techniques the leader uses to coax participation; approaches the critic utilizes to disagree; succinct examples of in-discussion sum-ups which signal close listening.
Give the students five minutes notice that final summaries of the group’s discussion are coming. Emphasize that the summarizer should practice with their group verifying that a) the content is important b) the order is logical c) superfluous and distracting language are eliminated d) there is a clear beginning and end.
Ask “the summarizer” from each group to report. To underscore to the summarizer and their group that their presentation matters and to the class that listening is important, require the class to take notes on the summary, listening for specific kinds of information.
Follow-up: Reassign roles and repeat with different oral communication goals and different student summarizers.
So, why not be inclined to silence?