After the Blackbird Whistles: Listening to Silence in Classrooms

Nov. 10, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 11, (2010), p. 8-9.

Students spend a large part of their time in schools in silence. However, teachers tend to spend most of their time attending to student talk. Anthropological and linguistic research has contributed to an understanding of silence in particular communities, offering explanations for students’ silence in school. This research raised questions about the silence of marginalized groups of students in classrooms, highlighting teachers’ role in this silencing and drawing on limited meanings of silence. More recently, research on silence has conceptualized silence as a part of a continuum.

Purpose of Study and Research Question

The purpose of this project was to review existing literature and draw on two longitudinal research studies to understand the functions and uses of silence in everyday classroom practice.

The author explores the question: How might paying attention to the productivity of student silence and the possibilities it contains add to our understanding of student silence in educational settings?

This article seeks to add to educators’ and researchers’ tools for interpreting classroom silence.

Research Design

The article is based on two longitudinal qualitative studies.
The first was an ethnographic study of the literacy practices of high school students in a multiracial high school on the West Coast. This study was designed with the goal of learning about adolescents’ literacy practices in and out of school during their final year of high school and in their first few years as high school graduates.

The second study documents discourses of race and race relations in a postdesegregated middle school. The goal of this 3-year study was to gather the missing student perspectives on their racialized experiences in school during the desegregation time period.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Understanding the role of silence for the individual and the class as a whole is a complex process that may require new ways of conceptualizing listening.
The author concludes that an understanding of the meanings of silence through the practice of careful listening and inquiry shifts a teacher’s practice and changes a teacher’s understanding of students’ participation. The author suggests that teachers redefine participation in classrooms to include silence.

Updated: Nov. 23, 2010