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Cultures of silence: giving voice to marginalised communities

Paul Armstrong

University of Leeds, England

Paper presented at the 37th Annual SCUTREA Conference 3-5 July 2007, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland


As part of a three-year research project, Investigating Cultures of Learning in Higher Education, contradictions around the place and nature of silence in pedagogic spaces have emerged in looking at how different 'academic tribes' value the use of silence in learning, and how the ambiguities are experienced in different cultures of learning. Typically, silence has been considered negatively in terms of learning. On a macro level, Freire (1972) has been critical of what he called ‘cultures of silence’. He maintained that there are, both in education and its wider context, 'cultures of silence', and his pedagogy sought to find ways of breaking that silence, and giving voice to the marginalised. This has been an influential idea, and learning has been attributed a role in giving voice to marginalised and oppressed groups. However, this raises a paradox insofar as it confirms the negativity of a culture of silence. In some circumstances, the use of silence is in itself an exercise of power, and this is applicable to the classroom as well as to the wider community.

In formal learning situations, it is not uncommon for silence to be assumed as being conducive to learning. Until recently, libraries have always been associated with silence. Formal examinations still are, as it is assumed that silence is necessary to enable those doing the examination to concentrate. In schooling, silence is more often associated with classroom discipline. In one culture of learning, silence may be made meaningful by being recognised as integral to the learning process. But in other cultures of learning, there is a persistent attempt to break or disturb the silences. Silence is something other than a void or an empty space, and 'it is often troubling when students speak, but disturbing when they do not' (Boler, 2004). We cannot assume that talk in learning settings is necessarily evidence of engagement in learning. Nor does silence connote that learning is not taking place. Yet there is an assumption in active theories of learning that students should not remain silent. This paper explores the ambiguities from the perspective of the idea that learners need to be included not marginalized through silence.

The connotations of silence

Emergent from the ESRC TLRP Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education project is the idea of junior researchers 'working underground’, and among their working practices is the need to recognize that they are confronted with different 'types of silence'. Whilst not directly targeted at silence in the learning process, the relevance of their experience of researching learning cultures, is that they are sharing the same pedagogic spaces as learners, and if there are different types of silence observable in the research context, so might it be possible to identify distinct types of silence that takes us beyond silence being merely a void or absence, but a cultural practice? Following Becher's (1989) conception of subject disciplines as the basis of distinctive academic tribes with their own pedagogic spaces (territories), is the use and value of silence in learning distinctively different across those spaces and locations? If identification with a subject disciplinarity is about learning cultural values and practices, how do learners assimilate, or how do cultures of learning accommodate to the change? And is the practice of silence significant in these transitions between cultures of learning?

Elsewhere I have discussed the methodological issues of observing silence (Armstrong, 2007) and pointed to some of the difficulties of both recognizing silence, observing and then attempting to measure it. That paper argues for the value of investigating the semiotics of silence, as this enables the research to get to the core of the different ways silence is socially and culturally constructed. The range of meanings interestingly tend to be polarized between those expressed as having negative connotations in terms of learning, and those that are positive – indeed, it would appear that silence is actively constructed because it is believed to facilitate learning. There is very little evidence of a middle position, though there are those that argue that the connotations of silence vary according to context. Invariably, it seems, that those who generally identify with the positive connotations of silence recognize that there are circumstances where silence may be indicative of resistance to learning, or indeed, confusion or lack of clarity about what is being learned. Equally, those that typically think that silence indicates an absence of learning do understand there are situations where silence can be indicative that learning is being consolidated, often through a process of reflection.

Case studies on silence in the classroom

In order to illuminate the salience of silence, I will present here two case studies reconstructed from my research, one teacher broadly recognising silence as integral to learning, the other who is disturbed by silence as an absence of learning.

Philosophy lecture

I have two main modes of delivery. Primarily, in teaching first years I lecture to a large group of students, and then I have much smaller tutorial groups of five or six. I am conscious of not beginning my lectures until there is silence. At the beginning of the session I always remind the students to turn off their mobile phones, along with the other ‘rules’ of the lecture room including no eating food. In my lecture I build in reflective moments, to encourage the students to think about what I have been saying, and to ensure they have understood what I have been saying. Last year, I was observed teaching by a peer, and she asked me afterwards what these moments of silence were for, and why I didn’t invite them to ask questions. I have to say I hadn’t really thought about it until then, but found that I could justify my approach. On the next occasion, on the advice of my colleague, I invited them to talk to each other, and I found it very difficult to get them to be quiet again. I think I was worried that they were not talking about what they were supposed to. I walked up and down the aisles, patrolling, and heard the occasional philosophical idea or name being used, but I wasn’t convinced, and went back to asking for them to quietly reflect on what I had been talking about. Tutorials? Well, isn’t this a problem for all lecturers, getting their students to talk? When I first came to the university, I had to do this programme for new teachers, and it seemed that everyone had the same problem, except perhaps at postgrad level – how to get the students to speak for ten to fifteen minutes on the subject. They all get a turn to talk. Does this make them more participative? No, probably not. They read their papers, and possibly will answer some questions of clarification, but otherwise I tend to pick up the issues they identify and talk them through them.

Communication Studies workshop

I suppose teaching communication studies has made me aware of silence as a form of communication and what it is communicating. This makes me very conscious about the vacuum of silence. It has always been a concern of mine as a teacher, and I remember as a student being disconcerted by it. It is one reason why I like teaching adult learners rather than the undergraduates because there rarely is a period of silence. Yet, I am still aware that I fear silence. Am I making a noise simply to fill the silence. When they are working individually in the class, sometimes the silence gets unbearable and I just have this urge to speak, even if it is to say ‘Just another two minutes’, to bring it to an end. A tutor can perceive silence in different ways. When students appear to be thinking and then writing, or thinking and then begin discussing in their groups, I felt more relaxed, as if the silence has served its purpose and stimulated activity. It is, I think, vital to be able to ‘read’ the class and this must involve an acute interpretation of body language. The tutor has to assess ‘on the hoof’ if class members are disengaged. Of course the signs could be misread, for they might simply have completed their reading or writing task and simply be reflecting on what they have read or written. But unless I ask them, I don’t know. Perhaps I need to be more relaxed about silence. Harry Cohn, former tyrannical head of Columbia Pictures once sneaked up to a screenwriters’ room at the studio. He heard nothing, no typewriters, nothing. He berated them for not working. Perhaps he should have thought that silence is part of the process.

I have chosen these two case studies because even though silence would appear to be either positive or negative, in reality the salience of silence is more complex and dependent upon context. There is an assumption in the first case that lectures are the place where the teacher talks, the students listen and take notes and the classroom is set out to facilitate teacher control over that situation, and – it would appear – the place of learning has a set of cultural assumptions about what is normally expected of the lecturer and the students. The philosophy lecturer recognized that the tutorials he taught were different and had a different set of expectations shared by the lecturer and students. However, apart from an input by students at the beginning of the tutorial did not seem to make very much difference to their participation. Whether or not the input was intended to stimulate the students’ learning, it was a stimulus to the lecturer to pick up their ideas to – in effect - lecture to a group of six students for the rest of the tutorial. In looking at the observation recordings I documented, and checking back with the recordings of the class, almost every question the lecturer asked was either rhetorical, or almost immediately answered by the lecturer himself.

By contrast, the communications studies lecturer, with a degree in film studies, was highly aware of silence as a form of communication. He suggested that there were probably different kinds of silence, and each had a different relationship to the communication process. He recognised that silence can be used to make a point. Jaworski and Sachdev (1998) would support this view. They state there are different ways of defining silence and these are dependent on the theoretical frames of reference being used, as well as methodologies being employed to study it. They call on the work of Blimes (1994) to distinguish between ‘absolute silence’ (the complete absence of sound) and ‘notable silence’ (the relevant absence of a particular kind of sound), of which ‘conversational silence’ is a particular version of relevance to what goes on in the classroom. Sobkowiak (1997) identifies ‘communicative silence’. This is as intentional as any speech action, as silence is a form of communication, a means of facilitating or exchanging ‘ideational meanings’ through the deliberate use of the pause, or slowing down the tempo. At an earlier SCUTREA conference, I presented a paper on teaching as stand-up comedy (Armstrong 2003). The issue of ‘timing’ in delivery was seen as vital in both the performative skills of the lecturer and the comedian. But also in both timing, the pause’, was normative. There are moments when silence is the norm, a shared expectation, not least immediately after a lecturer asks a question. It is interesting to note, however, emergent from my research, that the lecturers’ perception of the length of time they wait for an expected response is much longer, than the reality (up to ten seconds is reported, less than three seconds is recorded).

Are there cultures of silence?

Because my research is ongoing, it may be too early to confirm that there are such things as different cultures of learning within which the shared norms and expectations around the value of silence for learning are salient characteristics. However, in reviewing the literature, it would appear that this space is worth pursuing in the research. Ennigner (1991), for example, provides a detailed analysis of silence across cultures, using semiotics to look at what silence signifies, and what are its signifiers. My research is most interested in how different disciplinary or subject areas have their own sets of shared cultural norms and expectations, of which silence is one. So far my research is suggesting, it is as much to do with communities in context - with the shared expectations associated with teaching space and mode of delivery (broadly, the lecture in the lecture room versus other more participative methods and active learning).

Within education, similar analyses have focused on cultural differences between ‘eastern’ and ‘southern’ educational experiences. Nakane (2002, 2006), for example, examined the silence of Japanese students in Australian university classrooms. Through interviews it appears that the silences observed were not merely due to difficulties of adapting to Australian norms of classroom interaction and the idea of turn-taking, but directed by an ethical position of showing respect and politeness. Zhou et al (2005), studying Chinese students in Canadian universities, argued that the supposed passivity and reticence of East Asian learners was a myth; instead the research focused on that strategic value of silence in avoiding awkwardness associated with disagreement, and maintaining harmonious relationships: ‘Educated through Confucian pedagogies, Chinese students preferred didactic and teacher-centred style of teaching and would show great respect for the wisdom and knowledge of their teachers’ (Zhou et al, 2005, 288). Sifianou (1997) has investigated ‘the complex nature of silence’ and its ‘inherent ambiguity’, from which a similar focus on the strategic value of politeness emerged, confirming the views of Brown and Levinson (1987) that silence is the ‘ultimate expression of politeness’. Sifianou argues that looking at silence cross-culturally it is essential to understand the predominant cultural values toward silence itself, and its cultural construction.

It is not merely a question of cultural difference and diversity, but an understanding of the classroom processes and interactions that contribute to the active construction of the meanings of silence in its classroom context. Plank (1994) for example in studying the education of Native American children was interested in how teachers made sense of the Navajo use of silence in communication, and talked about the teachers’ discomfort. This seems to be a common theme in research on silence in the classroom. Boler’s (2004) edited collection is organized around the notion of silence as ‘disturbing’. In reviewing Bosacki’s (2005) The Culture of Classroom Silence, Shiza (2005) talks about silence as ‘frustrating and disconcerting’, and the students’ ‘withdrawal, fear of engaging in dialogue or reluctance to contribute to discussion and enquiry’. Copenhaver (2000, 8) similarly talks about the ‘discomfort that fosters silence’. In short, silence is seen as a problem, as a barrier to participation and thereby learning. This assumption is the starting point of Gimenez’s (1989, 184) concern that she fails to conquer the ‘silent classroom’ and students’ apparent unwillingness to engage in critical thinking. In a rejoinder, Wright (1989, 194) agrees with Gimenez’s analysis of the ‘problem of silence in the classroom’, but is ‘a good deal more sanguine about the possibilities for change’. Wright contends that ‘the various structures which contribute to silence in the classroom are reproduced largely through everyday interaction within the classroom (p.194). He still sees silence as a problem - he does not show an appreciation of alternative cultural meanings of silence as constructed through the classroom processes of interaction.

As a teacher of adults, silence in the classroom is rarely a ‘problem’, although I am not sure that I could argue as strongly as Caranfa (2004) that silence is the ‘foundation of learning.’ I do agree with him that the relationship between silence and learning needs more critical research. Whilst there is an ‘abundance of empirical data’, they are ‘permeated by a deep underlying flaw: they exclude silence dialogical pedagogies on which they are based’ (Caranfa, 2004, 211). In a more recent publication, Caranfa points to the neglect of both feelings and silence in the reflective or critical thinking process and talks about the value of a pedagogy of an ‘aesthetic of silence’ (Caranfa, 2006, 86).

The political culture of silence: building communities of participation

What is beginning to emerge from the review of the literature and early research findings is that the salience of silence is very dependent on underpinning cultural beliefs in the classroom. The cultural differences around interpretations of silence as politeness and respect towards the teacher can have the effect of, intentionally or not, silencing and thereby marginalising the students, in the way that Freire recognised as negative in cultures of silence. In the introduction to her edited book, Achino-Loeb (2006) argues that silence can be power. Do students have a right not to talk? Petress (2001) recognises a range of reasons why students choose not to talk from low self-esteem, fear of being ridiculed, fear of success, avoidance of conflict, through to the kind of cultural differences I have just outlined. Interestingly, his argument rests on the need to construct classes as communities in which participants are communicative through a dialogic perspective. Petress believes that dialogue can only happen when all ‘communicative participants’ are allowed to, and encouraged to, actively participate by speaking and listening to others, in sharing ideas with each other. He adds that they do not necessarily have to participate equally, but they must have equal opportunities to participate, and to achieve this it is necessary for them to feel they are valued members of the class as community. Dialogue can only be authentic is there is inclusion, and there can only be inclusion through ‘confirmation’ (‘acknowledging, accepting and valuing the other’) within a spirit of mutuality and in a supportive environment.

But there is also an argument for the intentional use of silence as a political act. Knight (2002-03) describes how he has developed a pedagogy of silence for teaching about homophobia, through ‘silent discussion’. The whole of a one-hour class is undertaken non-verbally, the whole class is silenced. A sheet is handed out at the start of the class to explain the purpose:

‘The Day of Silence is to draw attention to those who have been silenced by hatred, oppression, and prejudice. Think about the voices you are not hearing. What can you do to end the silence?’

Knight recorded the events and at their next class he encouraged the students to reflect on the experience. Not surprisingly, knowing that no speaking was allowed made communication difficult and uncomfortable for both the tutor and the students. The experience apparently ‘provoked students’ emotions and stimulated new thoughts’, as they empathized with those whose voices were not heard, and sensitivity to the usual processes of communication was heightened, and understanding was enhanced. As the Sufi poet, Rumi (1994) has written, ‘Now let silence speak …’.


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 June 2007