Friday, April 29, 2011

Teach By Being Silent

Someone made the observation that if you want people to discuss something in a classroom setting you have to assume that they will answer your questions. I wish I could remember who said it, so I could give them credit, but what this person was saying is that when you ask a question and follow it with silence, the people in the class are beginning to feel guilty because they know that someone in the class is supposed to fill that silence. The longer you wait, the more they try to come up with an answer and eventually one or more of them will give you an answer to the question.

I’ve been in Sunday school classes where the teacher didn’t follow this advice. You’re sitting there listening to the lesson and the teacher asks a question. It takes you a little time to process the question. Then it takes you more time to consider the answer. Finally, you have an answer to the question, but by this time, the teacher has already moved on. With hardly enough time for you to open your mouth, he gave the answer and moved on.

An important thing to remember when teaching a Sunday school class is that what you say and do isn’t as important as what is going on in the heads of the class members. Teaching isn’t about filling the silence with words, but it is about creating an atmosphere in which the students can give consideration to the topic of the day.

If you’re like me, you may find from time to time that you are talking about the topic and seem to be doing pretty well, but you look down at your notes and you’ve lost your place. Or maybe you skipped over an important sub-topic. There is silence in the room as you hastily scan your notes, looking for your place. As disorganized and embarrassing as that may be, that silence gives your students time to think and to process the information you’ve already given them. The wheels of their heads are turning. They’re finding the things they need to keep and storing them away in their heads. They’re allowing questions to develop and sometimes the silence will allow them to say something that they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to say. You’re mistake won’t get you style points, but the silence it creates will teach the students better than the well-rehearsed and eloquent teacher who has a word to fill every moment.

That’s not to say that speakers shouldn’t rehearse. Silence can be planned just as easily as anything else in a presentation. In music, every note is planned, but so are the rests that give us silence. For Easter, our choir did a couple of songs that come to what seems to be the end of a song, the music stops, and then the music starts again. There is silence for just long enough for the audience to begin clapping. Southern gospel songwriters have a tendency to do this. I think it is supposed to create the impression that people applauded so much that we’re going to give them more of what they want. I personally don’t like it because it seems like showboating. Perhaps it looks different when you’re in the choir because you know that it has nothing to do with the applause and everything to do with just waiting for the CD to spin to that part of the disc.

In any case, those songs support the original point. When there is silence, people feel the need to fill it. Following a song, people fill it with clapping or a hearty “Amen!” In a classroom, people fill it with the answer to the question. So, if you want people to learn through participation, be silent.