The Challenge of Classroom Silence
Linda Briskin, Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts
Volume 10 Number 1 (October 2000)

Influenced by metaphors of 'voice' and 'breaking the silence', I used to think that it was my responsibility to encourage, even ensure, that everyone participated in classroom discussions. In many many instances, I have cajoled and implored students to share their thoughts, sometimes successfully and more often not.

My own discomfort with these appeals and students' obvious resistance to them encouraged me to begin a dialogue with students about silence. What quickly became apparent is the multiplicity of meanings students attach to their own silences and the silences of others. Students identify fears of speaking, and especially of being forced to speak, concerns about the silence of others or the domination of a few voices, uneasiness about how they are heard and whether others, including the teacher, are listening. Some recognize the link between speaking/silence and learning; others see these patterns as a reflection of individual personalities. Interestingly, few students perceive their own silence as intellectual inactivity, although teachers and students who speak often do. Regardless of their views, however, all recognize, implicitly or explicitly, the significance of speaking and silence to the classroom.

As a result of these discussions, I have struggled to resist making appeals for participation. It is now my belief that the focus on teacher responsibility to bring students to voice makes invisible the complexity of speaking and silence, shifts attention away from the classroom conditions that are producing silence, over-estimates a teacher's power to control classroom dynamics, and erases student agency.

Silences are part of a web linked to speaking and listening/hearing, a web organized by and saturated with power. To fully understand the nature of silence in the classroom, then, we also need to understand who speaks and for whom; who listens and to whom; who interrupts and who is interrupted; who answers questions and whose questions are answered; who asks questions and to whom; and, indeed, who raises questions about silence and speaking.

Many studies have been done on patterns of speaking in classrooms, often with a gender focus. They reveal that boys and men claim a lot of speaking time, interrupt more frequently, access the teacher's attention considerably more often, etc. (1) But there is very little research on silence.

Deconstructing classroom silence through the lens of power dynamics reveals that the problem is not only about individual students who are silent, or about those who speak too much. Nor is it simply a passive reflection of what goes on outside of the classroom. In fact, the classroom is an active site which reproduces power dynamics about speaking and silence. This reality creates an important opening for teachers, highlighting both the possibility and the necessity of intervening.

The recognition that silence is a relational reality, produced among people, rather than an individual one, shifts attention away from a psychologistic analysis of students' silence. Individual students may have long histories of being silent. Despite the fact that most of them readily acknowledge that they have no trouble speaking with their friends, many have come to understand their silence largely as a character flaw. Teachers buy into this view by trying to help the silent student, a good-intentioned approach which may even sometimes work, but which reinforces the view that something is the matter with the student rather than with classroom dynamics.

I now start from the assumption of respecting silence, seeking to create the conditions rather than the obligation for speech, thereby problematizing speaking as a solution. (2) I also argue for a more nuanced and complex understanding of silences.

Here are some patterns of student silence in classrooms: the silence of voices not present; the silence due to fear and intimidation; the silence from shame, from undervaluing oneself and one's knowledge; the silence that preserves privilege and avoids risk; the silence that refuses responsibility to the group and to the collective learning process; the silence which is about listening and sharing space and which builds the classroom collectivity; and the silence which actively resists oppression.

Given the complexity of silence (and speaking), I suggest that teachers must address these issues and create a climate where they are a collective concern. We need to ask what students are learning when teachers do not problematize the patterns of speaking and silence in their classrooms. Undoubtedly, teachers' silence about silence is very significant.

In my experience, pro-active discussions which engage students in negotiating groundrules about speaking and silence can be effective in reconfiguring classroom dynamics. Such discussions name speaking and silence as political and relational, create the conditions for interrogating accepted classroom practices, and offer students the authority to interrupt and revision them. Putting silence on the classroom agenda is very politicizing for students who have blamed themselves for their silence. It challenges speaking students to a greater self consciousness of their voice and how much space they claim. Such discussions also create openings for teachers to complexify student understanding of silence, and address directly the relationship between speaking and learning.

During this academic year, with the support of a YUFA Teaching and Learning Fellowship, I will be offering faculty workshops on negotiating power in the classroom (see announcement on page 6). In addition to analyzing patterns of speaking and silence, participants will identify other practices of classroom power, and discuss the use of groundrules to facilitate inclusivity and collaboration. Hopefully these workshops will provide an occasion for faculty to share, reflect on, and perhaps even shift, our teaching practices.



  1. See for example, Myra and David Sadker. Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. Toronto: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
  2. Embedded in this discussion of silence is the implicit, and somewhat problematic assumption that encouraging speech is positive and political. In North American classrooms, speaking is validated and considered an important tool for success; such validation can put some groups of students at a disadvantage (especially Asian students and First Nations students). King-Kok Cheung in Articulate Silences (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993) emphasizes that this privileging of speaking over silence is Eurocentric. She seeks to unsettle the Eurocentric perspective on speech and silence, which she sees "as polarized, hierarchical and gendered (p. 23)" and notes that it is "not just prohibition against speech but also coercion to speak [that] can block articulation (p. 169)." She notes "the fact that silence, too, can speak many tongues, varying from culture to culture (p. 1)."
  3. Students gave me permission to quote.