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Noise

February 9, 2019

Children are noisy. This is something people often don’t appreciate if they don’t work in schools, as can be seen by the recurring experiments with “open plan classrooms” that seem to happen every few years. Before I became a teacher, if I walked past a school at break or lunchtime, I was shocked by the sheer volume emitted by even very young kids playing. As a secondary teacher, I have noticed how kids are sometimes so noisy at break and lunch times, particularly if it’s windy, that even the politest kids might come into the classroom unintentionally shouting because that is the volume they’ve been talking at during their break.

Year 7 student: “HELLO, SIR!”

Me, standing back and covering my ears: “Hello. Why are you shouting?”

Year 7 student, now at the volume of a light aircraft taking off: “I’M NOT SHOUTING!”

Me, ears ringing: Okay, Caitlyn, just go to your seat and don’t talk, thank you. Dear Lord, please, don’t talk.

Another Year 7 student arriving: “HELLO, SIR. I DID THE HOMEWORK!”

Me, now standing at the doorway. looking pained: “Hello, Martin. Okay, year 7, just come in silently. Just go to your seat absolutely silently. No need to say hello, just go to your seat without talking. WITHOUT TALKING! ABSOLUTE SILENCE, YEAR 7! Thank you.”

Left to their own devices kids get loud, perhaps without realising it. Younger secondary students often just enjoy expending the energy involved in a loud conversation. Older secondary students are often asserting their position in the dominance hierarchy by talking over each other in ever louder voices. Once kids are talking in the classroom, the usual trajectory is for the noise to get louder, unless interrupted, and while sometimes a piece of work that requires an unexpected amount of concentration will cause a class to spontaneously become quieter, that is the memorable exception and not the rule for most classes. In fact, often a class getting quieter without being asked is so exceptional that it is immediately followed by one student shouting “WHY HAS IT GONE QUIET?”

One year, not very long ago, around autumn half term, I had a bit of an epiphany. Other than sixth form teaching, my main class was a very large bottom set in year 7 with a huge range of ability. As year 7 classes often do, they had begun the year barely speaking in lessons. I didn’t worry about that; this can often be a good time to enforce the expectation that you learn by listening to the teacher, not staring out of the window and then asking the person next to you what the teacher has just said. As the weeks went on, they had became more comfortable and were able to talk sensibly about the work. Then, as it got towards half term, their talking (for a small but significant minority of students) was becoming less about the work and more about winding each other up, and putting each off. Lesson starts were also becoming far slower as they stopped on the way in to chat, with some students having to be reminded that behaviour like going to your seat and getting out a pen should be immediate, and not left until the last possible moment. My epiphany consisted of the realisation that they had been easier to manage, and apparently learning more, when they were in silence; because of the size of the class, it really wasn’t practical to monitor which conversations were “learning conversations” and which weren’t. Besides, most weren’t yet capable of the sort of conversation that would aid learning, and they weren’t likely to learn to have that sort of conversation, unless it was modeled by hearing conversations about the work between students and the teacher shared with the entire class.

For all my classes, I began starting every lesson by sending students to sit down in silence and begin work. I then decided, for every piece of work I set, whether it was worth letting students talk. I quickly realised that, when teaching mainly a mix of weaker key stage 3 classes and sixth form, that the sixth formers needed to be able to discuss the work almost all the time (although this was a small class where I could monitor the conversation), and the key stage 3 students didn’t really need to talk to each other at all. I don’t want to make this a universal statement about all key stage 3 classes, or all subjects. Where motivation is good and work requires a lot of thought, but not much writing, there’s every reason to allow students to talk. When you know students have the judgement to give each other useful help and the maturity not to go off topic, learning conversations are the order of the day. Obviously, there are things to be learnt, or practised in some subjects that positively require talking. However, I genuinely think we make a mistake when we assume that talking is normal in class and silence the exception, rather than the other way around. If teachers were to ask themselves, “Would students benefit, or be distracted by talk during this activity?” and didn’t have to worry about whether they would actually be able to enforce silence, I think lessons in most schools would be a lot quieter. In fact, I think that we are often acclimatised to completely unnecessary and counter-productive levels of noise in schools, and don’t realise that it could be different, or that in some schools it is different.

Research seems to favour quiet classrooms (see here) particularly for younger children. Even a quick search with Google Scholar will find a lot of individual studies showing the negative effects of classroom noise on different types of students. However, we can tolerate more distractions if work is difficult, so the argument for silence is stronger on more routine tasks, but before we assume that “learning conversations” make for the best environment for problem-solving, there is some evidence that problem solving is not best done collaboratively.

I think those with an ideological commitment to making learning more like play, may positively favour noise. I do recall during the debates on “silent corridors” in schools, some progressives believed that even the conversations kids have walking down the corridor between lessons were valuable learning opportunities. Others also believed that silence was actively damaging to children. Common sense (and also perhaps the research on noise and health) tells us that silence for the duration of a single lesson, or for part of a lesson, or for short walks between lessons, is not only not harmful, but probably far healthier than the other extreme of a screaming racket. There are those who see children as terribly vulnerable to the normal stresses of schooling, or to the raised voice of an adult, but somehow immune to the stress involved in 6 hours of constant noise, with even friendly conversations having to involve yelling in each other’s faces.

Schools are noisy. That is not likely to change. But I think there are clear benefits to having schools where the default for classrooms is silence. It is one of those areas where consistency is important. Any classroom where it is okay to shout out whenever you like is likely to lower expectations elsewhere in the school. The existence of any classroom where the teacher feels powerless to prevent teenagers from continuing their social lives throughout the lesson, is likely to make it harder for other teachers. I suspect most schools would benefit from turning the noise down, and making a real effort to ensure that silence is the default learning behaviour.

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10 comments

  1. Other than pairing pupils off for revision or practising, I can think of very few situations where collaborative learning is anything other than an open invitation to make a lot of noise. Even when I was an undergraduate, I was amazed at how little time it took for students to go off message in little ‘study groups’. It didn’t take much to send a discussion off on a totally irrelvant tangent, which as often as not involved what students had seen on TV the night before.

    I’ve never seen any merit at all in allowing the sort of low level noise that so many teachers seem to think is acceptable. It’s not just a matter of control, although that is important too–rather, a lot of noise is just so much useless burden on working memory. I suppose my attitude is that if pupils need help with their seatwork, they should raise their hand and the teacher should advise them. At least they’ll get the right answer, and they’ll get it quietly.


  2. Tedious


  3. One (cynical) problem with excessive noise is the observer effect whenever a guest/senior teacher enters a classroom. The feigned “silent, attentive class” is an irritation. “OK great, now some teaching can occur until the guest/senior teacher leaves the classroom”. No surprises what happens after departure… However it is nice to hear students discussing the work, especially at A-level, but year 10? It’s difficult to remember a sustained period of relevant discussion!


  4. More so than ever, and I’ve been in the game for 30 years, the kids need direct training in how to communicate in an academic sense. In fact, I reckon that they’re deficient in pretty much all modes of communication.


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  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


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