Silence is Golden

A recent post in Tomorrow’s Professor by Joseph Finckel, Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, suggested an innovative approach to teaching courses that have a discussion-based component. He writes: “I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word.”

Black and white drawing of a man with his mouth taped shut.In The Silent Professor, Finckel notes that with an instructor-centric approach, talking is often confused with teaching. What he observed when he had laryngitis has compelled him to “lose his voice” at least once a semester since. “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”

Finckel points out that there are non-verbal actions the instructor can employ such as writing on the board, posing questions by typing into a projected document, and using gestures. Further, he tells us that considering when and for what reasons to speak assists developing “…an intentional, reflective teaching practice.” Student response has been positive. Finckel feels that is because he is creating a situation where learning will occur. “Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.”

Although such an approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a large lecture class, it is useful to think about whether talking too much or too soon inhibits students. In working with faculty who teach discussion-based courses, one pitfall is being afraid of the silence after asking a question. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of answering the question yourself when the silence is deafening. That simply reinforces the students’ belief that if they wait long enough, they’ll be off the hook.

Check out the article for more details on implementing the silent approach. Maybe that next case of laryngitis will be an opportunity rather than bad luck.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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