Does a quiet classroom quietly harm children?

I was talking to a teacher this week about how exciting it was to see a student teacher working with his class.

It was that fresh enthusiasm and excitement new teachers can have towards experimenting with the variety of things that can be done in a classroom.

The point he was making was how, in the short number of years he had been teaching, he had to admit that he had narrowed the variety of experiences in his classroom down to a set of activities that would ensure the class kept calm, quiet, and busy with their individual tasks. 

From the outside, his classroom looked like a well-meaning, focused, orderly affair and would tick the core requirements of the job. This quiet and orderly environment had also become the classroom norm for the students.

The teacher highlighted that issuing individual ‘busy work’ and/or teaching the whole class from the front were the easy parts of the job and other forms of activity meant more workload. 

In more than 100 classrooms over a week, it was a challenge to find these examples.

This chat coincided with an encouragement I had offered to all of the teachers in my school to look at the variety of activities they generally utilised in the classroom and look to expand these, especially those that encourage students to speak to each other about the learning or to tackle learning challenges together.

I highlighted that in many high school situations, the social aspect of being in the classroom is too often reduced to what one student referred to as “sitting with my friend and chatting with my friend while we each do our own (busy) work.”

I confirmed in discussions with students throughout the week that high school students are rarely instructed to work with others on something but it was extremely rare that they are challenged to work with somebody who wasn’t already their friend.

During the week, I visited five morning Form classes that spend the first 20 minutes of each day together for administrative tasks such as attendance and notices. In each of these Form classes, I found that after spending more than two years of mornings together, I could find a student in the room who was unable to name a person on the other side of the room.

In fact, some students looked surprised that I expected them to know a peer’s name.

The experience of school had made it so unusual and uncomfortable to say hello to somebody you didn’t already know, that it just wasn’t an expectation. This made me think of all the lonely students in high school who find a safe spot to sit alone every lunchtime, confirming that not only can you be lonely at school but you wouldn’t expect any of the 1000 people around you to say hello.

I wonder if this issue also has implications for bullying in schools. The isolated individuals and cliques of students that, through a lack of communication and social practice, act on rumour and assumptions, causing individual and collective bullying scenarios.

There is a common temptation to say that this is what teenagers are like but my dealings with teenagers who for various reasons spend their teens outside conventional high schooling classrooms challenges this idea.

I have found students schooled via project-based schools, homeschooling, or even conventional students who happen to engage in numerous external clubs and teams are often found to not be so alien to the idea of saying hello and introducing themselves to a stranger. It seems to me to be the daily classroom ‘training’ that produces people who don’t expect to speak or work with strangers until they leave school. The unsocial expectations of most moments in the classroom even dampens the behaviour of students who outside the classroom are comfortable introducing themselves to strangers.

The implications of not regularly (weekly) practicing ‘working with others’ stretch far and wide. Through a lack of experience, it becomes self-fulfilling that the students don’t want to speak to others or even say hello, and so teachers excuse themselves from having to make it part of the classroom/school experience. As one teacher highlighted:

There’s no point mixing them up, the teens hate it.

This becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral away from the most important skills for getting the most out of life and entering the world of work with a level of self-confidence and confidence with others.

I think every classroom and school has a duty to this generation in particular, who spend so much time isolated on their phones and online, to make it a weekly, if not daily, norm to say hello to somebody new and look to work on something together. The challenge put to my high school staff was to choose one lesson per two-week timetable where the class would be mixed-up and speaking to others would be normalised, so that across subject areas every student might experience this in 15% of lessons.

In just a short space of time, this regular practice during learning can change expectations and remove the fear and anxiety around meeting, greeting, and working with new people.

If you are a teacher, consider how many times this week you’ve asked students to work with different peers… How might you build up a library of learning-based, structured group activities as well as a separate library of short 60-second icebreakers. These can help them with vital basic social skills, such as saying hello, introducing themselves, and finding ways to connect with their peers.

My instant starter tip for school staff was for any Kahoot users to use Team-mode rather than Individual-mode. This automatically mixes up the class into quiz teams–but don’t forget to start with an all-important 60-second icebreaker, otherwise they won’t say hello.

Let’s be strategic as educators to normalise learning as the social experience that it should be.

School News publishes this article with permission from its author, Richard Wells.

Richard says that after 20 years of teaching and leading schools, he is fascinated by education’s lack of progress in matching the changing world around it. After teaching in the UK, Richard moved to New Zealand in 2006 with his wife and two daughters. He has held teaching and leadership positions in both public and independent schools and became noticed online around 2012 for his writing about the implementation of digital technologies, particularly because his school was the first in New Zealand to roll out Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD). Richard is the Author of A Learner’s Paradise: How New Zealand is reimagining education, a book deal that came from his online writing and speaking in the U.S., Australia, and around New Zealand. He is now focused on how much education is exploring what works and what doesn’t and how much he can change the habits of teaching to show more detailed concern about the impact they are having on learners.


Richard Wells

Richard Wells (M.Ed Contemporary Education), is author of "A Learner’s Paradise", and has been recognised as a Global Top 40 EdTech influencer (Onalytica), Global Top 12 Edu Blogger (Huffington Post). Richard is also Deputy Principal in NZ High School, an International Speaker, and a father of two girls You can find him on Twitter @EduWells.
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