The Unplanned Consequences of Student Silence

Traditionalists have a number of interests that border on being obsessions, not the least of these is with silence. But it isn’t the traditionalist educators themselves who wish to be silent. Oh no. They are rather keen on their own voices (as perhaps is everyone). It is the children in their schools who must become practised in the art of saying nothing. It is arguably an unhealthy obsession.

The insistence on tables in rows (even in the early years, which shows a damaging lack of knowledge about child development), the detestation of group work, the relegation of speaking and listening activities, the downgrading of drama: all these things contribute to the anti-democratisation of education in which the child’s voice is far less present in their own learning than it was before the traditionalists made everything better. And what is the opposite of democracy? Totalitarianism. Student voice has been destroyed in the current system. Freire claimed that the oppressed are “deprived of their voice”,[1] and the system as it stands fails to understand some of the consequences of this, above all that transliteration exists and that the development of students’ ability to articulate their thoughts feeds into improvements in their written work and vice versa (improved writing and speaking form a feedback loop).

Ultimately, to insist on a human’s silence, even if you think about it only briefly and with limited capacity, is to insist upon their complete obedience, their compliance. It is only through language that we can articulate our pain or communicate that someone or something is hurting us. To have no voice is to have no power.

The traditionalists’ obsession with silence might be referenced to the appalling Victorian notion that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. It is dehumanising. An obsession with silence is not only the crutch of a teacher who doesn’t understand how classrooms work at their most joyous; it is also slightly suspect. Seeking to silence the voices you should be exalting, developing and lifting up is an act of oppression.

The job of a teacher, among other things, is to develop the voice of their students, so they may use those voices not only to articulate their needs but also to have the power to be able to obtain things. Teaching is, or should be, a profound act of human cooperation and requires great trust on both sides. According to Freire, the “humanist revolutionary educator’s efforts” must be “imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in relation to them” and, on occasion, we must perform the role of “student among students”.[2]

Pedagogies that foreground student silence have consequences, and some of these are not at all positive. In a culture where the children are mostly silent, they fail to develop certain deeply important skills. The main one is perhaps the most important skill of all – talking. When students are taught in classrooms where silence is overly insisted upon, it becomes difficult for more democratic educators with more dialogic approaches to function properly because the students have, quite simply, lost the ability to take turns in speaking. They speak over each other; they speak over the teacher; they cannot listen; they stop backchannelling. In short, they lose the ability to converse. A child who never talks loses the ability to do so; one would have thought this was obvious.

It cannot have been traditionalists’ desire to create a generation of young people who are unable hold a conversation, but my view (and I am sure COVID-19 has contributed here) is that they have, in some climates, succeeded in doing so. The consequences for society – for the world of work and the world of human relationships – are potentially catastrophic. An education system in thrall to inexperienced theorists has deprived a generation of children of the chance of developing the most important human skill of all.


[1] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 32.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin: 1970 [1996]), p. 56.

Added Wed, 29 May 2024 10:19

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