Speaking Up for Silence: A Pedagogical Virtue

In: Giving Voice to Silence

Teachers and lecturers generally control who is to be silent and who should speak in their classrooms. But empirical studies consistently show teachers cutting short any silence following their oral questions: a typical ‘wait time’ is under three seconds. However, if we want learners to construct their own meanings, thoughtfully and creatively – rather than merely passively accepting ours – they will need more time. We teachers should not be afraid sometimes to let the question just hang in the air. In Ancient Greece, when Socrates questions his students he often leads them into a mental roadblock: an aporia. They are reduced to baffled silence. During the ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe, the religious debating competitions held in Indian universities similarly silence the competing speakers. This ‘apophatic’ point follows their sudden intuition that erudite attempts to define Brahman are powerless when confronted by such a baffling, ineffable concept. But this mystification can then be replaced by an epiphany of unspoken understanding. In today’s educational world, however, we usually wish students to put into words the thinking that emerges from the pregnant silence: we want them to ‘eff the ineffable’ as Beckett almost puts it. These considerations lead to a rather surprising re-construal of ‘silence’. Aristotle defines virtues with respect to his doctrine of the mean, in which a virtue is located between two vices – one of excess and one of deficit. Following this principle, the 18th century monk and teacher Agathon locates silence between taciturnity and loquacity. In this chapter, I discuss the virtue of pedagogical ‘silence’.