Pausing For Reflection

Respecting the Silence

You open the discussion with a provocative question. Your class just stares at you or looks at the floor. No one says a word. In panic, you leap in and answer it yourself.

Has this ever happened to you? The answer is probably yes. Silence tends to make us uncomfortable, and as professors we’re pretty good at filling conversational voids. But our textbook authors warned us against it. “Do this even once,” say Brookfield and Preskill, “and you let students know they can rely on you to answer the question and do their thinking for them.”

Reflective silence may be as important to good discussion as the most animated speech. Students need processing time to consider new ideas and material and to formulate their own responses. Silence gives us time to stumble on relationships between ideas and to notice omissions and fallacies we might otherwise miss.

It also can keep us from speaking too quickly in frustration or anger. Silence does not indicate a vacuum; there may be a different but equally significant engagement going on.

You might try deliberately introducing periods of silence into a lecture to demonstrate that it’s OK to stop and think before responding. Silence can also be a useful backup strategy for surprising moments. “Let’s all take a minute just to think about that,” you might say, and then use that minute to plan your own response.

It sounds easy enough, but in practice it is much harder to respect the silence and refrain from filling it with more talk. “Far too many teachers think that if they’re not speaking, they’re not working,” say Brookfield and Preskill. “But if good teaching means helping students learn, staying quiet is sometimes the best thing we can do.”

Reflective Writing

Reflective writing helps students organize their thinking before entering into a discussion. The exercises give students time to consider their responses, decide how and whether to take a stance, and plan how they want to express themselves. The act of writing requires stepping back and thinking about the question, taking their personal responses and the likely reactions of others into account.

You can prompt reflective writing through a variety of techniques such as quick writing, shared writing, and mini-journals. These exercises may or may not be collected by the instructor, but if they are, they should not be graded for writing quality or for grammar, punctuation, or correctness. Students should feel free to express themselves without the pressure of judgment, either from instructors or their peers.

Quick Writes are among the simplest and most effective techniques for involving all students in the discussion, even the shy ones or those reluctant to speak for cultural or other reasons. The instructor provides a prompt, and everyone takes five or ten minutes to respond in writing before addressing the question in open discussion. Shared writing (see page 200) is a variation in which students pass their initial Quick Write to one or more other students in the group and do a second or third Quick Write in response. Other variations ask students to read their Quick Write aloud and invite oral comments before having the last word themselves. Journals are useful variations that students can do outside of class in response to assigned readings or activities. You can prompt them to pull out questions for discussion or surprises they encounter in the reading, and then in class to share those items with their discussion groups.

Like silence, reflective writing can also be a terrific backup strategy for those moments when something surprising happens and you find yourself at a temporary loss for how to proceed. In spite of our best intentions and most meticulous preparation, sometimes things will erupt without warning. In these cases, having several backup strategies in mind will help buy time so you can direct a more productive response. “That’s an interesting idea,” you might say. “Let’s take five minutes and reflect on what makes it so.”