The Incredible Power of Silence in Learning

Participants relishing their productive silence at the October 2014 Foundations of Dialogue Education workshop in San Diego, CA

With the speed of life and technology, it seems that many of us are managing our lives in 10-minute increments. Even that 10 minutes can be difficult to protect with the “ding” of incoming e-mail, the “whistle” of an incoming text, and the vibration that signals updates on Linked-In, the all-company messaging app or Facebook account.

Uninterrupted, quiet, thinking time can seem unfamiliar, disorienting, and deliciously welcome.  I was struck by this earlier this month while facilitating a beautifully designed learning task in GLPs “Foundations of Dialogue Education” course.

In pairs, participants had spent a good chunk of time identifying content, writing achievement-based objectives, and then fleshing out one task for their design using the 4 A’s. They recorded their work on charts and then posted these in a gallery. Working solo, we then took time to read each sample and to write two pieces of feedback to each designer: one thing that we liked and one caution or suggestion. These were written out on sticky notes and then added to the charts.

You could have heard a pin drop. You could see the concentration…in cartoon terms, you could “see smoke coming out of people’s ears” as they deeply and intentionally engaged in the task.

The experience was so remarkably powerful: focused, sustained concentration; an absence of multi-tasking, distraction, and noise. Silent. Together. Doing something meaningful. This soothing, reflective atmosphere unfolded over a period of more than 20 minutes. As we gradually and naturally finished the task, there was a collective sense of calm and accomplishment that was palpable.

I feel such gratitude to the skilled GLP designers—Chris Little, Dwayne Hodgson, Kathy Hickman, Peter Noteboom, Jeanette Romkema and Valerie Uccellani—who worked on this version of the course and gave us this learning task. The power of the time made me wonder: How do I invite and attend to silence, to this kind of extended focus within the learning designs I create? It also brought my attention back to the importance of sequencing tasks in a way that invites not only dialogue among participants via spoken word, but also via other means: written feedback, respectful silence for reflection…

What role does silence play in the design and facilitation of learning events you lead?