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Dixons Academies Trust

Bradford Research School: Quiet or loud: how should your classroom sound?

Posted 5th October 2023

In one classroom, the teacher watches as the class work in perfect silence. She smiles, as this is how a classroom should be. In the next classroom, the noise levels are higher, as the teacher watches pupils engaged in discussion. He smiles, as this is how a classroom should be.

Which do you prefer?

Quiet please

One of the most compelling reasons for a silent classroom is managing working memory demands. As we wrote in Working Memory: Research into Practice, children have to use working memory to complete almost any task within the classroom:

For example, carrying out a maths problem with multiple steps, where they have to hold on to an intermediate step in the problem-solving sequence, whilst then manipulating other information to complete the task. When writing, a child has to retain ideas for subsequent sentences whilst writing the current one, as well as remembering grammatical or syntactical rules which also influence how and what they write. When checking work, they have to hold in mind what they want the text to say whilst reading the text they have produced. Further, all this has to be performed whilst maintaining a focus on the particular overarching goal or objectives of the task, for example, linking two different poems, or writing about what they did at the weekend.”

A silent classroom can be conducive to minimising distractions and therefore allow pupils to direct valuable cognitive resources on the task at hand. That includes the distractions from the teacher too!

Pupils need to spend time working independently. One of Rosenshine’s (2012) famous principles is to ​‘Require and monitor independent practice: Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic’. And silent working allows the focus to do this.

So silence is golden, but a classroom where lots of silent work is being undertaken has not always been silent, because it will often be the result of carefully designed teaching sequences, which support the pupils and gradually remove the scaffolds so they can practice independently. Without this, pupils may be silent but unproductive.

Noisy Neighbours

Now to the ​‘noisy’ classroom, or rather the non-silent one. Let’s imagine that all of the so-called noise comes from pupils talking to each other in pairs or groups. What are the benefits of this?

The EEF toolkit entry on ​‘Collaborative Learning Approaches’ summarises the evidence. Collaborative Learning involves pupils working together on activities or learning tasks in a group small enough to ensure that everyone participates. Here are some of their findings:

  • Collaborative learning approaches have a positive impact, on average, and may be a cost-effective approach for raising attainment.
  • Pupils need support and practice to work together; it does not happen automatically.
  • Tasks and activities need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some pupils may struggle to participate or try to work on their own.
  • It is important to ensure that all pupils talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks to ensure they benefit fully.
  • The most promising collaborative learning approaches tend to have group sizes between 3 and 5 pupils and have a shared outcome or goal.

Just like there is a logic to the silent classroom, if we want the classroom where pupils are used to collaborating, we should ask why. Robin Alexander gives three compelling explanations for why his ​‘Dialogic Teaching’ approach is effective. First, if we ask pupils to talk, they get better at talk. Second, pupils who use talk are better able to articulate their learning and develop metacognitive approaches and finally, the ​‘culture of argumentation’ leads to ​‘interthinking’, where pupils can readily build on the contributions of their peers, leading to higher quality responses – two heads are better than one!

If our classrooms are completely silent, we might miss out on the benefits of all ways of working. But without clear structures, we may find that the talk is not effective and that some pupils are missing out.

As ever, context is key. Classrooms are never one thing or the other. Quiet or loud, we need structure and purpose.