#49 – Shhh… I’m trying to learn.

Episode Host: Jonathan Sherbino

Dr Jonathan Sherbino, portrait.
Jonathan Sherbino
Photo: Erik Cronberg

This episode offers an exploration of silence in education, challenging traditional notions of verbal dominance in the classroom. By examining silence as a positive pedagogical tool, it provides insights into fostering student agency and engagement. Educators will gain practical strategies for creating an inclusive learning environment that respects the diverse ways in which students process and engage with content. And there is a mini Methods Consult from Lara talking about inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning. Enjoy!

Episode article

Su, F., Wood, M., & Tribe, R. (2023). ‘Dare to be silent’: Re-conceptualising silence as a positive pedagogical approach in schools. Research in Education, 116(1), 29–42.

Episode notes

As hosts we have admitted, nor articulated, a bias that we uniformly share.  We all love to talk.  I have never seen a microphone that one of the four of us would not immediately step up to and spontaneously start to deliver some form of an address.  So I wonder if we are biased towards “talky culture”, a term I discovered in the paper we are going to review today.  


The counterpoint to talking is silence.  Both speaking and silence are culturally nuanced behaviours.  I have teenagers.  I should know.  But what place does silence have in our education systems?  Is it a form of respect? A response to power?  Is it a surrogate for lack of knowledge? Or space for thinking? Is the absence of talking the presence of silence? Well, if you want to discover the “positive pedagogy of silence“ (another term I was introduced to in the manuscript) let’s dive in.


This paper is concerned to examine the role and uses of silence as a positive pedagogical strategy in schools … We contrast a positive pedagogical approach…with negative and oppressive uses of silence to exert power and control over others and as a denial of agency. Using a systematic review methodology … a range of understandings of the location of silence in pedagogic practice and classroom approaches in schools are explored. 

(Su et al., 2023)


A search using Google Scholar was performed using keywords with wildcards.  The search was restricted from 2000-21, in English and in peer-reviewd academic journals (which was not defined). Typical PRISMA guidelines were not followed. Data was integrated using a thematic synthesis (coding and generating analytical themes).   

I presume that this was an inductive postpositivist research paradigm. 

Laras Mini Methods Consult:

Deductive Reasoning
  • Example: Given the facts that question 3 on the exam is difficult and that the best students in the class take short pauses at this question, if Linda only took a short pause, it can be deduced that Linda is one of the best students in the class.
  • Description: Deductive reasoning starts with accepted facts (question difficulty, behavior of top students) and logically derives a specific conclusion (Linda is one of the best students). It involves applying known information to reach a certain outcome.

Abductive Reasoning

  • Example: Observing a student being silent during a test and not writing, one might hypothesize that they are pondering the right answer. This hypothesis is generated based on the observed behavior but may not necessarily be the correct explanation.
  • Description: Abductive reasoning starts with an observation (silent student) and extrapolates to a conclusion (they are pondering). It involves generating hypotheses to explain observed phenomena, even if they are not necessarily the definitive cause.
Inductive Reasoning:
  • Example: By observing multiple instances where students are silent at question 3 and then start writing, one might induce a general rule that students find question 3 difficult, leading to reflective silence followed by breakthrough and writing.
  • Description: Inductive reasoning involves observing many instances (students’ behaviors at question 3) and deriving a general rule or pattern (question 3 difficulty leads to silent reflection and then writing) from those observations. It aims to generalize from specific instances to a broader understanding or rule.


From 43 identified articles, 9 were included. I have never heard of the 8 journals that published the included articles.

Four themes “emerged”:

  • Paradoxes of Silence: Silence is often negatively perceived as non-participation due to cultural biases towards talk. However, the study argues for the pedagogical importance of silence, emphasizing its role in fostering student agency and engagement in learning. 
  • Cultural Dimensions of Silence: Silence’s pedagogical value varies across cultures. In some Eastern traditions, silence is integral to learning and thinking, contrasting with Western preferences for verbal participation. 
  • Different Uses of Silence in the Classroom: The study identifies various productive uses of silence, such as providing students with time for reflection and deep engagement in learning tasks. 
  • Silence, Power, and Critical Pedagogy: Silence can express agency, choice, and respect. It serves as a medium for student voice, offering opportunities for resistance and critical engagement with learning content.


“This study has highlighted the importance of developing understandings of the role of silence as a positive pedagogical approach offering freedom from the expectations that learning must necessarily be demonstrable and quantifiable. Challenging the emphasis on oracy for learning, this approach requires that in the classroom learning environment the pedagogical importance of silence is also recognised. We need to ‘dare to be silent’.” 

(Su et al., 2023)


The authors report that the themes emerged… at which point Dr Varpio started yelling at her computer screen.  While this most likely is a linguistic misstep, it misrepresents the effortful work of qualitative analysis.  Unlike Michelangelo, who chips away the excess marble to have David emerge, analysis is generative, creating meaning between codes.  Nothing “simply” emerges.


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