Silence and giving students space to think

Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005

Image from

Post by Angela Clarke

As the teaching and learning advisor for the School of Art, over time I have observed many peer feedback sessions. What I have noticed is that often students are not consistently good at giving constructive and useful feedback to their peers and even when they do provide insightful comments they often do not go deep enough.

However, in one session I saw last year, I observed students offering extended and unusual feedback to one another. It was a painting studio, five students had displayed their work around the room, the class (approx. 20 students) and two lecturers were there to give formative feedback (ie they were not being assessed). The lecturers began the session by asking students to spend 10 mins observing the works – this was done in silence. Students spent this time slowly milling around the works moving in for closer inspection and standing back for broader perspectives. Something about the extended silence and slow movement evoked a progressively deeper sense of focus in the room.

The lecturers then called on particular students (not the artists) to discuss each work. During this process the lecturers also allowed a great deal of silence and the students seemed to be relatively comfortable with it. Occasionally, after some time had passed and nothing had been said, one of the lecturers would gently provide a prompt like ‘tell me about the vanishing point…’ or ‘describe what you are looking at…’ or ‘talk about the materials used in this piece….’. Once the students got started they offered each other sensitive and thought provoking comments in an almost stream of consciousness way such as ‘objects in space, paint on canvas….take my attention to…. slowing down my thoughts…only looking at what’s there I see….the artist draws my attention to…’. These comments provided a rich source of material, future directions and possibilities to the artist’s whose work was on display.

What is noteworthy about this approach is the lecturers’ use of gentle suggestions that emerge out of silence rather than direct questions such as ‘where is the vanishing point?’ It seems the lecturers were creating a learning environment that actively allowed for slow inner processes to emerge. It reminded me of an article by Anna Weiser Cornell called ‘Questioning Questions’. When working with people to facilitate an inner experience Cornell prefers to use suggestions rather than questions. Cornell finds that questions can be abrupt and can interrupt a person’s inner process because “they place the questioner in a subtly one-up position. They narrow the options of the questioned to those defined by the questioner” (Cornell, 2001, p.3). Cornell points out that even not answering the question is not really a choice as this will be socially interpreted as a refusal or an inability to answer. In a learning context both these responses are generally perceived as unacceptable.

Cornell goes further and argues that questions actually demand fast answers and therefore people tend to answer them using head-processes where ready-made answers are stored. I would argue that responding to art works is an inner experience which requires a quiet attentiveness to a body-process that does not yield immediate results. The body often has intuitive responses to things and accessing this kind of information is slower and less definitive particularly because visceral responses do not immediately have words attached to them. The tone used by the lecturers suggested that they had no doubt the students were able to respond to their prompts. I witnessed the lecturers be present and comfortable with silence, which in turn helped the students take the time they needed to articulate their response – a rare gift in our fast-paced, instant-gratification culture.

Subsequent to this classroom event, I worked with the two lectures to see if we could further enhance this teaching technique. As a result we developed a tutorial that encourages students to actively work in this way. We are trialling this in a peer learning project this coming semester. I’ll keep you posted.

*Thanks to Dr Robin Kingston and Rhett D’Costa and their students for allowing me to observe their class and for the subsequent work we have done together.

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