‘Quiet’? or ‘Conversational’ Classrooms

The term ‘Quiet’ in our traditional school classrooms, often equates to ‘compliance’.


This was very important when our traditional school system was built over 100 years ago. It was essential that we had compliance from our students to adequately train them for the industrial era.

When I think of quiet classrooms, I think about the term ‘compliance’. There are obviously times when we need to be quiet to hear the voices of our students, and those times when we need quiet to think independently, or read independently, or meditate, or pause and think.

However, it behooves us to consider the implications for the future if our students are required to comply with our demands, versus the implications of allowing classroom to be ‘conversational’ and engaging, at appropriate times.

There are key differences between ‘compliance’ vs ‘engagement’.

Compliance means that you will do what you are told. Being told to be quiet all day to fill in the worksheets and listen to the teacher will not serve our students in the future anymore. Engaging our students inevitably means that we are promoting healthy social interactions that are on task, and allowing students to build knowledge together. It also means a lot of work for the teacher who is continuously walking around the classroom, listening, engaging with the students, asking new questions, and monitoring and assessing the learning.

Certainly we have to consider the dynamics of our classrooms and the needs of our students. However, there are key advantages of promoting engagement versus compliance.


1. We have moved OUT of the industrial era. We are in the wake of the Industrial era. Our students need to be able to interact in meaningful ways with their peers. This fosters skills that they will take with them into other situations… situations that will serve them appropriately in the future.

2. Facts can be googled.  There is no longer a need to fill our students head with facts. Facts can be googled. What we need to do is help our students to be problem solvers. To be problem solvers you need to be ‘resourceful‘ and be able to connect well with others. You need to be able to communicate, and work well with others to build new knowledge.

3. Building social-emotional skills. These are essential for the future. In our classrooms it is only through social-emotional practice that we can embed character education, growth mindsets and basic social skills for collaboration, when we allow students to interact together in our classrooms.

4. Each student has important things to contribute to the classroom. This is not something that all students naturally understand. Some students are quieter, and participate in different ways. It is through communicative strategies that students can learn about the knowledge and pieces of themselves that they can contribute to the classroom.

5. Turning inquiries into discussions. If we as educators listen, kids are wondering about the world all the time. They have questions. Often, I will stop to address their inquiries. Who has a connection with the inquiry? Where should we go to find more information? Where will we end up after following the inquiry? The point is, that questions are important, asking the appropriate questions is a skill, and an important part of the knowledge building process.

6. Character building. It is the social situations of our learning environments that provide the contexts to build character. You can’t plan this. It arises out of the natural social interactions that occur in the classroom. The important part is to help students understand the vocabulary, the sentence starters, the key knowledge and background experiences, the key concepts that they need to focus on that help build character traits in themselves and in others.

When students purposefully talk and engage in a classroom, they are intentionally building an environment where students can socialize in meaningful ways and help each other, they begin to build trust and a sense of safety where they can think, and apply new ideas to new and old problems.

Again, I will reiterate the importance of knowing the make-up of your classroom. We need to trust in our educators that they work well enough with their students to be able to foster the type of learning environment that promote the skills that they may not necessarily need right now, but that they will most certainly need in the future. This includes collaborating to build new knowledge. It also means harnessing technologies appropriately is essential to facilitating this process as well.

Image from W Fryer
Image from W Fryer

Nothing makes me happier than when a student I have been working with all year, no knows how to use their SEA equipment effectively, they know how to ask for the use of a device to seek out new information effectively, or they have learned enough about information literacy, that they instinctually understand how to use technology to extend their work, and extend their new inquiries into new domains of knowledge that are interesting to them.

If you ask me how I feel about having quiet classrooms, it will depend on the activity we are doing, and the purpose of being ‘quiet’. Because if being quiet goes beyond listening and focusing, it then becomes all about compliance…..I don’t believe that serves our students in their present, or their futures.

We are not in the industrial era anymore. We are not working to know singular sets of knowledge for the rest of our lives. We are working in a knowledge era, where new knowledges always need to be created and built. Our students absolutely need these skills, and purposeful social engagement is essential to building these skills.

Slide10 (2)

What forms your basic philosophy about classrooms in the 21st century?

Deborah McCallum

Copyright, 2015



5 responses to “‘Quiet’? or ‘Conversational’ Classrooms”

  1. […] The term 'Quiet' in our traditional school classrooms, often equates to 'compliance'. This was very important when our traditional school system was built over 100 years ago. It was essential that …  […]


  2. […] The term 'Quiet' in our traditional school classrooms, often equates to 'compliance'. This was very important when our traditional school system was built over 100 years ago. It was essential that …  […]


  3. Julie Carignan (@julie_carignan) Avatar

    Hello Deborah!
    My english is not great (I’m french-canadian) but I want to take the time to say THANK YOU! Thank you to put in word what I live day after day in my class. Thank you to put in word how I see my little students (I’m a first grader teacher). I will continue to follow your blog. You give me so much things to think about! Have a nice week!


  4. LKL Avatar

    One thing to be considered is the actual noise pollution that can happen in a classroom, especially when student break off into groups to work on a problem or have a discussion. Even with everyone showing courtesy within the group, there can be 6 or more people at a time speaking in the room.
    Particularly in a room with no carpeting or cork bulletin boards, students working in groups can get very loud just in order to hear and be heard over the voices of the other groups.
    For some students, the auditory levels can become overwhelming.

    Adding sound-absorbing materials to the classroom and a quiet area for sensitive students can make a big difference and keep conversation volume from continuing to rise just to hear and be heard over the volume of other groups in the room. Also, depending on the school layout and situation, using nearby hallways and/or outdoor classrooms for group work can also help with sound issues.

    Within groups, using a “talking feather” (only the holder of the feather may speak, and the feather is passed to the next person for their turn to speak ensuring each person gets their due turn), can help keep members from speaking over each other, This is most effective in group discussion situations in which students are more eager to be heard.


  5. […] often means that students need to be able to interact socially. Our learning environments are not ‘quiet’, but interactive. I am striving to promote constructivist learning environments, while at the same time, promote […]


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