This was written by Diana Senechal, the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities. She is currently a curriculum advisor and teacher at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. Her new book is Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

By Diana Senechal

In education discussions, we hear about the need for more concrete standards, or for less testing, or for more testing, or for richer curriculum, or for better facilities, or for more attention to students’ individual needs. My book, Republic of Noise , discusses a problem related to all of these: the loss of solitude. Education is in large part solitary; it involves a meeting of mind and subject. Our schools emphasize a great deal of activity and group work but not the intense, focused, playful, independent work of the mind.

By solitude I do not mean simply physical removal from others, but rather the aloneness that we carry and can shape in various ways. One can be solitary in a class discussion: that is, one can speak out when one has something to say, and listen for the rest of the time. In small-group activity, there is much less room for such mental solitude; all students are supposed to be visibly participating and working on a task. Small-group work has its place, but when districts mandate it and teacher evaluation rubrics presume it, teachers have little room to exercise their best judgment. Moreover, students become dependent on small-group activity and intolerant of extended presentations, quiet work, or whole-class discussions.

I have often heard from teachers that many students today don’t know how to stop talking — that they lack the practice of stilling themselves with a book or problem. Yet the same teachers are told, in professional development sessions and elsewhere, that students should get as much “talk time” as possible and that “teacher talk” should be kept to a minimum. A teacher should be not a “sage on the stage,” the mantra goes, but a “guide on the side.” This is short-sighted advice. Students need their sages; they need teachers who actually teach, and they need something to take in. A teacher who knows the subject and presents it well can give students something to carry in their minds.

Any serious endeavor requires solitude. A champion tennis player must shut out the audience’s cheers and the reporters’ comments. You have to be ferociously alone at times to play at the top levels or even decently. So it is with the study of poetry, mathematics, history, or any other subject. How can you understand Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” unless you sink into its language? How can you grasp angular momentum unless you take time with it in your mind? You can work on some problems in class with your peers. But to understand them fully, you must be able to make your way through them alone.

 Of course, certain kinds of groups make room for good thought as well. When members of a quartet practice their parts on their own and come together for rehearsal, or when students pool their findings in a research project, each person has a chance to delve into the work alone. Unfortunately, schools expect students to do their much of their work together on the spot. Many districts, including New York City in 2004 and onward, have mandated a “workshop model,” where the teacher gives a brief presentation and then puts students in groups to complete a task. Often these tasks are rudimentary in nature: a Venn diagram, an Internet search, a formulaic discussion.

When overdone, group work holds many students back. The student with an unusual idea or quiet personality may have trouble getting a word in edgewise; the student who desires to do well may end up doing work for the others. In addition, given the brevity of the teacher’s presentation, students working in groups miss many complexities of the subject. They plunge into activity before they have gained knowledge or perspective. This is especially problematic in history and social studies classes. In order to know history, one must read about it and listen to the teacher; one cannot figure it out by turning and talking or filling out a chart. After one has listened and read, or in between stretches of listening and reading, one can accomplish something in a group.

 Instead of mandating a particular pedagogical model, schools should encourage teachers to think about the subject and seek the best way of presenting it. That requires the solitude of contemplation and good judgment. Sometimes students should listen to lectures; sometimes the entire class time should be devoted to class discussion. Sometimes there will be group or independent work; sometimes the class will come together for a presentation or performance. When the teacher immerses herself in the subject’s details and principles, she will find the appropriate format for the lesson.

 A solitude fad would be ghastly; there is no need for “solitude appreciation days,” “solitude charts,” or “solitude shares.” Instead, schools should offer the subjects that demand solitude—literature, history, mathematics, music, and others—and show students various ways into them. If schools honor the subjects in this manner, students will gain knowledge and skills that will serve them well over the years. Having grappled with a subject over time, having pondered a work or question, having done what at first seemed daunting, a person will be able to do all of this, again and again, over a lifetime. What could be more difficult and delightful? What could be more essential to education?


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.