Silent Discussion

What if you had a class discussion with no talking?

I came up with the idea for this activity after spending two days with a working group. The group was amazing and we got a lot done, but after the trip I realized that we had spent the entire two days sitting in a room and talking to one another. So often in classrooms, we rely on discussions as the best method for students to challenge themselves and each other. Being able to quickly put your thoughts together into a coherent thought and have the bravery to share that thought with peers requires a lot. In my case, I was with colleagues who I felt very comfortable with, but that’s not the experience all students have in the classroom. So in my psychology senior seminar on the Hunger Games, I decided to try a new discussion format.

Prompt from silent discussion

The Set Up

I reserved a colloquium room that was bigger than our normal classroom so that we would have space to spread out and students would get the feeling that today was “different”. Before students arrived, I posted newsprint around the room with prompts on the top. The students were reading about power and privilege, so some of the prompts were:

  • I don’t believe
  • I’m surprised that
  • I already knew that
  • I’m wondering
  • I’m afraid to say/ask


The Class

When students came to class, I explained that we were going to have a silent discussion and the rules were:

  • You cannot speak (with one exception)
  • You should write responses to the prompts and to each other’s comments
  • Keep circulating and writing

The one exception to the silence was that students could go outside the room to play a game we were doing called Tokens, which I’ll explain in another post. I also told students that I would pass out slips of paper with facts about power and privilege taken from the chapter they had read. They could also use those to respond to the prompts. After I made sure students understood the rules, I told them to start.

I’ll admit, it was a strange sight to have my students going around the room and writing but not talking. Some of the students read before reading, while others jumped right in with comments. One student used a bright pink pen, but for the most part it was difficult to tell who had written what. Some prompts generated a lot more discussion than others. The board that surprised me the most was “I don’t believe”. I thought students would say they didn’t believe in the privileges stated in the book, but several admitted that they didn’t change would happen anytime soon. That generated a very fruitful discussion.
As students slowed down on writing, I added a few other prompts, like:
  • I learn from
  • As psych majors, we
  • Respond to (with an arrow to the “I’m afraid to ask” board)
I also put up a blank piece so that students could write anything they wanted. I wrote a few comments but mostly left it to the students to direct the conversation.
In this class, students were used to writing a reflection answering the question “What happened today?” For this class, I asked them to record a two-minute audio reflection instead of writing.

Prompts from silent discussion


This activity turned out to be so much more powerful than I expected. The comments were certainly more in-depth than they would have been in an online discussion board. Still, students had time to gather their thoughts and respond. Students who weren’t normally talkative in class had the opportunity to make their voice heard, semi-anonymously. But I think that being in the same physical space also forced the students to stay engaged in the discussion and be respectful of each other.

It was also really refreshing for me to hear my students’ voices after the class. Of course, I hear many of them speak in class, but it felt like their spoken reflections were more natural than their writing. Some did read a reflection, but many just spoke, pauses and emotions and all.

Nearly all of the students were engaged during the class. A few took longer breaks from reading/writing, and one student sat for most of the class (this was a student who eventually dropped the class). Overall, though, participation was great.

There is a version of this called the Post-it note discussion, where students write comments on a sticky note that they pass back and forth. I liked this activity better because it involved the entire class–everyone had the opportunity to participate in every discussion. Also, there was something about the physical moving around that also jarred us out the traditional academic mode. So, all in all, I think the silent discussion is a useful technique if you want a change of pace in your classroom and give opportunities for students to have their “voices” heard in a new way.

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