Solitude And Education – Together…..At Last

In a commentary for Education Week (5/27) Diana Senechal wrote that “unlike many who either praise” teenagers’ use of online networking, “or warn of its external dangers,” New York University education history professor Jonathan Zimmerman “brought up a rarely mentioned subject” in his “recent opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer.” He focused on “the loss of solitude.” According to Senechal, “It is strange that we hear so little about solitude in the schools.” There is “so much emphasis on socialization and so little on aloneness.” But, she noted that “both are needed for learning and for life.” Other “forces” are also “tearing away at solitude. Schools bombard students and teachers with the rhetoric and practice of group work.” Consequently, “schools seem to have forgotten that students need ample quiet time for thinking, reading, and puzzling over problems.” Meanwhile, Senechal warns that “solitude should not become a fad; that would make some of us wish we had never brought it up at all.”
I have always been fascinated by the aura of calm and reserve found on the NYC Subway and the Bay Area BART as people pull out their books (more recently plug into iPod’s) and read. It is as if there is some sacred space in the tunnels that connect us from point A to point B.  This very same quiet can not be found anymore  in public libraries (the one in Alameda often sounds like a parade is about to come through or already passed and people forgot the ‘show’ was over), at schools, at K-12 school libraries, etc.  It is as if public transportation is the last tacit place where one can incur public censuring for non-literate behavior.
Since I can observe this zone of quiet, I know it exists – it is out there.  People can have control over their ‘loudness’, should they choose or enough people enforce it.  Why is it so difficult to find this calm, thoughtful quiet at school?  What makes school the least likely place to have the aural blank space that helps us think? Reflect? Learn?
A couple years ago when I became disenchanted with the form public education was taking under NCL B, I also realized the only real quiet (and even then it was not always the case) was during standardized test taking.  Why was that time more sacred than any other test time? Why is it okay for students to sound like raging banshees in the hall, on the playground, coming in at the beginning of class and we consider it normal? 
Why did we lower our standards on reasonable BEHAVIOR?
I came to realize our society has been enculturated to believe the more noise (and the louder) the better. Just take note of the vibrating cars due to having the sound system cranked up, young adults/kids shrieking at their friends – it is as if we have completely forgotten peace and quiet.  As the realization of this sound inflation sunk in, I started to think something was wrong with me for periodically wanting solitude, quiet, to go someplace and read – finding out I had to leave civilization to do this (hiking, bike riding, beach, etc.).  
 I noticed that there was nothing wrong with me on the day I observed a K Grade student with autism who had been doing so well at school, shriek and cry when her class mates started calling out her name loudly and with a rhythm.  She covered her ears – you could see the frustration in her eyes as she could not tell what was going on except for the loud screaming of her name.  It was that moment that I realized, had it been quiet, she could have processed one person saying her name, moved her head in that direction and had the moment to reflect on what to do next – the very thing teachers are asked to do, give students a 30 second pause to answer a question and not get impatient.
There seemed to be one answer – join a religious organization that participated in quiet, peaceful, thoughtful and considerate behavior in some far away place.  Find time to ‘pray’ (not in the literal way perhaps, but the figurative), fnd time and place to have a zone of silence.  It seemed this was also some of the attraction people were having to yoga.  
Where would one find this quiet?
I found it at the new school where  I will be working in Eldoret, Kenya. The students understand what a quiet study hall is about.  Students talk softly and it inspires one to listen more carefully to what they have to say as it must be important.   The students seem to be preternaturally aware of their environment and notice the most subtle changes – they have to, often it is a matter of life and death to be aware of the outside.   There is a sense of doing things at a pace – there is no rush to be the first to finish, rather there is a need to be the best who finishes and many can be best (there can only be one first). 
The students I observed had a keen sense of success and being acknowledged for their success, not their ability to be loud and obnoxious.  I came back with calm in my heart.  The expectation of thoughtfulness was indeed not disrespectful to a childs normal development, it seemed to benefit these students. 
The article above gave me permission to believe again in calm, quiet, thoughtful thinking – that there could be quiet and learning.   I need not accept noise as the sign of learning (typically a noisy room is indicative of students actively learning, especially in science) in all occassions.
May we all find solitude and a healthier pace – a moment to metacognate on learning.  There is nothing better to share with children.

updated on 7/13/09:  http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/07/10/o.living.with.less/index.html

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