Last week, I went to the opening of an art exhibition. The content of the exhibition really appealed to me and there were lots of people there who it would have been interesting to talk to – but I left after fifteen minutes because the crowds and noise levels were making it difficult for me to engage with either the art or conversation. Other people seemed to be thriving in the environment, though.
Two days later, I met a teacher friend for breakfast in a rather noisy restaurant. I deliberately chose a corner table and sat with my back to the wall, so that I was not surrounded by noise. We started talking about noise and crowds in schools, how we often expect pupils to cope with suddenly changing levels of both, and how it is sometimes the case that quietness and order are associated with concentration, achievement, “being good”. My friend pointed that some children may live in environments in which solitude (or isolation) and quiet are associated with bad behaviour and punishment. How does this impact on their attitude towards school tests? Interestingly, I mentioned the conversation to another friend later that day, who observed that children from the same household can have very different preferences for noise, company, and interaction with others. As teachers, we should be careful not to make assumptions about children’s individual needs based on their siblings or the other people who they associate with.
How about music lessons then? I’ve baffled my Year 7 classes this term by insisting that they do not use headphones during a keyboard performance project. From my point of view, I can know immediately whether everyone is on task, identify common errors across the class, and give quick feedback without having to ask a child to remove their headphones. It save valuable lesson time too, time that would otherwise be spent handing out and counting in headphones and splitters. Am I disadvantaging some children though, the ones who find it easier to concentrate with quiet? I’ve got used to this particular type of sound over many years, but they are being thrust into it due to my preference. Somewhat hypocritically, I got annoyed in a Wind Band rehearsal this week when all the participants were practising individually and it was too loud for me to hear the child who had asked for help. Maybe music teachers should consider dynamics more carefully, not just as volume, but as “the forces or properties which stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process,” which was the first definition to appear in a google search of the term.
I’ve just re-read Carol Shields’ Unless. It’s a dark, rich, beautiful book. Only quietly, at the end, does the protaganist discover the immediate cause of the events that we have followed with her. Suddenly we know the source of the noise, and it immediately makes more sense, is less threatening. Shields chose a George Eliot quote with which to open Unless. It has got me thinking about how we understand our own “keen vision and feeling” and whether we are sufficiently aware of and respectful towards the feelings of the people around us.