Quiet Mouse Experiment

I've had a lot of problems with students constantly talking in my Geometry class. I have 25 students and it's just not a good combination. I've tried lecturing and guilt tripping them about respect. I've tried holding them late after class. My most recent strategy was to add a homework problem every time they get loud. For example, if I wanted them to do 8 problems, I'd make a worksheet of 16 and write an 8 on the board. If they get loud, I walk over to the board, cross out the 8, and write a 9. I like it because it's nonverbal and doesn't interrupt the class. Also, they can't argue with it. If I start walking near the board, they try to quiet everyone down. It's helped some but it hasn't changed the fact that they don't respect me and ignore what I say.

So I decided to experiment. I've wanted to do this since my first year of teaching but was never sure I could pull it off. I did not talk. I went through the entire class without speaking. It was so fun!

I stood at the door and talked to students as they came in. When class started, I started the timer for 4 minutes to signal students to work on the bell ringer. When students called me over to ask questions, I spoke to them individually. From then on, I didn't speak. When the timer went off, I worked out the problems on the board so students could check their work. Normally I would explain the problem and call on students to tell me what to write. This time I wrote in silence and they magically did the same.

Our lesson was on the midpoint formula. I had a worksheet and corresponding PowerPoint but in a tragic turn of events, the worksheet pictures were different from the PowerPoint. Oh no! So instead of the worksheet, I held up a blank piece of paper. They got the hint and got out paper. I showed a horizontal line on the coordinate plane and the PowerPoint asked, How could we find the midpoint? A couple students figured out that we could just count the squares and then take half of that. The next picture showed a slanted line so that their method no longer worked. I pointed at the endpoints of the line and they gave me the coordinates.  Then I showed them the formula and they told me what to write. We went through several problems that way. I pointed to students when they needed to write. When they asked questions, I redirected it back to the class and other students explained. I walked around to monitor their progress.

I was amazed at my own ability to communicate without speaking.

Some students were really angry at me. Which I still haven't figured out. Some were very helpful interpreters. There were two students who I don't think have truly understood anything we've done all year that were completely engaged, did their homework, and actually enjoyed class.

I asked them three questions at the end of class as an exit slip.

  1. Did you learn better or worse?
  2. What was the point of this experiment?
  3. Did you have any questions that were not answered?

The responses to number one were 8 better, 6 worse, 5 the same, 2 no answer.

The responses to number 3 were 13 no, 5 yes, 3 no answer.

The response to number 2 were incredibly valuable. Here are some of their comments:

-To make us do more work
-To see if we an learn without you talking
-Learn to be quiet
-To see if it would help us learn
-To have our friends try and teach us
-To see if we could learn without your help
-To show you can teach and we can learn without talking. It's about paying attention and reading directions. Making us think more.
-I learnt better today somewhat because it was us learning.
-To learn in a different way

The next day I showed them the results and put up the following quote:

"If students could learn math by just listening, teachers would have been replaced by tape recorders a long time ago."

I asked them what this meant. They commented that you need to do more than hear it, you need to see it and actually do it.

Then I asked them how I could talk less so that they could learn more. Some of their suggestions were that I talk 2 days a week and not talk 3 days a week, not talk until they asked me a question, and only talk 5 times a period.

I haven't really decided what I'm going to do but I have been really noticing how much unnecessary talking I do and I hope I'm doing a good job of cutting it out.

My biggest takeaway from this experiment is that my students do not listen to what I say. As soon as I start talking, they tune out. They know I will repeat it or that it does not matter. This is a part of my issue with respect but I haven't  figured out how to master that yet.

By not talking, I forced them to watch me and pay attention. I forced them to listen to each other, not talk over each other, and try to understand on their own.

I forced myself to communicate only what matters.

I think I made them think.

Shh. Don't say a word.


  1. Very interesting! What a validating reason to incorporate more student-centered lesson plans rather than teacher-centered! Having the kids discover is more engaging and they learn better- but is way easier said than done! I am going to share this on my facebook page! :)


  2. I think you are partly right. I think the novelty is also what helped. If you didn't talk every day for a week, they would get used to that, too, and it wouldn't be as effective.

    It can be interesting to have them try to explain things to each other without talking, too. Or maybe go the other direction and have them ONLY talk (no writing). I've had my classes do each of those and it can be interesting to see how they describe things or try to draw things in the air or whatever.

  3. But how would getting used to it be a bad thing? They still have to pay attention. If there is no sound, they have to at least be watching.

    What behaviors would you expect after the novelty wore off?

  4. I once had a rambunctious last period class that was a handful to keep focused. One day, I had a lesson that I thought would work well by breaking the class into small groups. I had never used small groups before in the class and the kids loved it, were extremely engaged and significant learning occurred. I then thought, why not do it on a regular basis, and within a week, they were back to being rambunctious.

    The lesson you taught was a great fit for your silent approach, and you deserve major kudos for being so brave to try it--seriously, I think it's amazing to try that with a tough class like you have. Yes, there was a certain amount of novelty, but if you had just walked into class with a costume on, that novelty would only get you five minutes attention, not the entire class period. You will get much more mileage out of this approach if you use it sparingly, unexpectedly, and when it is a great fit for the lesson you are teaching.

    Maybe Monday, you could try walking in with a costume on :-)

    Paul Hawking
    Blog: The Challenge of Teaching Math

  5. Paul,
    Thank you for pointing out that I should use this strategy 'when it is a great fit for the lesson you are teaching'. So true, for any teaching strategy. I never want to force a strategy to work because it is something I like but for when it is the best approach for the most amount of learning.

    I knew that this class would not be my favorite but I think it will be the class that forces me to stretch and grow the most.

  6. I had a similar problem several years ago and I came in as my sub (pretending I was my sister who is a middle school art teacher). My students were asking too many stupid questions that they could figure out easily on their own, kind of a learned helplessness deal. Some kids got a little mad but it was fun and it served my purpose, we analyzed it afterwards too.

  7. I'll certainly give this a whirl. Only issue is I have 3 4th grade math classes and a homeroom. My last class is really rough and they need a lot of help with the basics. I'm sure that if I gave them a variation of this I'd see the class split. The off Tasks will keep doing exactly that while the Go Somethings will make every effort to figure out what's going on and how to move forward.

  8. Jason,
    I think you will be surprised. The novelty is part of its charm. It's not a strategy you could use every time but I think you will really grab the attention of each student. Try it and tell us what happens!