Silent Discussion

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Sshh! Isn’t it time we stopped talking?

Pupil talk and dialogue are important but not all the time. One useful strategy that is worth trying is ‘silent discussion’, sometimes called a ‘Big Paper’ activity.

This is a collaborative learning graffiti style. It is still dialogue but it is a dialogue of minds rather than voices and all communication is done in writing and/or drawing.

Silent discussion is a practical strategy recommended in a chapter by Martin Robinson from the book Progress, a classroom guide detailing some of the ideas from the best of the best educational thinkers.

“In this scenario, every member of the class is given equal opportunity to ‘voice’ their opinion in the debate and everyone is exposed to a multitude of diverse opinions.”

Silent discussions allow us to access and activate student’s prior knowledge, stereotypes and preconceived ideas related to topics. It also helps students make new connections and learn from the collective wisdom of the group.

What to do

Writing and silence help students explore a topic or concept in-depth and it engages everyone, particularly those who are less involved in verbal discussions as there is no competition to get their voice heard. It works best when done in pairs or triads.


First, choose a stimulus to ponder, debate and mull over. This can be a question, quotation, problem, excerpt, idea or image – anything that has an impact and provokes thinking. Whatever you choose, this is centred on a large single sheet of paper (poster paper) leaving plenty of room for students to write.


Explain to everyone that the activity involves responding to the stimulus by writing or drawing their thoughts and questions around it and sharing their thinking. Different coloured pens can be used for each student so you can easily differentiate their thoughts.

Copy and Paste

After 10 minutes, one student from each group travels silently around the room visiting other groups and is allowed to ‘steal’ ideas to then bring back and add into their own Big Paper.

(Variation: rather than copy and paste, students stay at their desks and the Big Papers move from one group to another, providing students with the opportunity to write/draw their responses on other posters).


Silence is broken after another 5-10 minutes and students can talk about their ideas and discuss verbally.


As a class, delve into the content and discuss ideas, reactions and responses written on the Big Papers.

To end the activity you can display the Big papers on walls or across tables and hold a ‘Gallery Walk’ for students to view in silence.

Should I use it?

Yes. Three times at least.

Professor John Hattie suggests that we commit to a ‘triple cycle’ whereby we try out a strategy in three different ways or in three different lessons before making our minds up about it. This gives us a chance to tweak, refine and play with it. He also points out,

We need to remember that making changes to our teaching is as much about training our learners as it is about altering our professional practice.

After several ‘runs’ of discussing silently, students will become more comfortable, confident and skillful.

A written conversation changes classroom dynamics because it slows thinking down and makes everyone really focus on the ideas and views of others. It can make students more contemplative, thoughtful and philosophical and it also creates a superb visual record of thoughts, opinions and questions.

Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

Thinking about it, silent discussion is actually quite a noisy activity!

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