Language Learning Ecosystems


To co-construct language learning ecosystems, we draw from Caleb Gattegno’s Silent Way approach. A humanistic, constructivist and autonomy-supportive way for teaching foreign languages. This approach is concept-driven (and does not rely on translation) and student-centered.

What is “the Silent Way”?

The SW is a pedagogical approach to teaching foreign languages invented by Caleb Gattegno in the late 1950’s. The language teacher using this approach strives to “subordinate teaching to learning” by being silent most of the time and therefore giving more space for the learners to express themselves.

The silence of the teacher is one of the main characteristics but a SW teacher can also speak a lot in class. The ultimate goal of any SW teacher is to not hinder the learners’ expression and to “let them learn”. The teacher focuses on the students’ learning rather than her own teaching: she does not explain but immerses the learner in situations that are visual and tangible and where the meaning can be naturally constructed via investigations, experiences and explorations. 

Pedagogical posture

The SW is not a “method” following strict steps but an approach which is strongly learning-focused. Teachers can anticipate learning blocks but cannot know all of them in advance as each learner’s pathways is individual when acquiring a new language. In this regard, the SW promotes personalized learning and continuous differentiation. The teacher constantly observes the learners and provides immediate feedback to guide them. This feedback is given in the form of gestures, short verbal feedback or mimes for instance.

One of the prerequisite of being a SW teacher is to be reflective. Most of the time, the teacher does not “lead” but facilitates learning. However, after each class, the teacher “post-pares”. “Post-paration” is a sort of a backward planning. The teacher focuses on what the learners did and which problems they encountered. She reflects on how she can help them to overcome their obstacles the next time they meet. Usually, she prepares situations based on the learners needs. The SW is a powerful approach which engages the teacher’s creativity and reflexivity. 

Visible and tangible learning

There are some materials that can be used by the SW teacher such as the Cuisenaire rods which are colored sticks that can be used in various ways: to create manipulable situations, to represent concepts (a grammatical category for instance) or characters, or even just as “rods” (to learn prepositions for instance: the red rod is on/under/in the box…). The SW teacher can present authentic contexts to the learners using these rods. Unlike a drawing, the teacher and the students can modify and move the elements to demonstrate change in space and time.

Learners making connections

In a SW class, the learners slowly construct conceptual understanding by developing inner criteria for self-correction and so become more and more autonomous while learning the language. Since the learners are actively engaged in a SW class, they cooperate a lot among themselves and take charge of their learning. The SW works very well for all students because it does not rely on competition but collaboration. The learners are intrinsically motivated and do not work “for the teacher”, “for the test” or “for their parents”, but “for themselves”. They genuinely take ownership of their learning, feel good about themselves when they achieve something and show they are proud of themselves.

They start their learning with challenging experiments which help them discover, practice and master new concepts. They are engaged in trial and error explorations where “mistakes” have a positive role and are even considered “gifts to the class” (as Caleb Gattegno used to say). Since errors are accepted – and even expected – the learners are used to taking risks and overcoming obstacles such as shyness or lack of self-confidence.

The learners in a SW class demonstrate responsibility because they take control of their learning. They can decide what they want to learn based on their interests, passions or feelings. Learning is immediately enhanced when learners are in charge and when they are driven by their own choices and goals. In such an environment where curiosity and autonomy are nurtured, the teacher and students are all functioning as “learners” and equal partners.

Blending the Silent Way and the IB

Considering the roles of the teacher and the students in a SW class, it is clear there are connections between this approach and the IB programme in PYP, MYP and DP. The nature of the SW approach is inquiry-based and learning-focused, it promotes the IB profile attributes, attitudes and the Approaches to Learning and Teaching.

Teachers who have had contact with this pedagogy find it in agreement with the IB framework as it makes the learners’ thought processes visible. This approach can solve problems of student disengagement and also of heterogenous groups. In addition, it promotes the growth of more inclusive classrooms where differentiation and personalization are constantly part of the classroom atmosphere and where students are leaders of their own journey of discovery.

How is it related to Healthy Learning Ecosystems?

  • Attend to the heart – We are teachers of “people” first, before being teachers of the language. We ensure we build a safe social and emotional learning environment where mistakes are welcomed and support the learning process.
  • Exercise the mind – We create visible and tangible learning situations that trigger learning without telling (not relying on “listen and repeat”). We engage learners in rich learning experiences that have multiple points of entry, foster collaboration and elevate students’ creativity power.
  • Engage the will power – We provide opportunities for choices and tap into students’ interests, goals and aspirations to bring value and a sense of volition and endorsement, going beyond agency and embracing autonomy.
  • We foster a safe social and emotional environment and find learning moments in the "miss takes" occurring through experimentation.
  • We observe the learning process here and now, applying the science of learning and supporting learners with 'just in time' interventions.
  • Learning should not be taken away from anyone but released. The silence of the teacher allows more student voice. We intentionally observe, provide feedback and 'post-pare' to 'let learning happen'.
  • Before connecting with learners, we connect with 'people'. They value each individual and believe everyone deserves to be cared for and valued.
  • Beyond learning within the boundaries of the grade level, age group or subjects, we aim at developing lifelong learners who believe in themselves, who are unstoppable and empowered.

Interested in implementing the Silent Way?

We customize workshops and online courses for adults to understand and implement digital learning ecosystems. Some of the questions we can answer together:

  • Why and how might we teach a language without providing an acoustic model?
  • How might we create a safe environment for learning to take risks and experiment with the language?
  • What are some of the ways we can respond to our learners’ needs to accelerate their learning?
  • How might we develop visible and tangible learning situations that allow students to understand the language conceptually?
  • How might we engage learners in conscious experimentation to develop mastery?
  • How might we teach vocabulary building in engaging ways?
  • How might we adopt a concept-based approach without loosing rigor?
  • How might we design assessment that promote student voice and choice in the foreign language classroom?

Connect with us to find out more about how we might co-construct digital learning ecosystems in your school.