Learning the ‘Silent Way’

Learning is a creative process that comes OUT of all of us.

I have been teaching using the Caleb Gattegno’s “Subordination of Teaching to Learning” (SubTLe) approach for many years (specifically in the context of teaching French as a Foreign Language and French for natives). This approach is ‘post-‘constructivist and can be integrated in every learning context.

I customize workshops and online courses for adults to understand and implement this approach. I also help families in embracing those principles in order to partner with their children in growing their learning muscle in different contexts:

  • when children are unschooled or homeschooled and families are looking to provide empowering learning experiences
  • when children are schooled but need support to drive their own learning

I attempted to capture some of the essential concepts of this approach here.

Students explore themselves and feel themselves learning. They are in charge, they are aware and present to the learning situation. They are empowered learners who experiment, take risks and use errors as opportunities to learn.
Learning should not be taken away from anyone but released. The silence of the teacher allows more student voice. SubTLe teachers intentionally observe, provide feedback and ‘post-pare’ to ‘let learning happen’.
Before connecting with learners, the SubTLe teacher connects with ‘people’. They value each individual and believe everyone deserves to be cared for and elevated.
SubTLe teachers consider learners equal partners in learning. They welcome and expect their inputs to cultivate authentic and personalized learning.
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.
SubTLe teachers foster a safe social and emotional environment to create the conditions for exploration and find learning moments the “miss takes” occurring through experimenting.

The Silent Way Approach

 This was originally published on the IS Magazine: Passeport, F. (2016, Summer issue) ‘The Silent Way’ to Language Acquisition. International School, 18(3), 16-17.

The Silent Way (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 providing more space for the learners to express themselves.
The silence of the teacher is one of the main characteristics of this approach, but a SW teacher can also speak a lot in class. The ultimate goal of any SW teacher is not to hinder the learners’ expression and to ‘let them learn’. Teachers focus on the students’ learning rather than on their own teaching: they do not explain, but immerse 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 pathway 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, for instance, in the form of gestures, short verbal feedback or mimes.
One of the prerequisites 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.
Teachers focus on what the learners did and what problems they encountered. They reflect on how they can help the learners to overcome their obstacles the next time they meet. Usually, teachers prepare situations based on the learners’ needs. The SW is a powerful approach which
engages the teacher’s creativity and reflexivity.

Visible & Tangible Learning

There are some materials that can be used by the SW teacher such as Cuisenaire rods: colored sticks that can be used in various ways: to create manipulable situations, to represent IB Primary Years Programme learners moving rods representing characters in a restaurant 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 use the rods to present authentic contexts to the learners. Unlike a drawing, the teacher and the students can modify and move the elements to demonstrate change in space and time. Students can describe this situation by using position words (the garden is in front of the house, the car is in the garage), domestic vocabulary (house, garden, table, bed, living-room), basic sentences (I can see a sofa in the living room) and, with a character (an extra rod to be moved around the house), can learn routine actions (Mr Green wakes up, brushes his teeth, eats breakfast) that can be recalled later with past forms (he woke up, brushed his teeth, ate breakfast).

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 in a SW class the learners are actively engaged, they cooperate a lot among themselves and take charge of their learning. The SW works very well for all students because it relies not on competition but on 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.

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.

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 Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme. The nature of the SW approach is inquiry-based and learning-focused, while it promotes the IB learner 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 heterogeneous 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.