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Senses, Silence, Slowing Down

Photo by Riley Nelson


By Marie Howe

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store

and the gas station and the green market and

Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,

as she runs along two or three steps behind me

her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?

To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?

Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,

Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry—

you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking

back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,

hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

I recently came across this poem and it won’t leave me alone. I think about it as I’m rushing to get something done, I think of it in traffic, I think of it when I repeat “get your shoes on, fast!” a thousand times before I get the children I nanny out the door. “Where do I want her to hurry to?” What a question. Two others might be “What’s the purpose of haste?” and “Are there benefits to be found in slowing the pace?” I believe there are. With slowing down often comes a larger awareness of the stimulation around us and maybe even a bigger appreciation for other less intense sensations, such as silence. Slowing down, senses, and silence don’t play major roles in a typical classroom, but have been found to have many benefits when integrated into the learning experience.

Slowing Down

“Everything that is great in life is the product of slow growth; the newer, and greater, and  higher, and nobler the work, the slower is its growth, the surer is its lasting success.  Mushrooms attain their full power in a night; oaks require decades.” –William George Jordan

Think back to your own experiences in the classroom: teachers rushing through curriculum, crazed to get through their PowerPoints, worried about taking too much time to answer “irrelevant” questions that “don’t matter” because they “won’t be on the test.” Why are we so rushed to accumulate a collection of facts that we fly right by the opportunity to slow down and learn something that applies to something broader than a one-time bubble sheet?

In a wonderful little booklet called The 5 Literacies of Mindful Learning by Daniel and Taylor Rechtschaffen, they say that some “kids have natural defense mechanisms that put their bodies and nerves on high alert—and that highstakes testing only exacerbates. Our executive functioning gets hijacked by stress and trauma, shutting down when tested or pushed.” I've definitely felt that myself. And as William Jordan notes, slow growth very often leads to significant growth.


“Quiet is a think tank of the soul. We need silence. Silence is not a luxury, but it’s essential.” –Gordon Hempton

Along with the classroom rush comes a flood of words. I can’t think of many times a professor actually gave us time to sit in silence and reflect. Maybe there is a pause between their question and a student raising a hand, but for me that silence is filled with trepidation. I don’t even begin to hold the question because of the anticipation that another student will give their answer before I’ve reached mine. Where is the space of quiet for reflection?

During a study on the impacts that different sounds had on the cognition of mice, it was discovered through the control group that silence was the only condition that had a lasting effect. Two hours of silence a day resulted in new brain cell development in the hippocampus (memory portion of the brain associated with senses). Imke Kirste, the researcher, said, “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

A paper published by Ros Ollin in the Cambridge Journal of Education makes note that the Western culture is an anomaly in its tendency to value talk over silence. Silence has played a significant role in communication throughout many places and times, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in our classrooms. The paper goes into depth about the need to disprove the prevalent negative connotations silence. Silence can be used as time for absorbing information, developing personal ideas, and reviewing old information. Constant talking can be a detriment as it acts as a noise that interrupts thought processes.

Experiential education seems to be able to give more space for silence. Taking time to silently write down thoughts, to reflect and meditate, to observe—these allow space for true learning integration.


“All our knowledge begins with the senses.” –Immanuel Kant

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” But if we don’t even have an experience on which to reflect, the implementation of silence and slowing down is irrelevant. The “experience” of a traditional classroom typically only engages the senses of sight and sound. You watch the teacher lecture and hear their voice; such a limited, limited portion of experience. What about the other senses that may aid in absorbing knowledge?

As I frequently go on field trips in my major (wildlife conservation), I experience the benefits of engaging all of the senses in the learning process. Being hit with the repulsive smell of a female ginkgo tree sears its scientific name in my mind; seeing the endless hills of lodgepole pine in Yellowstone drills in the concept of monocultures; feeling the smooth bark of a water birch along a stream makes it obvious to remember their nativity to Utah; the sound of elk calling out around our tent at night helps me understand why it’s called “bugling;” one taste of an aspen leaf’s bitter sharpness will always remind me that those chemicals are produced to ward off herbivores.

In a book by Colin Beard and John P. Wilson called The Power of Experiential Learning, they say, “The more sense we use in an activity the more memorable the learning experience will become because it increases the neural connections in our brains and therefore will be more accessible…and therefore the greater the effect on future thought and behavior. Thus, as many senses as possible should be used in the learning experience to support long-lasting learning that will result in better individual, group and organizational performance." They also state that sensory experiences are the crucial bridge between internal and external environments, consequently aiding in the true assimilation of knowledge. According to a study published by Piccardi et al. in the journal Neuroscience Letters, more than half of the brain is dedicated to processing sensory information. So as sensory experiences are incorporated into learning, a significant portion of our brains are stimulated. Hence, finding different ways to incorporate senses into the learning process is overall extremely advantageous.


The encounters I’ve had with experiential education have given me time to slow down, sit in silence and reflect, and have sensory experiences. As I’ve been given more of these three things, I feel the depth and width of my learning has greatly expanded. The research also backs up the idea that each of these three S’s make room for real learning. Once again, from the Rechtschaffens, “When we ask educators and parents what they really want for kids, it’s rare that their first choice is ‘to be proficient in algebra.’ What they most hope for is for their children to be successful, to be happy, and to live good and meaningful lives . . . Through approaches like mindfulness, we’ll teach students to be ‘literate’ in five key areas: their bodies, their minds, their hearts, their community, and the world around them.” These three keys for learning have the potential to do the same.


Beard, C. M., & Wilson, J. P. (2002). The power of experiential learning: a handbook for trainers and educators. London: Kogan Page.

Kirste, Imke & Nicola, Zeina & Kronenberg, Golo & Walker, Tara & Liu, Robert & Kempermann, Gerd. (2013). Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Brain Structure & Function. 1221-1228.

Ollin, R. (2008). Silent pedagogy and rethinking classroom practice: structuring teaching through silence rather than talk. Cambridge Journal of Education, 38(2), 265-280.

Piccardi, L., Iaria, G., Ricci, M., Bianchini, F., Zompanti, L., & Guariglia, C. (2008). Walking in the Corsi test: Which type of memory do you need? Neuroscience Letters, 432(2), 127-131.

Rechtschaffen, T., & Rechtschaffen, D. (2015). The 5 Literacies of Mindful Learning. Educational Leadership, 73(2), 58-62.