The Work of Learning from Silence

  • Ray McDermottEmail author
  • Sara Rutherford-Quach
  • Daniel Steinbock
Part of the Perspectives in Cultural-Historical Research book series (PCHR, volume 6)


We draw on two studies of silence as a social achievement: one from a Quaker Meeting in which adult congregants use five kinds of silence to orchestrate their situation (Steinbock, 2012); the other from a second grade classroom in which children and their teacher employ 16 kinds of silence to juggle a question–answer exchange on arithmetic (Rutherford-Quach, 2013). Silence is not ‘an empty space,’ said Charles Goodwin (2018, p. 201), ‘but a place occupied by its own relevant activity.’ We stress the productive nuances of silence, illustrating its use as a flexible resource in the relations among people in specific learning situations. At Quaker Meeting, silence as ‘relevant activity’ is both goal and method for arranging a space for reflection and spiritual reorientation. In a second grade classroom, silence gains its relevance in the rougher interactional waters of schools where aspects of ability, attention, and intelligence are negotiated and turned into institutional identities.


Silence Quakers School Soundscape Learning  Achievement Dewey 



A longer version of this paper was commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as preparatory material for a report on How People Learn. We thank Fred Erickson, Perry Gilmore, and Shelley Goldman for comments on that draft. We thank Joe Riina-Ferrie for Bolaño (2000) and Tim Koschmann for Jefferson (1989).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ray McDermott
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sara Rutherford-Quach
    • 1
  • Daniel Steinbock
    • 1
  1. 1.Stanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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