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  • Why Silent Corridors? – What I learnt at Michaela

Why Silent Corridors? – What I learnt at Michaela

Read this blog post in condensed form as a Twitter thread here.

I've never been particularly good with authority. I get it from my Dad. I'm not good at ‘following orders', so to speak, and I always need to know the ‘why' behind something before I do it. This means that, when I first heard of silent corridors, my initial reaction was the same as many others, something along the lines of, ‘That seems unnecessarily strict!' and ‘Couldn't similar ends be achieved through a shift in culture rather than such black and white rules?'

However, to move forwards in education, it's my core belief that we must do our best to refrain from casting judgments based upon headlines or gut reactions to catchphrases or hearsay about what schools do or don't do. Instead, we need to open a productive dialogue, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and work together to find context-appropriate solutions for the challenges that we face in education.

Therefore, rather ​than immediately make up my mind on silent corridors (and a panoply of other rules that schools known for their strictness also uphold), I thought I had better go to the source and check it out for myself.

I really enj​oyed my visit to Michaela Community School, and my podcast discussion with Katharine Birbalsingh recorded during the visit. It was a fantastic opportunity to pressure test some of the policies of the school, as well as my own beliefs. Within the one-hour podcast with Katharine, we spent about 30 minutes on the topic of silent corridors. However, we weren't really talking about silent corridors, we were talking about the idea mentioned at the top of this reflection, the ins and outs, and tradeoffs entailed with implementing binary rules rather than more culture-based* approaches.

For those who haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast, within this ‘silent corridors’ portion of it (from 8 mins and 18 seconds), Katharine and I essentially went back and forth about this, with her providing reasons for silent corridors, and me nudging back and enquiring into whether the same ends could be reached by asking students to be ‘respectful’ instead of ‘silent’.

Something I was puzzled about during this portion of the interview, was that Katharine seemed to be suggesting that we could teach students general soft skills like ‘respect’, but we couldn’t expect students to transfer these soft skills to the specific setting of the corridor.

I was confused because, to me, if students can’t transfer a generalised understanding of ‘respect’ to the corridor, then it was my thought that, ‘they haven’t really learnt it.’ I tried to share this idea by using ‘kindness’ as a counter example (as Michaela explicitly says that it teaches students to be kind). And Katharine generously, and patiently, responded to my extended questioning on this topic. That being said, I didn’t leave the interview totally satisfied about my understanding of why silent corridors may, in some contexts, be superior to aiming for ‘respectful’ ones.

However, in listening back to our discussion a couple more times, and doing my best to keep heart and mind open, I managed to draw out a better understanding of two key reasons for why silent corridors have a legitimate, and important place, within education. The first idea, binary vs. spectrum acts, helps to explain why students may understand what ‘respectful’ means in some contexts, but may struggle in others. The second idea, efficiency, is something that I understood at the outset, but that I’ve come to understand more deeply through discussion with Katharine.

Binary vs. spectrum acts

Within the podcast, Katharine gave a number of examples of how they describe and teach kindness at Michaela. For example, she said, ‘being generally kind and respectful, of course, you want the kids to be able to do that. And then you need to teach them what that means. [Your friend has] forgotten a pen in class, you lend the pen to your friend.’

Lending a pen to your classmate, or helping another student pick up a plate that they dropped in the cafeteria (another example that Katharine gave), are both binary acts. You either do it, or you don’t. For a young person regulating their behaviour, and trying to do the right thing, it’s very easy for them to self-regulate and self-assess the extent to which they’re being ‘kind’ based upon knowledge of such acts, and they should be able to translate their knowledge of kindness as binary acts to a variety of situations in school and life, especially those that they’ve been explicitly taught about in the classroom (lend a pen, pick up the plate, put the rubbish in the bin, help the elderly person across the road, give up your seat, open the door, etc).

Scenarios in which it’s harder for students to be ‘kind’ in a self-regulated way, if they’ve only had limited training or exposure, relate to what I'm calling spectrum acts. By spectrum acts, I mean actions that students take that aren’t on or off, they occur along a spectrum. A perfect example of this, and the one that Katharine and I were talking about, is moving quietly through corridors. There is not objective measure for ‘quietness’** and, as a result, teaching students to regulate their volume is more of a slippery slope.

This happens in my classroom on a regular basis. I start off letting my students know that they can work quietly. This works for about 5 to 10 minutes, after which they’re speaking loudly. I then reset them once or twice, and eventually end up telling them that it’s now silent work time. This pattern is ok at the classroom level, and it goes some way to balancing the benefits of dialogue between students for learning, and the need for a calm and focussed working environment. But at the school level, corridors get out of hand much more quickly, and it’s much harder to reset them in the same way.

As adults, we also often find binary acts easier to adhere to than spectrum acts. As a result, we often turn spectrum acts into binary acts. Instead of ‘getting some exercise’, we aim to get 10,000 steps per day. Instead of ‘eat ethically’, we choose to be vegan, or only eat fair trade products. Instead of ‘stay in touch with family’, we resolve to call our parents each week. Turning a vague sentiment into a yes or no helps with monitoring, reflection, and adjustment. If this is something that’s helpful at the individual level, for an adult, it’s definitely helpful at the collective level, and for young people.

Therefore, for spectrum acts, such as being ‘quiet’ in a corridor, I can now very much see the rationale behind making concrete rules rather than looser guidelines.


The second argument that I find particularly compelling regarding silent corridors is simply the need for efficiency. Katharine put it well when she said, ‘that's what you need to get rid of, all the other issues about behaviour, so you can really concentrate on all this other stuff [like pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment] that really matters.’

This efficiency must be weighed against its cost, so cost bears exploring. Though we (I) may have an initial gut reaction to it, upon reflection, it isn’t actually a massive deal to require students to walk the corridors in silence. It isn’t something that is going to have a long-term negative impact on them, even if it is a bit uncomfortable at first (one student said to me during my visit, ‘The rules here seem harsh at first, but then you just get used to them.’). So the costs on students seem smaller than they’re often trumped up to be, especially when compared to the joy that I saw in the Michaela playground (they were doing sack races the day I was there, they were just as happy as any other kids).

It was also an excellent point that Katharine made when she said, ‘this is a very artificial thing, school. Moving around hundreds of children. That never happens in life. …you don't have a bell that goes and you move from lesson to lesson and, that doesn't happen. You're trying to think of a way of maximising your time with the kids to be able to do good stuff.’ I reflected on this and realised that when it comes to similar scenarios within society, I don’t find myself rebelling against order or authority. I don’t feel that a queue at the cafe restricts my freedom, or that being allocated a seat on an aeroplane stops me from expressing my individuality. In artificial social situations involving the organisation of large numbers of human beings, especially when those humans don’t know each other, and particularly when interactions are cross-culture, and culture norms simply can’t be established due to time restrictions, we develop systems, and we implement binary rules in response. Silent corridors, therefore, efficiently solves a real and present problem in schools through a quick and simple solution.

I’m definitely not convinced that silent corridors are the best way to go for all schools and in all contexts. Nor am I convinced that it isn’t possible to teach students to move ‘respectfully’ around the school in the absence of rules for silence or similar (The corridors are super respectful at XP, for example). However, as with all things in education, it’s crucial that we consider opportunity costs. How long would it take to replace a ‘rowdy hallway’ norm with a ‘respectful hallway’ norm, and how does that compare with replacing it with a much simpler ‘silent’ corridor requirement.

To me, silent corridors seem a simple and elegant solution to a very challenging problem in many schools. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that school hallways are a dangerous and intimidating place for many young people, and in many schools. I’ve seen it in Australia in multiple schools that I’ve visited, and it's clearly a challenge in the UK too.

Perhaps once a new norm is established, the need for silence could be relaxed over time… But I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if the potential benefits (students being able to socialise for small amounts of time between classes), would outweigh the potential costs of the slippery slope of corridor noise and disruption.

Regardless, I’ve come to the conclusion that silent corridors play a key role in contributing to the academic ethos of a number of extremely high performing and inspiring schools in the UK, and especially in schools undergoing turnaround transformations, and which often require flipping an insidious culture of bullying, harassment, and a lack of academic focus.

I’m grateful to Michaela and Katharine for having me, and for taking the time to help me to better understand this contentious issue, as well as to the other wonderful schools/trusts like Dixons with similar policies that are truly improving the life chances of disadvantaged young people in England through rigour and high standards.

*I realise that binary rules aren’t devoid of an effect on culture. I’m simply using ‘culture-based’ here as a shorthand for approaches focussed on building knowledge of more general principles, such as ‘respect’ or ‘kindness’, then trying to support students to transfer a generalised understanding of these virtues into a variety of contexts, including corridors, cafeterias, and all other areas of life.

** Though one could objectively define ‘quiet’ and ‘not quiet’ based upon use of a decibel metre, it’s not realistic for students to carry a decibel metre around for constant monitoring, and even that, or mounting them in corridors, would lead to debates due to varying readings resulting from students’ proximity to the metre at the time of reading. A student could be louder than the specified quietness level, but whether that registers on the metre depends upon how far away they are.