silent reading

Prompt: Please put away your phones and computers. Turn to Beautiful Evidence by Tufte (1) and read pages 78-79.

It was 5:00 PM on a Friday. Students had just arrived to class, and would trickle in for the next 15 minutes, having struggled with Seattle traffic. These students had careers, families, and worked hard, very hard. We would be together for the next 4 hours and they were eager to learn, in no small part, because they had paid a lot of money to be in class.

These mid-career master students were stressed, and I had a problem: How could I focus their dwindling reserves of attention toward learning together in class? I needed a transition from the realm of work and family into our intellectual community.

Somehow I remembered the idea of “silent reading,” an activity that I personally enjoyed in my English high school class.

So, I tried it. Students would arrive and on the whiteboard was the instruction: Please read pages 78-79 of Beautiful Evidence: Fifteen minutes; two pages; no computers; no phones; no talking. Just space to quiet down and to focus.

Then, we would spend the next 15 minutes discussing the reading, guided by some discussion questions that I had prepared before class.

Tufte became our model designer and for the quarter. In 30 minute chunks, we studied his analytic approaches to information design. With Tufte, we developed a common language of engaging with theory and learned how to discuss and build upon each others ideas.

But, as importantly, Tufte give us a transition from the outside world into our class on “Design Methods.”

When I’ve taught classes in the professional master programs, I’ve continued to use this silent reading activity to, I think, good effect.

More broadly, this activity has taught me that giving time so that students can focus quietly and then discuss their thinking can be very effective.

(1) Tufte, E. R. (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Graphics Press. [ISBN-13: 978-0961392178]