On the Arts of Stillness: For a Pedagogy of Composure

Greg Noble, Megan Watkins


We live in an era in which the ‘active learner’ has become accepted as the fundamental goal of good teaching from early childcare to university education (Silberman; University of Melbourne University). In this paper we reflect upon the arts of stillness in contemporary classrooms based on research in schools across Sydney (Watkins and Noble).

Part of the context for this paper is the way ‘activity’ has been uncritically elevated to a pedagogic principle in contemporary education. Over several decades a critique of traditional or more formal approaches to education has produced an increasing emphasis on learning that is said to be more engaged often under labels such as ‘discovery’ or ‘experiential’ learning, enquiry methods or ‘learning by doing’. This desire to give students a greater role in the educational process is admirable. It is also seen to be more democratic and ‘relevant’ to young people (Cope & Kalantzis). Positioned against a straw man of ‘passive learning’, characterised by the dominance of teacher direction, rote learning and individuated desk work, this active learning or progressivist perspective on education privileges student ‘ownership’ of curriculum, group-based activity and the ‘doing’ of things. Stillness is characterised as a ‘problem of passivity’, a ‘disease’ of ‘chalk and talk’ (Lucas 84-85). In its most extreme form, this emphasis on activity has been translated into ‘educational kinesiology’ and ‘brain gym’, in which physical movement is seen to have a direct, beneficial effect on learning, often in place of content-based curriculum (Lucas 50). In this paper we don’t engage in a critique of ‘active learning’ per se; rather, taking seriously Foucault’s insistence on the productivity of discipline, we argue stillness is crucial to scholarly labour.

Part of the context for this research is public anxiety about ‘Asian success’ within Australian education systems. Students from ‘Asian’ backgrounds are often perceived as having a cultural proneness towards educational achievement (Duffy 28). These perceptions rest on assumptions about ‘Asian values’ of family, sacrifice, hard work and success (Robinson). These assumptions, however, are problematic (Wu and Singh), and carry a concern that such students are ‘passive’ in the classroom, deferential to traditional forms of education and obsessed with exams. Certainly, despite their success, these students don’t conform to what many teachers favour as the ideal learner within the dominant paradigm of progressivism (Cope & Kalantzis 4). These anxieties have also emerged in response to the proliferation of coaching colleges which are seen to transgress western notions of childhood.

The research – based on a parent survey in 10 primary schools, interviews with Year 3 teachers, parents and students and classroom observations in six of these schools – explored the extent to which a ‘disposition’ to academic achievement can be explained by ethnicity or relates to a complex set of socio-cultural factors. The report from this study engages with the broad question of the relationship between ethnicity and, what we call, following Bourdieu, the ‘scholarly habitus’ (Watkins & Noble). Against a pathologising of cultural background, it examines the ways achievement is embodied as orientations to learning through different home and school practices. Here we use examples drawn from the observations to focus on the capacities for self-discipline and stillness that can foster achievement. Against the tendency to equate stillness with inaction, we argue that a 'productive stillness' underlines capacities for sustained attention and self-direction. This bodily discipline entails a state of composure, a 'staying' of movement which entails a readiness for action necessary for academic tasks. While not all stillness is ‘productive’, we argue there are forms of stillness which are conducive to the formation of the 'scholarly habitus' (Bourdieu, Logic).

The Bodily Capacity for Scholarly Labour

Bourdieu (State) refers to dispositions that are valued in education: self-discipline, the ability to work intensively, confidence, independence, contemplation, abstraction and the value of excellence. Yet he is less interested in exploring these capacities in relation to teaching practice than in discussing them as forms of social distinction. Educational applications of Bourdieu also focus on the social reproduction of inequality, separate to the technical competencies of schooling, although Bourdieu does not differentiate between them (Lareau and Weininger). To understand the uneven distribution of educational competencies, however, they first need to be examined as bodily capacities that are enabling.

To do this, let us contrast two classrooms in Broughton PS, a large school in a low-to-mid SES area in Sydney’s inner south-west with large numbers of Arabic-speaking and Asian students, and smaller groups of Anglo, Pasifika and African students. One class is an enrichment class, in which high ability students are placed and where there is a strong focus on academic work. The other class has many of the least able students. The enrichment class comprises students of mostly Chinese background, with a smaller number of Vietnamese, Indian and Anglo background. There is one Arabic-speaking student but no Pasifika students. The second class is more diverse, and has many Pasifika students, with fewer Chinese, Arabic and Anglo students.

The first time we saw the enrichment class was after recess. Students shuffled into their classroom and sat down at their desks with minimum fuss. Many of them pulled out books and read them while waiting for their teacher, Heather, to enter. If they talked, it was quietly, and often about what they were reading. They sat still: the posture of most students was upright, even when they were working. Some students occasionally rocked back, stretching arms and legs. Overall, however, these students had mastered the arts of stillness. Sonia, of Chinese background, is a case in point – she was always work-focused, sitting still and getting on with it. Even during unstructured discussion she remained task-orientated displaying a substantial investment in her work.

In the second class the students bustled in, taking a while to settle. Kids stood around chatting, playing, shoving each other until the teacher, Betty, shouted at them, which she did a lot. The noise of the students never abated, even as the teacher was giving instructions, and it frequently reached high levels. There was constant movement as students came in late, and teachers and students wandered in and out. Kids visited other kids; one student rolled on the floor. When they were directed to sit at the front, several squatted, some sat away from the area, several simply stood. When they were at their desks, many slouched forward or leant back; a large number of the students rocked on their chairs during the sessions, some constantly. The directions of the teacher to put ‘feet on floor’ and ‘hands on heads’, or putting her fingers to her lips to gesture for them to be quiet, shouting or by counting back from 5 had little effect. This class was a very active group, but little work got done. They did not have sustained capacities of stillness appropriate for academic activities. 

In the enrichment class, the teacher didn’t have to check noise or movement very often – the students had internalised these behaviours as capacities that directed their work. Occasionally, they policed each other if they were disrupted. There was occasional talk, but it tended to be in whispers. If the task required it, there was plenty of discussion; and some of the students didn’t hesitate in challenging the teacher when she made a mistake. These students’ stillness and quiet was by-and-large productive and appropriate. We call this a state of composure, a readiness for activity. When required, this class was capable of concentration and application; or, alternatively, discussion. We call it composure because it links to Foucault’s (162-3) insight that modern forms of discipline rest on a ‘composition of forces’ which not only produce an efficient organisation but individuals with a disposition towards acting skilfully.

Betty’s class, in contrast, was in a state of decomposure, with unproductive movement and noise. They were rarely still, posture was poor, and many students spent little time attending to work or the teacher. They were rarely ready for work when the teacher called them to it. Rather they saw a change in activity as a chance for movement and chatter. This was not the caged resentment that Willis described in his analysis of resistance to school amongst working class boys. It was not a form of conscious insubordination, though a similar form of ‘self-damnation’ was evident.

Sonny, a Samoan boy in this class, in contrast to Sonia, struggled to stay on-task for more than a few minutes, and clearly had little investment in his work. He generally didn’t care where he was at with the task, and expected the teacher to constantly direct him. Sonny was a very large child – the teacher commented that his physical presence in the class was an ongoing problem as he was unaware of other children, constantly bowling them over. The teacher struggled to manage Sonny’s body. He talked frequently and loudly, and leant back on his chair despite being placed in a way that pinned him against a cupboard. His location in the class was telling. He was sitting at a table with students who followed tasks, separated from the usual troublemakers. This is significant for another reason of which Sonny was not fully conscious. At one stage in the lesson he sat bolt upright and pointing at each of his tablemates, yelled, ‘Miss, why am I sitting with all Chinese?’ Betty apparently hoped that being with the quieter Chinese students Sonny would not only be out of harm’s way, he might absorb the skills of application they possessed!

This uneven distribution of capacities was also seen in the way different classes undertook a maths assessment task on fractions. While other classes treated it as a general lesson, in the enrichment class it was completed in test conditions, which the teacher later commented the kids loved. The teacher explained the task and the conditions – that there should be no copying, to work in silence, concentrate on the questions, the amount of time they’d get and what to do when they finished (further maths work). She initiated an enthusiastic class discussion of the topic (fractions), reminded them of work they had completed in this area and got them to go through basic aspects of fractions. The task was distributed and students immediately filled in their name and the date. When they commenced their work she moved around the room monitoring their progress. Occasionally she directed a student to reread the instructions and towards the end she reminded them to check their work and then gave them a five-minute warning. There was little movement, fiddling or talk, unless it was a question of clarification directed to the teacher. Most finished and moved quickly onto their maths workbooks. There was a lively discussion afterwards as the class went through the questions and discussed the answers and procedure. Overall, there was a clear sense of a strong investment in the process and the product: with many showing real annoyance when they got things wrong, and deep pleasure when they were correct. 

While the contrast between these classes is clear, and show an uneven distribution of particular capacities, we should be careful not to make a simple assumption that stillness, quiet and obedience are good, and their opposites bad. Apart from the fact that the enrichment class showed itself capable of vociferous and physical behaviour (as when they were completing a craft activity), the point is really about the appropriateness and productivity of these embodied competencies for particular tasks, and the ability to move between these capacities when necessary.

Stillness, and its attendant capacities described above, is not a good in and of itself. There is another kind of stillness that we found in a class in another school we observed. Chestervale PS was in a middle class area in a northern suburb of Sydney that was favoured by parents of Chinese background. This class was by no means as unruly as Sonny’s – classroom behaviour was generally well managed by the teacher, and the students were fairly adept at following tasks. Two students we observed – Walter (of Chinese background) and Eric (of Anglo background) – seemed at first glance to be well-behaved students who did their work. Watching these boys for several hours, however, we became aware of the fact that for large chunks of the classroom time they did nothing, but were not recognised as doing so. Walter spent 45 minutes without adding anything to his writing – a straightforward comprehension task. This was also run in near-test-like conditions of quiet concentration, and Walter, apart from a few minor distractions, seemed to be focused on the pages in front of him but actually wrote nothing in the lesson. The teacher strolled around checking students’ work and giving advice or praise as needed – she managed the class quite well – but seemed not to notice when she checked Walter’s work that he hadn’t written anything. Eric, rather more obviously distracted, but who nevertheless seemed to complete 1-2 questions, got by with little work by being, like Walter, generally quiet. His distractions amounted to little more than staring at the contents of the shelf next to him and fidgeting. Walter and Eric were acquiring specific types of capacities – skills in getting out of work that are also fundamentally unproductive. Walter’s general abilities allowed him to float through the class, but Eric’s failure to develop productive capacities was demonstrated in his poor reading and writing levels. We don’t wish to participate in the academic romanticisation of such tactics as ‘resistance’, however, because while this ‘ordinary art’ is diversionary it does not ultimately work to ‘the advantage’ of the student (de Certeau 29-31). Rather, it is simply disabling.

This example highlights two important points. First, as mentioned, stillness and quiet are not in themselves signs of educational ‘productivity’ – such capacities always have to be seen in context, related to specific tasks and aims. Many teachers may encourage stillness and quiet – even reward it – simply because it produces an orderly classroom. Second, we should be wary of looking to ethnicity as an explanation of the uneven distribution of capacities: Eric, as an Anglo student, isn’t subject to the kind of cultural pathologising usually reserved for students of particular ethnic backgrounds and Walter, clearly, did not match the stereotype of an academically engaged Chinese student. These issues are taken up in the larger report.

Disciplining the Scholarly Habitus

Our point is not just to outline some differences in abilities, but to begin to analyse how these contribute to the dispositions, or lack thereof, of the scholarly habitus, to think about how these capacities relate to particular kinds of practices at home and school which instil specific kinds of discipline, and thus eventually to elaborate links between schooling and cultural background. Neither popular pathologies of cultural difference nor sociologies of education which reduce these complexities to either class or gender adequately account for the capacities and practices at stake here (Watkins and Noble).

The comparative account of these vignettes of classroom practice provide examples of different disciplinary forms demonstrating the ways in which school structures and pedagogic practices affect students’ engagement in learning and overall performance at school. As indicated, the notion of discipline used here does not simply pertain to control, operating as a negative force inhibiting learning – though a disabling discipline of control was apparent in the pedagogy some teachers employed and also framed some whole school practices. Discipline, here, has a broader meaning. As Foucault intended, it also refers to the knowledge and skills which need to be mastered in order to achieve success in particular fields. Foucault famously analyses the roles of discipline in the functioning of modern institutions. He describes the emergence of the school in modern times as ‘a machine for learning’. Despite his much-repeated insistence on the productive and enabling nature of discipline (and his insight that discipline ‘is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, … but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine’),  it is the machine-like and oppressive quality of discipline that is often the focus. In relation to the nineteenth century school, for example, he describes it as a ‘morality of obedience’ based on a prescriptive discipline of absolute silence and a Pavlovian process of ‘signalisation’ and response (164-7).

Sonia’s class (the enrichment class), however, is not one where passivity or docility is the rule – and illustrates better the form of disciplined, productive stillness crucial to educational activity. As this first group of students demonstrates, this discipline takes a material form, whereby students’ bodies are capacitated through the control and focus they embody. This recalls Foucault’s other focus captured in his view that ‘a disciplined body is the prerequisite of an efficient gesture’ (152). This discipline predisposes students towards particular types of endeavour; a discipline that takes the form of dispositions as in the scholarly habitus. Differing degrees of discipline resulting from the repeated performance of certain practices is what distinguishes the three groups of students in this paper.

Writing, listening and talking in class are all forms of labour that require bodily control as well as forms of knowledge. Sonia, for example, evinced capacities of stillness, quiet, attention, self-direction and self-discipline which disposed her to engaged learning. This is a state of composure which evinces a readiness for activity. When required, she was capable of sustained application. This is not to be mistaken for docility – her stillness and quiet were productive for academic engagement. In contrast, many in Sonny’s class were far from composed. They did not have sustained capacities of stillness and quiet or the capacity for self-control in an educational environment. They manifested different types of bodily capacities which incline them, like Sonny, towards disengagement. Eric and Walter are different cases yet again. They displayed a degree of quiet and stillness that was unproductive, that didn’t ready them for engaged activity.

This sense of bodily control also operates at basic levels of mastery as well as readiness for intellectual activity. Indeed, low-order capacities are stepping stones for higher order skills. It is difficult to develop literacy, for example, without mastering the physical skills of writing. Such skills require a certain posture and control for perfecting letter and word formation. Such mastery, for example, is needed for writing to become ‘transparent’: the student stops ‘thinking’ about forming the letter or word with the pen, and concentrates on the content of their writing. The physical nature of the labour of writing stops being a conscious task and becomes a largely unconscious capacity, which lends itself to the development of capacities in composition, analysis and abstraction. Neither Walter nor Eric had developed a mastery of the pen or their own body. In the case of Eric, Deirdre, his teacher, commented that he had ‘immature fine motor skills’, which affected his writing. She pointed out that ‘when your writing doesn’t come easy it is going to take longer’, which meant Eric ‘rarely completes things’. 


As Vitalis argued thousands of years ago, with writing, the whole body labours (cited in Ong 95). But this form of labour entails stillness, self-control and the bodily capacity for sustained intellectual engagement. Educational practice needs to not only return to an appreciation of the arts of stillness but to rethink the ways in which activity in learning is understood; the ways in which an active mind is reliant upon a composed yet capacitated body and the particular pedagogies that, from the early years of school, can promote this form of corporeal governance.


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stillness; discipline; embodiment

Copyright (c) 2009 Greg Noble, Megan Watkins

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