Silence at school
: Rights, respect, and (in)justice

  • Amy Hanna

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Silence pervades all aspects of our daily communications: what we say and what remains unspoken; those to whom we speak, and those we ignore; those we trust and respect, and those we do not. In the school environment, student-teacher communication lies at the heart of both teaching and learning. This relationship is also marked by its silences, yet there is a dearth of research on uses and experiences of silence in the school setting.

The aim of this study is to explore young people’s and teachers’ uses and experiences of silence as a feature of young people’s enjoyment of their participation rights in school. This will be examined through two lenses: theoretical and rights-based. Miranda Fricker’s conceptual framework of epistemic injustice is applied to the study, which attends to the social identities of young people at school, and the role these identities play in who is viewed as a ‘knower’ or a non-knower. Children’s participation rights, which include the right to express views and the right to be heard, are not limited to written or spoken mediums, but can be expressed through silence. These lenses are brought together in a conceptual framework of participation through which to investigate uses and experiences of silence in school.

This study took place in one post-primary school in a town in Northern Ireland, and engaged with a variety of mediums to gather data. Data included nine Community Inquiry sessions – conceptual discussions in groups – and 33 interviews (18 interviews with teachers and 15 interviews with young people). Fifty lesson observations and documentary analysis of school policies provided contextual background to the data collected. Thematic analysis was used to explore uses and experiences of silence, and to interpret the data through the conceptual model proposed in the study. The findings suggest that young people’s and teachers’ uses and experiences of silence are contingent on the purposes and motivations for their use, but additionally, that young people’s participation rights were contravened by the silences which also featured, and manifested, in epistemic injustice. Indeed, uses of silence were both a contributing factor and a consequence of young people’s experiences of epistemic injustice and served to obstruct the exchange of knowledge; a condition central to epistemic injustice. Rising above these features of silence and epistemic injustice are the broader themes of knowledge, power and respect. These themes, I will argue, are incontrovertibly connected with the foundational pillars of human rights (and therefore children’s rights): dignity; respect; and equality; which imbue practices of silence detailed in the findings. I conclude that silence is a concept which imperceptibly shapes individual expression and opinion, and that this serves to construct young people’s participation in ways which may serve to hinder their understanding, and others’ understanding, of their experiences.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorLaura Lundy (Supervisor) & Alison MacKenzie (Supervisor)


  • Silence
  • student voice
  • children's rights
  • participation
  • epistemic injustice

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