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The Power of Silence: Use Wait Time to Increase Student Thinking

Lets-wait-for-genius.jpgSilent.

Awkward. Uncomfortable. Challenging.

Who knew that 10 seconds could feel like an eternity?

For sure, any teacher standing at the front of a silent classroom after a question is asked and almost everyone refuses to make eye contact or raise their hands.

The quiet is palpable and usually, it inspires that same teacher to fill it with either clarifying questions or even answers to the questions.

In my early career, silence was my enemy. It mocked me and forced the worst version of myself to come out and my students knew it. As soon as I asked a challenging question, students learned that if they waited long enough, I would do the work for them. 

Not until I watched the unedited footage of my National Board videos did I notice this teaching travesty. For years, I lived the discomfort and squandered learning experiences that my students could have, should have engaged with.

After watching myself, I painfully acknowledged that it was time for me to take a few breaths and now as a leader, I wonder why none of my leaders ever mentioned it to me because it was clear as day on my video and it was par for the course.

Something like a long pause sounds easy enough, right? But for some of us, it isn't as easy as it sounds until we practice and wait time makes a BIG difference.

Aside from the fact that all students take different amounts of time to think, the culture we create when we are quick to hit the button on an answer, we foil ourselves and ruin potential learning moments. 

When we pose a question, it's to engage students in a thinking and learning contract where they consider what they know and how to formulate an answer and/or another question or just some response that is going to hopefully deepen their experience with the content we are presenting.

Here are some quick tips for employing some wait time that can pay off big in the student learning experience:

  • When you pose a question, give all students an opportunity to write an answer. Suggest they do it that way. Before you go to the whole class, ask them to talk to partner sitting next to them. Then, only after all children have spoken to each other in a low stakes forum, ask someone to share what they talked about. This "Think, Pair, Share" allows students to engage with the question without any one student monopolizing, or the teacher answering for them.
  • When the room is quiet, simply wait. It's uncomfortable for them too, but it signals to kids that it's important enough to wait until they are ready. If you need to speak, just say, "I'm comfortable in the quiet. Take your time." I've also been known to make jokes about my own discomfort. When the first few hands shoot up, keep waiting for another 10-15 seconds, encouraging the group to get more hands up. "Nothing personal, but I want to see more hands."
  • Try to create a classroom culture that doesn't require hand-raising as the means for answering. Have some random system that requires all students to be thinkers and participators. Use popsicle sticks with their names on it, choose a card that students represent. Let them pick each other. But foster a culture that students know is about everyone learning.
  • Take a deep breath and count to 10 in your head and then do it again to try to slow yourself down.
  • Develop a culture that makes students the questioners and puts them at the center of the classroom. In a student-centered space, there is an abundance of productive noise, so if silence isn't your thing, this will help you over that hurdle.
  • Have backchannels available for introverted students. Oftentimes, they have a lot to say but are not comfortable in front of large groups of people. Having a Twitter backchannel or a parking lot helps all voices get heard.

All students learn at a different pace and we need to honor the time it takes for all students to participate and engage with the learning in a way that makes sense to each of them. Let's try not to unintentionally take that opportunity away from them.

How do you ensure enough wait time and create a culture where all voices are heard? Please share

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