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Learn to Wait

I was working with a student the other day, and I asked her a question.

A minute passed. Her eyes were moving around, and I could see she wasn't distracted by something else.

Another minute passed. "Can you tell me what you're thinking?" She gestured no.

It was probably between three and five minutes before she gave me an answer, which raises the question: didn't I waste a ton of class time by waiting so long?

Maybe...but probably not. Wait time is critical, but also tough to do well.

You see, we've all had this happen to us, where a teacher asks us a question. It happens to be a harder question, and the answer doesn't immediately come to mind, so we start thinking. We think about the question, and about what we know, and we start making connections and sorting through possible answers...and then the teacher answers their own question. We relax, relieved we are no longer on the spot, and the teacher moves on, satisfied that they taught us the answer, if frustrated that we couldn't answer it when first asked.

This is bad pedagogy in a number of ways. On the one hand, this robs the student of the (possible) satisfaction of answering correctly. It is impossible to overstate how important this is: when a question is not easy, and it demands some effort to conjure the right answer, it is actually very satisfying to get it right. And that satisfaction then becomes part of the incentive to keep learning. After all, it felt good! Do it again!

On the other hand, it teaches complacency. The student learns, "if I just wait long enough, the teacher will give up and give me the answer, or ask someone else." In short, it trains the student to train the teacher to give them the answers they need. This is sometimes called learned helplessness, and it is a classroom plague.

Combined, this means that waiting and giving students enough time to answer is critical for student progress. Can this be challenging to the point of im

possibility in a full classroom? Yep! If you've got 30 kids and 45 minutes, then you basically have 90 seconds per kid...waiting around for 5 minutes for an answer may not be possible. In those cases, there are strategies available as workarounds, but that isn't the focus of this post. But! If you are a parent or a tutor, and your goal is mastery learning, then time is a luxury you may be able to afford.

If you're giving a student wait time, here are some tips:

  1. While they're thinking, try writing the question out, or sketching an image or model as a prompt.

  2. Observe them! The body language of someone who is flailing and clueless is recognizably different from someone who is mentally sorting through possible answers.

  3. Check-in: invite them to talk out loud through their thought process. Ask them what possibilities they are thinking of.

  4. Prompt them. Ask them more basic questions related to the original question. Talk them through a similar problem, then return to the original question.

  5. Celebrate failure. A reasonable wrong answer is miles better than "I don't get it." Every chance possible, reinforce the idea that errors are normal, and that they are a part of the learning process.

  6. Have the patience of a saint, and the good humor of a Labrador Retriever. Yes, you're there to lead and teach. But you're also there to cheerlead, support, and comfort. Learning is satisfying, but it is also awkward and scary. No one enjoys feeling dumb.

In short, if the simple act of asking a question of a student and then answering it yourself worked well, then teaching would be a simpler science. Learning is the formation of memory, and memory is the residue of thought. So..give them a chance to actually think, so they can truly learn!

Thanks for reading!

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