What happens in your classroom once a student has responded to your question? Who speaks next? “Wait time” or “Thinking time” AFTER the student has responded can be every bit as powerful as “wait time” after you have posed a question.
I have been lucky enough to hear Jenni Ingram talk about her work on ‘Wait Time’ more than once and has led to a significant rethink of how I conduct questioning in the classroom. Simply restraining myself from responding immediately to students’ answers has led to an important shift in the nature of dialogue and questioning in my classroom. Few changes have been so simple to implement, shown such obvious immediate impact and been so hard to turn into habit!
Ingram’s main message was that in normal conversation the “thread” can be taken up by anyone in the discussion. After a question and answer anyone else might chip in, or someone might expand on their thoughts. However, in many classic question-answer format interactions in the classroom the teacher ‘controls’ the discussion, policing interventions.
I was already familiar with the need to leave more time for students to answer questions. Silence creates anxiety – less than a second of silence can feel uncomfortable to both teacher and student. Students answer quickly with little thought. Teachers generally leave less than a second after asking a question before rephrasing or moving on. Extensive research has shown that extending this time gives students more time to think about what they’re going to say, which can lead to learning improvements.
However, just as important can be what happens NEXT, irrespective of how long was left between initial question and student response. As the controller of the discussion, it is now the teacher’s turn to talk again. Discomfort still grows in less than a second and so the teacher quickly responds in some manner to what the student has said. This might be to give feedback, to correct the answers, to rephrase them or to repeat it to the class for emphasis. Even teachers well trained to give students think time before they respond, typically “pounce” on the response when it is their ‘turn’.
The dialogue moves on, the stress dissipates and the lesson proceeds. Perhaps there are more questions in the same sequence:
- Student answer
- Teacher reaction
All too often, the teacher’s reaction bears little resemblance to what the student has just said as they have not given themselves time to think and reflect, (let alone the students).
But what happens if we overcome our instincts, ride out the discomfort and do not take our “turn” after the student response? What happens if we pause beyond the (less than) one second’s discomfort and still say nothing? What if we don’t affirm what the student has said, or rephrase it, or tell them whether it was correct?
At this point everyone is feeling uncomfortable. (I know, I’ve been trying this, it’s really not pleasant!). I feel uncomfortable as it is my ‘turn’ and my responsibility to ‘move’ next. But so do the students! They also feel uncomfortable. And the amazing thing is that, when they feel uncomfortable, students do something that some of them don’t do nearly enough … they start to think. So what happens if my sequence becomes:
At this point, Ingram reported a range of responses from students. In my lessons I have witnessed each of the following:
- Probably most commonly, the student who spoke originally extends their answer. They add depth to what they’ve said, often given an example/evidence in my subject or turn a simple answer into more of an explanation.
- Another student offers an additional comment, example or adds to the answer.
- The student turns to his classmates for help … then see number 2.
- Another student hisses a prompt such as “Explain what you mean” or “give some evidence”.
- A question is asked by the students. Sometimes this is a request for affirmation “is that okay?” which I can bounce back to them. At others it represents a greater depth of thinking “… but I’m not sure that would always happen. Did the villagers always respect sanctuary?”
Sadly, the effect does not last very long. In her talk, Ingram estimated less than 30 days. Why? Because teachers fall back into their old habits! I’ve seen this in my own practice. Whenever I focus on wait time I am delighted by the impact and seek to make it habitual. Then I shift my focus to something else and find that I am jumping back in, responding to students’ questions far too quickly and failing to give the dialogue time to develop. However this is the nature of teaching and this is a habit well worth returning to and fighting to develop. The impact speaks for itself.
Questions to help reflect on responding to students…
- At this point, do I need to say anything? What will happen if I don’t?
- Can they pick up the dialogue here? Is there more to be said … if so why must it be me who says it?
- Is my body-language and facial expression encouraging ‘self-selection’ e.g. open to students picking up the ‘conversation’ rather than waiting for me?
Research into wait time can be found here:
Ingram, J. & Elliott, V. (2015) A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal of Education http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2015.1009365
This blog was originally posted on our now defunct jmsreflect blog. It has been updated for the AbingdonLTreflect blog.