Teaching Strategies

Waiting is the Hardest (and Best) Part

Enhance your teaching and students' learning by waiting for student responses, waiting for mastery, waiting for the "spark," waiting for conflict resolution, and waiting for individual struggle.
Two young kids are walking on the sand along the beach, the ocean to their left, and a hill covered in trees in front of them.
Photo credit: Neil Finney

Sometimes you have to stop moving forward and take the time to see what is happening around you to truly appreciate the moment. Waiting may very well be the hardest part (in the words of Tom Petty), but it can also be invaluable as a tool to facilitate the learning in your classroom.

Consider the photo above for example. It was taken at One Mile Beach in the Port Stephens area of Australia. I was watching a gorgeous sunrise with my two sons, Liam and Bryce, but it wasn't until I planted my feet on the sand and let them walk ahead that I truly captured the beauty of this moment.

The same is often true in teaching and classrooms. We usually deliver lessons, resolve student conflicts, and make programming decisions in keeping with our comfort and confidence. But what if we stayed a few steps back and used the power of waiting to enhance our perspective as teachers?

Here are five things that you can do to improve student learning and development in your classroom by waiting:

1. Wait for Student Responses

The average time that teachers wait after posing a question to their students for discussion is likely between one and three seconds (Rowe 1972). It takes time for students to process a question and consider a response. Try counting to eight in your head before calling on that first student response. Depending on the topic and type of question, choose a student in your class as a "marker" of sorts. This is someone who will want to answer the question but usually needs a bit more time to think about his answer. Consider this student as the "pace car" for your discussion. If you have chosen a representative student, by the time that hand goes up, many other students have been given sufficient time to answer as well.

2. Wait for Mastery

Think about how a volleyball coach might approach his or her practices with the team. First, you identify the skills that a player needs (e.g., volleying, bumping, serving, setting, blocking, etc.). Then, you explicitly teach each skill and give players time and opportunity for mastery of each skill. Once all skills have been taught, players are ready to demonstrate their mastery in game situations. They gain confidence and a growing readiness for risk taking and new learning. Think of mastery and skill acquisition as a scorecard that students are tracking through your varied assessments all along the learning journey.

3. Wait for the "Spark"

Look for that moment to happen. You know the one. We all experience it as chills, a warm surge inside our chest running up our throat to our face. This tingly, wonderful feeling is happening in the classroom -- you just need to find it when learning breakthroughs happen or when student minds are set ablaze with interest in a topic. Then fit that topic into the curriculum in order to maximize ownership and student buy-in for learning.

4. Wait for Conflict Resolution

When a problem happens between students, you want to sort it out quickly and efficiently. But sometimes, by waiting to see how students will approach solving the problem, we are offered more genuine and lasting resolutions to the conflict. Facilitate the conversation by asking, "If you were me (the teacher), how would you handle this?" Then wait. Even through the awkward silence, give at least ten seconds for the student to process and employ her empathy to construct a response that will guide your next question. This approach of scripted empathy (seeing the issue from an outside perspective, in this case through the eyes of the teacher) can allow the student to temporarily disassociate from her own behavior choice. Then, refocus the connection between the student and her ownership to the behavior.

5. Wait for Individual Struggle

Learning is messy. It's personal. It follows no predictable course, and as such, you need to give it space and time to evolve and take hold. Avoid being the classroom equivalent of a helicopter parent -- try not to use too much attention and control over the development of student learning. Your accountability for student learning should be a balance between the teacher-supported growth and independent student risk taking. Give the student the support he needs, and then get out of the way and wait. Give the bike a push, so to speak, and watch the moment. Gradually release the support and scaffolding of strategies for students, and "Let it go! Let it go!"

You'll discover many benefits to learning when you choose to wait. Students will gain an improved sense of accountability and participation in all aspects of the learning experience when they see that you are giving them the responsibility to learn and behave to the full extent of their potential. In the silence of the moment, waiting will ignite ideas and support student development.

In your daily practice, how do you encourage students to internalize their learning and find their voice to express it? Please share in the comments section below.