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Waiting is the Hardest (and Best) Part

Neil Finney

Ignite Ideas. Incite Discussion. Inspire Change (to the way we teach students)
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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.

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.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Love this. In our hurry-hurry-hurry world, it takes some serious energy to slow ourselves down and wait for things to happen. They do, as you know, in their own time. We just have to have the strength to take your advice. Thanks for a great post!

Neil Finney's picture
Neil Finney
Ignite Ideas. Incite Discussion. Inspire Change (to the way we teach students)

Thanks so much for commenting on this topic, Laura:) There are so many times that we are just 'getting through the moments' that we can lose sight of the big picture - and SOAK IN the magic of the experience. I really feel that sometimes when we get out the way of our students' learning and become observers - we can allow them to take hold and drive their own experience. Plus, we get to see the personal satisfaction and success they experience as catalysts for action!

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

When defiance or laziness or apocalyptic disinterest clogged everything up, all I asked of my students was to give it a try. Do one little thing, then. Ask one question. Offer up one discussion item. Write one sentence, and see if you live through it.

And when none of those things worked, we'd just try again the next day. I told them I'd be right back in here tomorrow ... that I would never give up on them or learning or just sitting here talking. They'd usually moan ... Thank you.

Neil Finney's picture
Neil Finney
Ignite Ideas. Incite Discussion. Inspire Change (to the way we teach students)

I love your emphasis on the risk-taking and power of the moment, Todd. Our students need to develop that "growth mindset" by taking learning action and those guiding suggestions you talk about are great advice. Thanks so much for commenting:)

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

My digital media students use video tutorials to teach themselves a variety of digital programs, and in order to give them as many choices as possible, there are some programs available that I haven't had time to learn. This means I have learned to answer student questions with, "I don't know. How can you find the answer?" I think we teachers can do so much more for our students if we wait, as you say, and let them work through a struggle instead of us giving them the quick answer. So much more powerful for them as learners!

Neil Finney's picture
Neil Finney
Ignite Ideas. Incite Discussion. Inspire Change (to the way we teach students)

I love the idea of "flipping lessons" to allow students to prepare first with videos and tech tools. We are certainly not the experts anymore. Who's the smartest person in the room? The room! Problem-solving and moving together is best done with patience, precisely-timed feedback and releasing the reins. Thanks for your comment, Laura:) Waiting is hard - but so valuable!

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