George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Making Space for Thinking

February 9, 2015

I work with a whole bunch of teachers who are trying to implement PBL at different grade levels and different subject areas and they work so hard to create these totally amazing, well crafted problems for their students to solve. The best moment is when they present the challenge (either in print or verbally or through some nifty video or scenario they've created for just this occasion) and then they just...wait.  They don't talk.  They give the kids time to digest the "text," think about what they know (and don't know), and frame up their own questions about what they need to do next.  

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There's power to silence.  To waiting.  To not answering the question the first (or second or third) time it's asked. There's also power- destructive power- to answering too many questions too soon.  When we tell kids things that they can figure out on their own, we send the message that we don't think they really can figure these things out.  

But teachers become teachers because they want to help, right? I absolutely recognize that instinct to help and I respect it like crazy, but I often see teachers who are trying to do PBL and end up sabotaging their own efforts by stepping in too soon, or giving too much information, or answering when they should wait. It makes me sad for them and for their students because the time and energy expended on what could have been powerful learning is lost and the learned helplessness that kids pick up so quickly is reinforced.

Here are my favorite techniques for keepng my own mouth shut:

Eat a Bit-O-Honey. Remember Bit-O-Honey? Those sticky candies that we used to eat in the 70's and 80's- the ones that glued your teeth together? I've decided they're my favorite pedagogical tool because when you eat one, you can't talk for at least a couple of minutes. 

Get your Ohm on.  Take a page from our mindfulness practitioners and use those moments to breath.  To notice.  To really watch what's happening in the room with a spirit of unanxious expectation.  Give yourself that time to take 10 good breaths- deep ones that you feel in your bones.

3-then-Me  Need more of a structure for your waiting? There's an old standby that still works great- "Ask 3 and then me." Require students to take their question to 3 peers (and get signatures to prove it) before they can bring it to you.  They'll be surprised at how much expertise is already in the room- and so will you!

Absorb and deflect- answer the question- but with another question. "I don't know, where are the scissors?" "That's a great question.  I wonder what the answer is?" "How could you find that out?" "What does it say in the challenge?" "Who might know the answer to that question?" "That is quite a problem.  I can't wait to see how you solve it.  Where can you start?" Absorb and deflect, my friends.  Absorb and deflect.

The key to all of these is to stay present.  This isn't the moment to catch up on paperwork.  They need to see that you're still a part of the equation, if for no other reason than they're counting on you to keep them safe.  So what about those moments when you do need to answer a question? How do know when you're looking at one of those? 

I used to have a yoga teacher who told us that the first two times we thought of leaving a pose, we should just stay. No reason to go anywhere just because of a passing thought.  The third time, we should notice what it was that was driving us to want to leave the pose- discomfort, boredom, anxiety- and then...stay in the pose.  The fourth time? We could start thinking about the "how" of leaving the pose and the fifth time? Well, then and only then could we leave the pose.  

The same idea applies to questions.  If you think you should answer, don't.  If you really think you should answer...don't.  For me, it's usually about the third time I think "I really need to drop some information here because they're so going down the wrong path," that they arrive at the answer I was going to give them all on their own. If I wait until I'm really, really, really sure that they need me, then I know that my choice to step in is a good one.  (Obviously issues of safety- emotional and physical- require an immediate intervention.) 

How do you remind yourself to stay quiet so kids can figure it out? 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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