Education Opinion

Now Just Wait a Minute!

By Susan Graham — September 16, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

My TLN colleague Laura Reasoner Jones addressed gender equity last week in her Teaching Secrets: Bridging the Gender Gap essay here. I understood her point to be that each child is unique and that we need to be thoughtful in responding to them as individuals. It was really interesting to me that the responses her article solicited clearly demonstrate that the same information can be perceived differently by various readers. In fact, some of the responses were pretty inflamed, and I went back to see what was so controversial. Do you know what re-reading the piece and the comments caused me to take away from this article?

Wait Time.

Now I’m a big advocate of Wait Time and, even though it’s sometimes painful, I work hard at practicing it in my classroom. But Laura gave me a new insight about waiting. I’ve taught myself and encouraged others to wait for student response. But it occurs to me that I seldom employ Wait Time BEFORE questioning or AFTER student responses.

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking: If taking Wait Time while my students think before they speak is important, then maybe it’s equally important for me to take Wait Time of my own to process what my students say. To do otherwise implies that while their action of responding has value, the content of the response they offer probably doesn’t impact my thinking. It also means that I don’t give the rest of the class a chance to process that answer either. If I’m not taking the time to think about the student response, can other students be getting much out of this interchange?

Today I was participating in Santa Cruz Mentor Training and I experienced a different kind of Wait Time. One of the strategies used was Silent Sharing—a brainstorming process where no one gets to say a word. A group gets one piece of paper and one marker that is passed around the table. No one speaks and no one adds an idea until the paper comes back around to them again. It was enlightening. One could literally see thinking, evaluating and responding on the faces at the table.

It occurs to me that teaching, learning, professional growth, education policy, politics, religion, parenting, and a lot of other conversations could benefit from some Silent Sharing too. I’ve noticed that public discourse is mostly coarse, far too public, and there’s way too much of it. I’m going to be using Silent Sharing in my classroom and also in my work with teachers, but while the TV has a “mute” button, the world doesn’t, so Silent Sharing for all probably isn’t feasible. As a compromise, may I suggest a little more Wait Time?

Here are some simple Wait Time Guidelines.

Before you get to questioning: Take Wait Time to consider how what you are saying and how the questions you are planning to ask might be perceived. Will the listener hear a need for information? An expression of concern? A perceived doubt? An inappropriate meddling?

Before you ask your question: Take Wait Time to consider exactly what it is that you want to find out. That they are listening? That they can/will repeat what you told them? That they agree with you? That they are developing their own understanding or forming their own opinion?

After you ask your question: Take Wait Time to allow the listener to process the question and formulate an answer. Oh good, we already knew this part!

After the listener responds: Take Wait Time to process the response. Does the answer tell you what is known? What was thought? What was felt? What was misunderstood?

Before moving on: Take Wait Time to inform the next step. What does the answer tell you about your own communication skills? What does it tell you about the respondent? How does the answer to your question impact what you do next?

I know what you are thinking—I’m too busy to do this much waiting! The reality is that we don’t much like Wait Time. Minutes are precious and waiting seems inefficient because, you know, it just takes a lot of time! So in the classroom we “keep up the pace” and “move on” and “maintain momentum” because, while we like getting answers to our own questions and giving the right answers to the questions of others, when the questions are hard and when it comes to listening as well as talking—hmm, not so much.

Questions can seek information, but they can also do harm when we question without listening, listen without really hearing, and respond without thinking. The response may be defensive avoidance or aggressive verbal swatting. Communication may shut down or escalate to hostility.

So let’s take a little Wait Time and count to 10 before we question, after we question, and before we respond. Let’s listen to the sound of silence, because sometimes it speaks volumes.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.