Tough task for teachers: Waiting (twice) for an answer

"WELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK?" I asked Ethan, a quiet student who rarely talked but turned in good work. "Are people different now than, say, 100 years ago?" Most of my eighth-grade English class had concurred that modern people were very different. Now I wanted Ethan's opinion.

"Yeah, we have cars and computers...." he ventured tentatively. I waited, keeping my attention focused on him. Other hands waved frantically.

"Well, styles and times change," he added slowly, "But I think human nature, and what we want, stay the same no matter what the time."

Wow. His comment was worth the wait and opened an important avenue of discussion.

I first encountered the concept of "wait time" in a development class five years ago. Studies by several researchers concluded that the most fruitful thinking time for students was not the pause after the teacher asks the initial question, called Wait Time 1, but the several seconds after the student's first response during which the teacher waits for elaboration, called Wait Time 2. Three-second teacher pauses during this wait resulted in responses that reflected higher-level thinking and more engagement among all class members.

The concept had intrigued me. Although my daily curriculum was full of questions and discussion, I realized my pace was much too fast. My students and I were used to a rapid-fire classroom; the same handful of students usually answered and some students were never involved.

Soon I deliberately slowed down and incorporated wait times into our discussions. I discovered that three seconds is a very long time in a classroom of active kids; my management skills had to be stepped up to prevent interrupters during Wait Time 2.

I also learned that all questions are not equal. Lower-level, recall questions, where there is just one right answer, don't require wait time. Since I found that most of my questions were lower-level, I had to restructure my questioning technique. Will this question make the kids think? Do I provide wait time? How can I rephrase to encourage student analysis? Five years later, I'm still honing my questioning.

But despite the difficulties, my efforts have been well worth it. My vice-principal observed just one month into my "experiment" that during discussions where higher-level questions were asked and Wait Time 2 employed, all students were markedly more intent and involved in active learning.

The most exciting part was when an "invisible" student piped up with a lucid comment, or when students posed their own questions and responded to others' without prompting.

Denis, a silent and surly student, surprised himself and the rest of us when I asked him why the "Dark Ages" were so named. "I don't know," he mumbled. I waited. Then he said, "There was no learning, so they were called the 'Dark Ages.' Learning is like light." He sat back, satisfied, while his tablemates, who had never heard him say anything, looked on in amazement.

Wait time's greatest gift has been improved rapport with my students. It was a great day when Denis looked me in the eye and shook my hand firmly when I greeted him. Shy students stay after class just to talk and even my rowdy students smile broadly and holler a hello at me in the halls. Because of wait time, my kids feel respected and valued in our classroom. They know that I know them and will listen to what they have to say.

*Sharon Hamatake Ellsworth has taught English for six years at Grantsville (Utah) Middle School.

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