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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ms. Anderson and the Art of Wait Time

Once every month, I spend a Saturday facilitating a learning cohort for graduate students who are pursuing a Reading Teacher license.  My co-facilitator is Ms. Anderson, a 3rd grade, master teacher with big glasses and a demeanor that immediately puts you at ease. The first weekend our cohort met, Ms. Anderson designed several community builders and created various open ended prompts to spark critical conversation.  The discussion prompts centered around students' views on teaching, personal beliefs, and even some fluffy ones (worst haircut for example) intended for community building. After witnessing a few rounds of Ms. Anderson's facilitation style, what immediately struck me  was her unbelievable penchant for wait time.  You see, she is a downright master at it, or as one of my students phrased it, "she's uncomfortably good".

What separates Ms. Anderson from pretty much most of the teachers I've observed (myself included) is that Ms. Anderson never jumps in after giving a prompt.  And I mean never.  Students will sit and say nothing............and sit..............crickets...........more crickets...and finally a student will speak...and then another, and so on.  After several go 'rounds of this sort of awkward waiting, students eventually realized that there would be no "rescuing" by the facilitator and that student voices mattered and were expected to be heard.  Most importantly, this rich facilitation style allowed all students processing time.  Our shy or introverted (who don't particularly like small talk) were further given a forum that built trust and a safe haven to respond.  In time, all students were responding more readily and comfortably adding on to other students comments.

In my experience, Ms. Anderson, is a rare jewel in the world of wait time as she not only recognizes the value of silence, but she embraces it as a key instructional strategy. As teachers, we often understand the importance of discourse moves but we struggle actually implementing them.  However, wait time is essential for student learning and interestingly doesn't require all that much "waiting".  In fact, the following phenomena (Rowe, 1986) were observed when teachers increased their wait time from just one to three seconds:
  • Teachers' questions became richer and more cognitively challenging for students.  Longer wait times actually improved the questioning of the teacher.
  • Teachers became better at building on student responses in ways that facilitated deeper student thinking.
  • Quieter students, who rarely (if ever) spoke in large groups, began participating more
  • Students exhibited more control over the flow of the discussion as discussions became student centered.
Research (e.g. Cazden, Mehan, Wilkinson, Alexander, Nystrand, etc.) surrounding effective classroom discourse structures is wide and deep. What's more, research has suggested that when wait time is coupled with exploratory talk, student comprehension can sky rocket. Indeed, the most advantageous type of classroom discourse is exploratory in nature (Mercer, 2009) where students build on one another's thinking, provide evidence for the statements, challenge ideas, and shift viewpoints when the evidence warrants. Mercer refers to this as "inter-thinking".

Unfortunately, what we sometimes see in student discussion (especially at the beginning of the school year) is what Mercer refers to as cumulative discourse.  This is also student centered but far less helpful in building comprehension.  It is characterized as the general sharing of ideas with a notable lack of disagreement or challenge between participants.  It's friendly talk but won't sustain critical thinking.

What's worse, in some classrooms, students engage in disputational talk.  This happens when students have little recognition of discourse as a tool for thinking.  Thus, students basically argue over view points but don't have evidence for their thinking and are only interested in being right.   Ineffective in nature, this type of classroom discourse won't build comprehension.

The most effective classroom teachers are like Ms. Anderson and use wait time masterfully while carefully prompting students to think around all sides of an issue.  Getting to this level of mastery requires hard work.  Ultimately, we need to lessen our classroom control and be willing to feel uncomfortable as awkward silences permeate the room. Yes, there will be moments where wait time doesn't work or the teacher needs to provide reinforcements, but by and large, longer wait times improve learning. So the next time you prompt students for an idea, channel Ms. Anderson, and just wait...and wait...and wait.  Trust me, your students will respond.

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