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It is OK if They Stare at You: Creating Comfort with Silence in the Classroom
30% of a Given Class of Students is “Silent”
Imagine the alienation those 30% of students in a given classroom must be feeling. One third of a class! Imagine too, the effect that has on your classroom instruction: you are missing out on those chances to get feedback, measure comprehension and make adjustments.
I was in a meeting recently in which the long, thoughtful silences reminded me of the “Wait Time” I used when I taught 6th grade Social Studies.
The earliest studies of Wait Time posited two definitions: Wait Time I was defined as “the duration of the pause after a teacher utterance”; and Wait Time II was defined “as the duration of the pause after a student utterance.” Years later, a new definition was proposed: “the period of silence that precedes teacher talk.”
Classroom-based research indicates that an increase in Wait Time to even just 3 to 5 seconds (from the standard of 1 to 1.5) has the following benefits, all of which I experienced in my classroom.
An increase in Wait Time led to:
• increase in the length of responses
• increase in student-posed questions
• increase in unsolicited student responses
• increase in student-student interaction
• decrease in teacher-posed questions
Really, I never knew it was a method until I took a “Strategic Teaching” class in graduate school, yet I had been using it unknowingly for years. First I noticed just an awkward silence that happens in a classroom when a teacher asks a question and gets no response. Over time, though, the silence became less awkward and more generative and I began to do it purposefully.
Wait Time Can Develop or Be Implemented
A specific, intentional emphasis on Wait Time actually emerged organically in my classroom. My Special Education co-teacher and I were trying to devise ways to increase the participation of our Special Education students. Our teaching techniques were informal and heavily focused on discussion, and we found the same students always getting the floor. We were tired of the competitive nature among our students in answering our questions, and we were tired of not meeting the needs of all the students. We wanted balanced class participation.
If, as it often did, discussion counted as the informal assessment at the end of the period, we were assessing at most half the class with that technique. The others left the room without us having a sense of what they knew and understood, or what they had not grasped. And we had no idea what those others, those “silent” students, were thinking or feeling while their classmates participated. From both a pedagogical and affective standpoint, we needed a change.
What Happens With Wait Time
Once I began to use Wait Time consciously, I noticed the benefits in stages. First I noticed that my Special Education students raised their hands more. In discussing this with my co-teacher, we surmised that Wait Time meant they had more time to think and process. Before this, we had worked out “codes” with these students. I would stand next to a particular student if I thought she could and should answer one of the next couple of questions. I would develop them with her in mind. But I didn’t have to do that anymore. I didn’t have to set students up for success because the pattern of question asking and answering changed so dramatically.
Once we implemented Wait Time, those students who filled in the silence were the students who needed that time to think, to process, to plan an answer, to make sure the faster talker, the more vocal student, was not going to go first. The temptation was to call on the students who had their hands up first, but I would just take my time. Let those talkative students, who research says often participate for recognition, and not necessarily scholarly participation, wait on occasion. Once we gave them the opportunity, the most silent voices filled in with their valuable thoughts and answers. Finally, the floor was theirs.
I also noticed that my students who never interrupted or talked over their peers—largely for cultural reasons— were suddenly participating more. That Wait Time allowed them to scope out the situation and feel comfortable making their contribution. They were less afraid of speaking out of turn, of cutting someone off, or showing disrespect.
When the conversation was slower-paced, my questions could probe deeper into the topic, which would prompt more insightful and inferential thinking, which in turn caused more thoughtful and planned answers.
I noticed that I played less and less of a role in the discussion. I generated less of the questions, I dominated less. I prompted less. Students directed their comments and questions to one another. I think on some special occasions I could have left the room and the conversation would have kept on going without me, which both demonstrates and promotes true learning.
Educators, do you have any experiences with Wait Time? Non-Educators, has the concept of Wait Time been present in your life in any way?
The following books from the NYPL Collections are excellent resources for more about Wait Time and other issues surrounding classroom discussion and student responsiveness.
- Building literacy through classroom discussion : research-based strategies for developing critical readers and thoughtful writers in middle school.
- The art of discussion-based teaching : opening up conversation in the classroom
- The skillful teacher : on technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom