In many classrooms, the pace of interactions is rapid-fire. Teachers “cover the curriculum” by asking many low-level questions, naming one student to answer—usually a volunteer with a raised hand—and quickly evaluating the student answer as to its correctness. This cycle is repeated innumerable times during a class period. The results: Teacher talk dominates. A small percentage of the students answer almost all the questions, usually with a few words. Too many students are passive, bored by this monotonous routine, but compliant, “looking interested” and not causing trouble. Many of these compliant students opt out altogether, knowing that their more willing, usually higher-achieving, classmates will keep them off the hook.
Engaged students are not compliant and passive, they are cognitively and verbally engaged—thinking about the content focus of their learning, reflecting on how they are progressing toward identified learning intentions, and preparing to speak at length to their teachers and to one another. These higher forms of engagement require time for student reflection, which leads to a seeming paradox: Intentional and strategic pauses punctuate talk in classrooms where students think, speak, and listen to deepen their knowledge and extend their understandings. Silence is golden.
Essential to the use of time to deepen cognitive engagement are new ways of thinking about the purpose of questions. In this transformed classroom, students and teachers alike view questions as catalysts for thinking, as tools for students to use in self-assessing where they are in a given learning progression. Responses are understood as feedback that informs teachers of current errors in thinking or gaps in knowledge. As a result, more students are willing to prepare and venture a response, even when unsure of the correctness of their thinking. These changes in mindset don’t happen without teacher commitment to partner with students to change deeply rooted beliefs and classroom routines.
With new value attached to questions and answers, students need a more explicit understanding of responding as a multi-stepped process, involving (1) active listening to a question, (2) translating the question to understand what is being asked, (3) matching prior knowledge and experience with the prompt, and (4) silently composing a response. Students move through this process at different rates. Some are ready to speak before the teacher finishes asking the question; others require time to understand what is being asked and to search long-term memory for a match. Here’s where the need for the first pause comes into play.
Mary Budd Rowe (1969), a science educator, first identified the benefits of a 3-5 second pause following the asking of a question. Naming this pauses wait time 1, she found that students afforded this time responded more correctly, completely, and confidently than those in comparison groups. We use the term think time 1, which communicates the expectation for what to do during this silence. This is time for students to use a question to self-assess what they know and to form a question of their own if confused.
When we are explicit with students about the thinking they are to do during this pause, more will cognitively engage. If we wait without helping them understand the reason for our silence, the pausing may be a waste of time.
Think time 1 enables all students to bring a response to mind. Think time 2—the pause following a student’s answer before the teacher or peer reaction— affords students a chance to rethink, modify, and or extend their thinking. Most often, teachers evaluate answers as to their correctness immediately after a speaker stops talking—sometimes even interrupting (Tobin, 1987). When students learn that there is a chance to rethink, self-correct, or add to their answers, they are more likely to remain engaged in thinking. And when non-speaking peers learn that they are expected to listen to their responding peers and be ready to agree or disagree with a rationale, they are more inclined to engage, actively listening and processing their classmates’ responses. This second pause, also a recommended minimum of 3-5 seconds in length, provides all students time to engage in meta-cognitive thinking and to take their thinking to a deeper level. The speaking student can reflect on his/her response by self-questioning:
- Did I say what I was thinking? Was there an error in my response? How can I modify to make my answer more correct and complete?
- Can I add to my response, perhaps by offering evidence, or by clarifying the steps I went through to arrive at my answer?
- What questions do I have that might take my thinking deeper?
Listening students use this time to process the speaker’s response and continue their own thinking by asking themselves questions such as:
- What does the speaker mean when s/he says _________?
- In what ways, if at all, does this match my thinking? If not, what do I think?
If so, what can I add to the speaker’s comment? What evidence to I have to support the statement?
- What questions, if any, do I have of the speaker? Of the teacher?
When students engage in this type thinking, three conditions are present: (1) Time is provided, (2) Students know how and are motivated to use the time, (3) Teachers use time to prepare follow-up questions that invite continued thinking, and (4) Teachers routinely ask listening students to react to the initial speaker, making this a classroom routine.
Think times support formative assessment and feedback, inviting students to actively engage in self-questioning and self-assessment. If students are to be optimally engaged, however, they will also have multiple chances to enter the playing field, to give voice to their thoughts and react to their peers’ through dialogue. Teachers select and use response structures that engage all in speaking, as well as listening. While questioning of individual students in a whole-class setting has a role in constructing and deepening a shared knowledge base, it limits the number of students who can engage through speaking. Designing lessons that incorporate carefully selected collaborative response formats—from think-pair share to text-based protocols to fishbowl and other cooperative structures—advances equitable participation and enhances engagement.
Active student engagement in learning begins within the minds of our students. High-quality questions activate the process. Student use of meta-cognitive skills during the responding process sustains their thinking. Response structures that optimize dialogic participation by all enhances thinking and learning by affording students opportunities to deepen engagement through speaking, listening, and responding to the ideas of peers. Deeper levels of student engagement result when students understand the purpose of questions, when they learn how to use pauses in classroom talk to self-assess and extend their thinking, and when they participate in dialogue to give voice to their thinking.
Rowe, M. B. (1969). Science and soul. The Urban Review, 4 (2), 31-33.
Tobin, K. “The Role of Wait Time in Higher Cognitive Level Learning.” Review of Educational Research. Spring 1987, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 69-95.
Walsh, J.A. & Sattes, B.D. (2017). Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.