Teacher Pause and Student Thinking | Steve Barkley
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Teacher Pause and Student Thinking

The fast pace of life in and out of the classroom has ingrained in students a “quick response” goal. A sense that being the first to answer is better than the best answer. As a first-grade teacher, I often laughed when I stated to the class, ”I have a question for you to ponder” and at that point, several hands went up, ready to answer a question I had yet to ask. Observing in secondary classrooms, I have frequently shared that if you want students to think you need to keep paper and pencil out of reach. The tendency is to “get something completed” quickly, rather than engage in deeper thought. Much in our classroom environments reinforces that student conception. In most schools I’m more likely to observe a “quizlet” completion than a Socratic seminar.

One strategy for changing the environment is a teacher’s conscious practice of implementing teacher pause time with his/her questioning practices.

In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe published a paper summarizing five years of study into wait times. She observed that when teachers allowed at least 3 seconds of wait time, they involved more class members, got better quality answers and students were more likely to ask their own questions.

While certain students require differing lengths of think time and particular questions require extended time, consider a 3-3-5 format for initiating a conscious practice with teacher pause time.

 A three second pause after asking a question before calling on a student.

As the teacher finishes the question and pauses, she communicates an expectation that she wants everyone to identify an answer. Using this time to scan the class, a teacher gains information regarding student understanding and engagement.  A student may feel some pressure during the pause to consider an answer as he hasn’t been “saved” by the first hand up.

A three second pause after naming a student for the student to respond without the teacher cueing or moving onto another student. For some students putting the answer into words takes some processing time from having identified it mentally. There is also the student whose hand went up in a hurry and now needs some time to think through her response more fully.

A five second pause after a student has finished answering before providing feedback or calling on another student or moving to another question. Firstly, this allows the teacher to communicate that the student’s answer is important and she is taking time to consider it. Frequently during this pause a student may add to or change an answer now that he has heard it. (Having an auditory learning preference, I am someone who thinks while talking. As I’m speaking I hear my thoughts and decide to change what I’ve said). For many students, just the fact that the teacher paused has them change their answer because they have experienced teachers’ quick positive feedback to correct responses in the past. “If my teachers having to think about what I’ve said, it can’t be right.”

In the Journal of Teacher Education,  Mary Budd Rowe identifies benefits of implementing pause time:

  • Length of student responses increased 300%-500%
  • More inferences were supported by evidence
  • Incidences of speculative thinking increased
  • Number of questions asked and experiments proposed by students increased
  • Students to student exchanges increased
  • Failure of students to respond decreased
  • Disciplinary moves decreased as engagement increased
  • Variety of students participating voluntarily increased as did the number of unsolicited responses
  • Student confidence, as measured by fewer inflected responses, increased
  • Achievement improved on written measures of cognitive complexity

I have always been amazed at the number of benefits to students from teachers’ conscious implementation of wait time. It appears that some of these benefits may come from other changes teachers unconsciously made while practicing pausing. Mary Budd Rowe reported that:

  • Teachers’ responses to students exhibited greater flexibility with greater continuity in the development of ideas. (When teachers paused, they used the time to better unpack a student’s answer or lack of answer and decide the best next step.)
  • The number and kind of questions teachers asked changed. “There were fewer questions, but more of them entailed asking for clarification or inviting elaboration or contrary positions.” (Teachers used the time to form better questions)
  • Teacher expectations for some students seems to have increased. (This could cause many additional changes in teacher practice.) Interesting note: When teachers have higher expectations, they pause longer. Unconsciously, teachers may shorten pause time for students needing it most.

The length of time and placement of wait time is very often an unconscious teacher behavior. It’s a great area to invite a peer or instructional coach to observe and provide feedback for your reflection. Chances are good that slowing down will often take your students deeper and further. Administrators may want some coaching on staff and leadership team meetings. Would there be value in pausing for more thinking?

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