The dreaded wait…

Working in a space that encourages the creation of projects through enquiry means burying yourself, your planning and your teaching in questions. A great many questions.  But even more daunting, it means posing these questions to a class of students and hoping for a lesson driven by the excitement of figuring out the answer.

So you walk in with your well-planned lesson, this lesson you’ve rehearsed multiple times in your head and every time your imaginary classroom has responded eagerly to your well-worded questions.  As a teacher you know you are going to nail it. But as you deliver your first question the class falls silent… It is at this point when a mild panic attack sets in.

Posing questions in classrooms is hardly a revolutionary act. In fact, studies show that teachers spend 30 – 55 percent of class time on questioning1. And if ‘studies’ were to stay long enough in any classroom, they might guess that teachers also spend 15 – 25 percent of this time answering their own questions.  There is fear that comes with waiting for a student to come to a response, a window period where teachers feel no control as the air can only be filled by student voices and the lack of voice seems to signal “give more questions”, “simplify the question”, “ask a different question”,  “just tell them what you had in mind when asking the question”… As a teacher invested in your students’ learning everything seems to signal TRY HARDER, YOU ARE NOT DOING ENOUGH.

But the wait is a very necessary part of the enquiry process. I would argue the waiting should constitute a bulk of the enquiry process because according to experts the wait is where the brain mechanics begin the work. A good question will launch students first to think about the question and its meaning, to look through their own files of knowledge to find a solution for the answer (and if this question is one geared to launch an enquiry process, the students may not find information in their immediate brain files to respond), to formulate an internal response, to formulate an external response and sometimes revise this response. Can you think how excited the brain must get at THIS point of the lesson, in your silence and in their internal workings?

A whole theory on waiting time has been formulated. I’ve wondered what a pedagogy formulated around ‘waiting time’ might look like: where teachers feel confident enough in students’ brain mechanics to ask questions without allowing their own discomfort to fill the air with something as boring as a “correct answer”; allowing students to move from internal processes to communication with their peers, and allowing internal processes to be externalised building up a knowing (or a questioning) in a space of “waiting”.

Think what a curriculum based on a waiting period may allow, how much innovation would be afforded when the powers that be loosen content, and allow classrooms time to “wait” and truly digest fundamental concepts of different subjects instead of working from the anxious dread and worry unpinned by the question “are we doing enough?”.  That dread that makes curriculum pack itself full of words, facts and intrusive prescription.

Our well-intentioned drive to teach, to give knowledge, to make sure students make it, to make sure teachers are working, to make sure we are internationally competitive while making sure we are innovative, makes the thought of waiting it out seem like a neglect of our duty to serve. But wouldn’t it be something, to pose a question, solve a problem and wait it out to see every stake holder use their mechanics to externalise their internal dialogues in a space of ‘waiting’?

I am a language and social sciences teacher and we run on our ideologies, so I will continue to play Socrates and ‘wait it out’ through my students’ discoveries.

Tokoloho Malele

  1. Cotton, K. Classroom Questioning, North West Regional Education Laboratory
  2. Cockcroft, K. The Role of working memory in Childhoos education: five questions and answers, South African Journal of Childhood Education. 2015, 5 (1) : 19 – 41

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