Reflecting on … Powerful Pauses

What happens in your classroom once a student has responded to your question?  Who speaks next?   “Wait time” or “Thinking time” AFTER the student has responded can be every bit as powerful as “wait time” after you have posed a question. 

Just before Christmas I attended the Cheney TeachMeet and heard Jenni Ingram talk about her work on ‘Wait Time’ and it led to a radical rethink of how I conduct questioning in the classroom.  Simply restraining myself from responding immediately to students’ answers has led to an important change in the nature of dialogue and questioning in my classroom.  Few changes have been so simple to implement, shown such obvious immediate impact and been so hard to turn into habit!

Ingram’s main message was that in normal conversation the “thread” can be taken up by anyone in the discussion.  After a question and answer anyone else might chip in, or someone might expand on their thoughts.   However, in many classic question-answer format interactions in the classroom (“IRF:  Initiation – Response – Feedback/Follow-up”) the teacher ‘controls’ the discussion, policing interventions.  When there is a pause silence creates anxiety.   Less than a second of silence starts to feel uncomfortable to both teacher and student.  Teachers  generally leave less than a second after asking a question before rephrasing  or moving on.  Extensive research has shown that extending this gives students more time to think about what they’re going to say, which can lead to learning improvements.

However, just as important can be what happens NEXT, irrespective of how long was left between initial question and student response.  As the controller of the discussion, it is now the teacher’s turn to talk again.   Discomfort grows in less than a second and so the teacher responds in some manner to what the student has said.  This might be to give feedback, to correct the answers, to rephrase it  or to repeat it to the class for emphasis.  All too often, the student’s answer bears relatively little relation to what the teacher says next, as they have not given themselves time to think and reflect, (let alone the students).  One way or another, though, it is clearly “our turn” to talk and we allow ourselves very little time to say nothing at that point.  The dialogue moves on, the stress dissipates and the lesson proceeds.  Perhaps there is another question … wait … student answer – teacher response sequence.  In a questioning sequence this can occur several times.  Even teachers well trained to give  students think time before they respond, typically “pounce” on the response when it is their ‘turn’.

But what happens if we overcome our instincts, ride out the discomfort and do not take our “turn” after the student response?  What happens if we pause beyond the (less than) one second’s discomfort and still say nothing?  What if we don’t affirm what the student has said, or rephrase it, or tell them whether it was correct?

At this point everyone is feeling uncomfortable.  (I know, I’ve been trying this, it’s really not pleasant!).  I feel uncomfortable as it is my ‘turn’ and my responsibility to ‘move’ next.  But, here is the key, so do the students!  They also feel uncomfortable.  And the amazing thing is that, when they feel uncomfortable, students do something that some of them don’t do nearly enough … they start to think.  At this point, Ingram reported a range of responses from students.  In the last few weeks I have seen each of the following:

  1. Probably most commonly, the student who spoke originally extends their answer. They add depth to what they’ve said, often given an example/evidence in my subject or turn a simple answer into more of an explanation.
  2. Another student offers an additional comment, example or adds to the answer.
  3. The student turns to his classmates for help … then see number 2.
  4. Another student hisses a prompt such as “Explain what you mean” or “give some evidence”.
  5. A question is asked by the students. Sometimes this is a request for affirmation “is that okay?”  which I can bounce back to them.  At others it represents a greater depth of thinking  “… but I’m not sure that would always happen.  Did the villagers always respect sanctuary?”

Much of Ingram’s research was in maths, but I was keen to try her techniques in humanities and have been somewhat amazed by the results.  The dialogue in my class has opened up and IRF sequences of questioning have led to some interesting dialogue and extended ideas.

Sadly, the effect does not last very long.  In her talk, Ingram estimated less than 30 days.  Why?  Because teachers fall back into their old habits!  I’ve seen this in myself and so have double-down to remind myself the crucial power of the pause.  Part of the reason I’m writing this is to bring my own attention back to the issue as I’ve returned to some of my old habits with the pressures of the January restart.  I’m determined to prove Ingram’s findings wrong in at least one regard; this is something I want to continue in my teaching for much longer than a month, even if it takes some effort and habit-retraining so to do.

Questions to help reflect on responding to students…

  • At this point, do I need to say anything?  What will happen if I don’t?
  • Can they pick up the dialogue here? Is there more to be said … if  so why must it be me who says it?
  • Is my body-language and facial expression encouraging ‘self-selection’ e.g. open to students picking up the ‘conversation’ rather than waiting for me?


Research into wait time can be found here:

Ingram, J. & Elliott, V. (2015) A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal of Education


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