Q: I coach the elementary robotics team with my son's fifth-grade teacher. She says that I don't give kids enough time after asking questions and suggests I allow for a long pause so students can "cogitate." It seems like forever when she does it. Don't we want kids to be nimble thinkers who answer quickly?
A: Don't wait to take her advice. She's using an effective teaching strategy called "wait time." In a fast-paced, hurry-up, multitasking world, it benefits young learners to slow down and have extra seconds to formulate a response.
University of Florida educator Dr. Mary Budd Rowe pioneered wait time research in the '80s with her discovery that regardless of grade level, students were typically given less than one second to respond to a teacher's question. That meant that eager students were always called on; others not so much. Teachers filled short silences by cold calling on students, or providing answers and moving on.
Rowe showed that when teachers purposely waited a minimum of five or more seconds after a question, students gave higher quality and more substantive answers, their self-confidence increased, and they interacted with one another to advance discussion.
What's more, students reluctant to raise their hands began to participate. Waiting allowed students to better remember the information and articulate a good answer. It increased their ability to grasp and process information. As Rowe explained, "Slowing down speeded up learning."
Dr. Mary Laverty Bigelow, a Pennsylvania-based science educator, says, "Knowing about 'wait time' is useful for parent-child interactions, too."
Certainly, we want children to be able to recall some things fast. "They should master sight words so that they don't stop to decode each word, slowing down their comprehension," says Bigelow. "We want them to develop automaticity with basic arithmetic operations. I watched middle school students struggle with math problems because they had to take time to figure out six times seven."
But when it comes to developing thinking skills, "such as applying, analyzing, evaluating knowledge and creating new ideas, students need time to think," adds Bigelow.
If you ask your robotics team the best way to solve a problem, "you want them to reflect rather than offer up the first thing that comes to mind," Bigelow explains. "To extend the practice, after one student's response, good teachers call on other students, asking, 'Do you have anything to add?' or 'Your hand was up. What do you think?' or 'Do you agree?'"
While dead air may seem like forever to you, "it is beneficial processing time for students," notes Bigelow. "Research shows that when they take extra time, their answers are richer and more complex. These additional few seconds also encourage students to elaborate on another student's response, which is what teamwork is all about."
Whether you're coaching your daughter's team, or asking her to explain an answer to a math homework problem, "remember to slow things down, take a sip of water or mentally hum a few bars of the 'Jeopardy' theme song," advises Bigelow. "When it comes to questioning children, it's often what you don't say that counts."
For more on wait time, see Bigelow's blog at ascd.org/ascd-express/vol11/1101-bigelow.aspx.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)