Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wait for it

As a teacher, the sound of silence can feel criminal to your ears. If you ask a perfectly good question and no eager student rushes to answer.... what do you do? Often you start thinking "this must not be a good question, no one understands, etc." or WORSE, you rush to fill the silence and end up answering the question yourself. If you do that, you're merely an amusement act. The students learn they can just sit back and wait for you to act.

So, remember this:
wait for it. Give it time. If you feel uncomfortable with silence, I bet you that many of your students feel twice as uncomfortable, and if you give them a couple extra seconds they'll feel the pressure to speak up. It takes less time than you think- about 30 full seconds is more than a class can bear, someone WILL speak up. And there's always the possibility that people aren't being lazy, that they actually are trying to formulate their thoughts. Imagine if someone asked you a question, albeit a question the teacher considered easy, in Mandarin Chinese or Polish. You probably wouldn't respond within 8 seconds either.

I don't know how this technique would work with children under 10....maybe not at all. They're an entirely different can of worms. But it does work with teens and adults. Case in point: twice a semester I have to do an evaluation of my students' speaking skills. Each student has several minutes to prepare and then answers a question in front of the class. At the end, the student is expected to field several related questions from his/her co-students. I used to feel nervous if no one came up with a question right away. Then I read about the waiting tip. I realized that the students were testing the system- did they really have to come up with a question on their own? Or would I step in to rescue that poor student standing in front of the class who was waiting awkwardly for a question? I ceased worrying that silence made me a bad teacher. I stopped automatically filling the silences. After about 20 seconds of "is she for real?" they got it. And the people who start talking are- get this- sometimes the quiet ones!

When you try this technique, remember to lose your desperation. Don't look desperately around the classroom, psychically urging someone to pick up. Students can sense that. Instead, put a look of confidence on your face, like "Why wouldn't someone answer this question? Of course they will!" and just wait for it to happen. It will.

PS: This idea works best when used in conjunction with rule #2 from my original list of teaching tips.

PPS: My school urges us to call on students by name, which I do about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time only rarely do I have to play the waiting game, but I do it a lot better now that I've discovered the rules!

1 comment:

  1. Oh my gosh, I wish I'd considered doing this when I was teaching. I was constantly being met with empty silence when I asked a question. I did have one Ukrainian student who always stepped up to the plate and carried the conversation forward, but she was only there about 50% of the time. In the other classes it was like pulling teeth to get an answer out of anyone. And I totally did do the desperate-panicky thing where I tried to fill the silence myself.

    I'm even more bitter about the times I've been teaching courses back home, where everyone in the class was a native english speaker... yet hardly any of them would answer my questions. The very first time this happened to me, I thought to myself "Is THIS what it felt like every time I declined to answer a question posed to the class during my undergraduate career?!". Yep. It's a terrible feeling. I guess I should have just let the entire class wallow in it for awhile! Next time...

    Thanks for the teaching tip!