The Art of Waiting

  • Elementary
Jennifer Wisner

There is an art to waiting.  As a gardener, I understand this.  I plant a seed and wait months before I get to see the beautiful blooms.  It takes patience, self-restraint, and quite frankly, a lot of work to wait, but I do it eagerly every year when I plant my sunflower garden.  However, when it comes to school I find myself running short on patience and self-restraint as I try to adhere to the rigid schedules and curricular demands of school.  I just want my students to understand the correct answers so we can move on.

I learned to teach in the generation of “gradual release.”  We would chant “I do, we do, you do” in trainings and in our classrooms as we plowed through curriculum that was structured in the same way.  Reflecting back on the many lessons I taught when students had only to copy what I did, I cringe. While my students learned many new things, they never had to think deeply about what they were doing. Inspired by two professional development trainings this summer, I went into the school year determined to embrace the art of waiting at school.  While my students waited, I wanted them to think. I wanted them to be filled with new and diverse perspectives. I wanted them to find more than one correct way to approach an answer - but how to best support this?

Step One:  Stop Talking

The first step seemed obvious--I needed to stop talking.  I needed to wait. At one of my trainings I read an article by Todd Campbell, Christina Schwarz, and Mark Windschitl entitled, “What We Call Misconceptions May Be Necessary Stepping-Stones Towards Making Sense of the World.”  My big “aha” while reading was this line:

“When their misconceptions are ‘corrected,’ students learn that their own ideas need to be replaced by other ideas that they don’t fully understand.  When this happens, students will likely memorize official ‘school’ knowledge but fall back on their original ideas when thinking about and explaining the outside world, since they naturally reason with their own real-world experiences, language, and rules for validating claims.”

In other words, simply telling students the correct understanding is rarely effective or lasting. They need time for sense-making and opportunities for the teacher to hear their current understanding.  If I flipped the gradual release model backwards and started with the “you do,” my students would have opportunities to share their initial thinking and build a partial understanding of the problem before I shared my thinking. This is easier said than done, and many of my attempts fell flat.  It seemed ironic that I might have trouble getting my kids to talk--they do it all the time. However, rarely did teachers ask them to have deep conversations - the ones that stretch their thinking and make their brains hurt. Many times, when faced with difficult tasks students shut down or look to their “smarter” classmate to do the heavy lifting.  I needed a way pull them in and excite them about what they are learning. I needed a problem.

Step Two:  Start Asking Questions

When I say I needed a problem, I mean I needed something meaty for them to discuss to focus their thinking.  The more engaging the better so students would stick through the task until the end, despite the challenge. It also would help if the task was open-ended, encouraging students to authentically agree and disagree with each other as they struggled through the problem. Their understanding at the end would be a combination of ideas, not their original thinking reworded.  Framing the problem as a question would naturally encourage a response from my students and I could have also used a photograph or video to spark thinking. Here are a few questions I used in my second grade classroom:


These examples were taken from my life science unit and my place value unit.


While these questions would be my main focus for discussion around the content, I knew I would need a few more questions to re-engage students when the discussions slowed down.  I gathered high-quality questions from the misconception article and from some favorite curriculum resources.  Then I made a list of them and put them on my clipboard so I could refer to them as I floated from group to group listening to student thinking.

The title of the list was, “Wait! Let the Students Do the Talking,” to remind myself that it was not my turn - yet.  The students need time to sense-make and build an initial understanding about the big ideas.

Step 3: Wait!

Learning to live with ambiguity was the hardest thing for me to do as a teacher.  I heard so many misconceptions. So many. Did you know there are watermelon trees?  Just ask the second grader who thinks he has one in his backyard.

It was so hard not to jump in and correct.  I needed to wait, it was not my turn yet. In waiting I realized, this is good.  I needed to hear these misconceptions, not so I could correct them in the moment, but so I could learn what experiences and texts I needed to provide for my students.  This removed me from the authority position and puts the responsibility back into my students’ hands. They need to read an article or they need to participate in an experiment with the purpose of incorporating their new learnings back towards our essential question.  If I wait, and let them make the connections for themselves, I allow them to permanently shift their thinking.

So at this point I have to be honest.  When I said we have to wait, I implied that the teacher would get a turn.  That is not always the case. Sometimes - in fact many times - when I choose just the right experiences students figure out the problem on their own.  In this case, I don’t get a turn. Yet, I have learned to be okay with this. It just means that I will have to wait until next time...


  • Communication
  • Feedback
  • Inquiry
  • Student Engagement
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