Effective teachers everywhere know that when they pose a challenging question to their class, students are going to need the commensurate amount of time to work out an answer.
Giving kids this space drives a classroom’s “ratio”: it allows for rigorous thinking, and it gives space for students across the skill spectrum to develop an answer.
Want a refresher on how ratio works in classrooms and curriculum? Watch this short video.
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Effective teachers working to elevate their classroom ratio ask a hard question, and then they wait. And they wait. And sometimes, they wait some more.
In my own classroom, this stretch of time—from a few seconds to a minute or more—used to be insurmountably uncomfortable to me. After just three seconds I’d lived and died and was reborn terrified again, terrified that my students were checked out, or confused, or that the question was too hard.
Then I’d cave, and break the silence.
“Uh, well, the answer I’m looking for is …,” I’d say, or, “Okay wait that’s a bad question. What I really want to know is …”
But the reality was that more often than not, many of my kids really were thinking hard along with me. And on those rare occasions that I could beat back the rising anxiety and my own self-doubt, I generally got evidence that my question was appropriately difficult, and students were engaged.
Over time, I learned the subtle signs that helped me judge whether my students were thinking hard: one or two would flip to a note from earlier. Three or four would furrow their brows and ask a question of their neighbor. And I could hear the accompanying ambient noise: a page turning here, a pencil scribbling there. These small inputs would help to soothe the anxiety rising in my throat, and help me wait.
This spring, my partner began the hard work of moving her classroom online. When her classroom went virtual in March, like so many classrooms across the country, she started bumping up against the familiar limitations of virtual learning.
Through the 2” x 2” Zoom windows on her screen, she could see her students struggle to find a quiet place to attend class. Oftentimes they seemed distracted by other browser tabs, and Jessie also felt less empowered to pose challenging questions.
“I ask them to do some high-level thinking, and when I close my mouth, all I can hear is my laptop’s fan and all I see are a dozen faces looking back at me. Are they checking their notes? Writing something down? Are they online shopping?”
It occurred to me that Jessie’s frustrations with Zoom teaching were undergirded by some familiar teaching anxieties: getting learners to participate, and motivating them to apply themselves to rigorous thinking tasks. A key difference for her, however, was that she had none of the inputs that I relied on to judge whether learning was happening (or confusion or apathy were setting in).
In subsequent lessons, Jessie was determined to increase her wait time. She knew that she planned good lessons, and she had good relationships with her students.
“I’m literally going to count to ten,” she told me. “Or, I’m going to invent a little task for myself to put my attention elsewhere when they need time to think.”
“Invent a little task?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Like I’ll say, ‘I’d like you guys to think about this question and while you think I’m going to pull up the next slide.’”
“But you already have the next slide ready.”
“Exactly! But just announcing that I’m shifting my attention slightly will make it feel a thousand percent less awkward, like I’m right up in their faces, silently menacing them for an immediate answer.”
The biggest challenges related to remote learning will continue to be driving engagement, the logistics of group work, differentiation, and the newly difficult nature of simple things like asking targeted questions to individuals. But as Jessie learned, it’s also imperative for teachers not to let these challenges erode their ratio completely.
It’s scary looking at a screen in silence while kids think. But don’t forget: that’s when a lot of the most rigorous thinking and learning took place in your brick and mortar classroom.
Ross Trudeau writes, films, produces, and manages all of Match's digital media content. Prior to his current position, he joined Match Corps III in 2006 and served for three years as Director of Match Corps Recruiting. A graduate of the Match Teacher Residency, he taught English and Creative Writing for three years at KIPP: King Collegiate in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mr. Trudeau holds a degree in English Literature from Brown University.