Recently I called on a student to present his work on a problem. He said he didn’t have any. (I kinda knew that, that’s why I called on you).

Me:  So, do you have a question you’d like to ask about solving the problem?
Student: No, I didn’t actually try it. (Yep, I knew that too).

Me: We’ll wait while you try it. Let us know if you have a question.
So he began working on it and the rest of the class patiently waited.

Student: I’m still working on it.
Me: Okay.
The class kept waiting. They did a really nice job. There was no grumbling, just silence. It didn’t even seem to be an uncomfortable silence. Not a hint of tension in the air.

Student: I don’t understand why you’re still waiting for me to finish the problem. Someone else has the answer.
Me:Because if I let you off the hook now, I’m telling you it’s okay not to know and not to try.
Student: Oh.

He presented his answer. It was correct. The class applauded.

Part of me is still not sure this was the best use of those four minutes or so. So early in the year, I think it was.

How do you handle the “I don’t know” response in your classes?

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15 Responses to Waiting

  1. Jen says:

    Personally, I really like the way you handled this.

    I’m teaching 12-year-olds, which changes things significantly. Also, according to their student surveys, I have a lot of math anxiety on my hands. Many of them specifically mentioned that they freak out getting called on or called to the board. I’ve already had a girl cry in class because she didn’t “get it.” So I figure my job is not to make them hate my subject even more by putting them on the spot. Generally, I only call on the students who want to participate. I was definitely a lot more “Try it, we’ll wait” when I was at a high school, especially in algebra 2.

    However, if a student is obviously off-task, I will call on him/her to let them know I noticed. When they say, “I don’t know,” I say “that’s because you’re not paying attention. Can you focus better please?” I will check in again later to see if they get it now.

    Semi-related: I do a lot of walking around the room during seat work, asking students questions a bit more privately. This also ferrets out the kids who are copying off their neighbor while I’m helping someone else, because they can’t explain to me how they did the problem they’ve magically completed. My wait time during that sometimes needs improvement because I have so many kids clamoring for my attention to their own paper. I rilly, rilly need a TA in these larger (30-ish) classes. But I did once teach a class of 40 (more students than desks) so I won’t complain.

  2. Jenny says:

    I also think you handled this well. Clearly your classroom community was well set up because they were all able to wait patiently and quietly. That’s impressive.

    I teach six year olds so my habits will be quite different. I tend to ask students to repeat what someone else said. It means they all hear it twice and that’s when I pick those who aren’t paying attention. I ask them to repeat. That way they don’t have a know the answer independently, they just have to tell us what someone else said. (That can still be stressful for some though!)

  3. How do I handle it? Exactly the same way you do, and for the same reasons, but for some reason all I typically get in return is resentment. You should have seen the course evaluations from my Moore method-style abstract algebra course.

  4. This was a great example of what educational researchers call “wait time”, plus I like the way you offered the student an acceptable way out, a way to resolve the issue of incomplete work. You already knew that the work could be completed. From the lack of resistance, it sounds like the student (and probably the class) also knew.

    During this one lesson, you just showed the student and the class how much you care.

    Thanks so much for sharing! You were right on target. Wish I could have a been a fly on the wall;D

  5. Ben says:

    I think you used the four minutes to great effect. Sure, you weren’t “covering the benchmarks,” but I think the approach you used (1) showed the students you believe they can succeed, (2) showed your students you /expect/ them to succeed, and (3) showed that you’ll take the time to work with each of them as individuals.

    Those four minutes used differently might’ve allowed you to cover more material in that class period, but taking the approach you did will more than likely help you cover more material- more effectively- throughout the course of the entire year.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Jackie says:

    I do a lot of walking around too Jen. 30ish is tough though – not a lot of time to give individual attention. That’s why I like having students work in groups. They then have each other to bounce ideas off of.

    I love the repeating of what someone else said technique Jenny. I agree that it reinforces listening skills. I also use it to promote peer to peer talking about mathematics. I ask them to ask ask questions about what the other person said if they don’t immediately understand it. As for our classroom community – that’s something our whole math department has been striving for. So having three sections of seniors is a joy!

    I’m sorry to hear that Robert. I wonder what is so different at the college level? Is this the first time the students have been exposed to this type of learning environment? Are they not used to teachers asking questions and not answering them themselves?

    Thanks Sheryl. That day my wait time was great. Other days? Not as much – I’m working on it. It is one of my goals for the year.

    You bring up a great point Ben. I can cover the material very quickly. Heck, I could get through the math much faster than we typically do in class. But it isn’t about me getting through anything. It’s about the students learning and understanding. I hope you’re right and that it pays off in the long run. We’ll see.

  7. Ben Bleckley says:

    This is very cool. Also very cool that your class was so awesome about it. I don’t know if I could have made it four minutes, and I’m sure many of the students I’ve taught couldn’t. And I think you’re right, that this early in the year it was a good expectation to establish.

    Why do you think the kid didn’t do the problem to begin with? It seems like he knew how to do it.

  8. Leigh Ann says:

    That was excellent! A perfect little case study story for teachers-in-training as well. So often the wait time or the I dont know answer is just skipped by due to curricular constraints.

    I taught High School Math and one of my favorite classes was our non-regents math 4. The students came from very varried backgrounds into the class and we did precalc (even though some never had more trig than “push the sin button on your calculator). When I would get an I dont know answer I would ask that student to “just start me out” if it was a long problem. Often if given enough time they would see me through the problem themselves, but if they were truly stuck I would use others in the class to “give ____ a hint about what comes next” That would keep the rest of the class engaged even while the one student was working it out himself.

  9. Jackie says:

    Ben I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m not sure why he isn’t trying.

    I like the varied backgrounds too Leigh Ann (although it keeps me on my toes in terms of trying to plan for differentiated lessons). I encourage students who are stuck to “use a lifeline” by asking for help from another student in class.

  10. I’ve experienced this numerous times – and have felt just as apprehensive about what I’ve done as you appear to have.

    In the end, I think it’s good to set the tone this way for the rest of the year. Your students need to know that you expect them to try, and in seeing this student’s example will be more likely to try harder next time.

    Wow, sometimes I really miss the math classroom and reading your blog only compounds the longing.

  11. Brendan says:

    I think it is absolutely essential that you use these 4 minutes in this wayearly in the year. Students now know that you value everyone’s work.
    Skipping homework because someone wlse has the answer is no longer an option.
    Giving the student an out of asking questions was nice also. It takes him off the spot.
    Presenting math in front of the class does not have to increase math anxiety. Actually, it can build confidence expecially when student are given the chance to succeed. All they have to do is trust that you won’t leave them hanging or looking like a fool.

  12. Jackie says:

    I didn’t know that you taught math Darren!

    Thanks Brendan. I firmly believe that there are ways to have all students participating and presenting in front of the class without increasing the anxiety level. One of my daily goals is to create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes and figure them out together.

  13. mrteachus says:

    I’m way late to this party, but I am glad I found it. This leads me to the problem I have, why are students scared to death of being wrong? If a student doesn’t want to answer a question, I always check all of their work before I let them off the hook. The majority of the time, they have (at least) most of it right. What have we done in schools with grades that made working out a problem so scary?

  14. Jackie says:

    mrteachus -I’m not sure what students have experienced in their prior classes, but too often it is only the students who “get it” right away that are participating – unless we change the structure of the classroom. Creating a climate where students feel safe (whether it is in making a conjecture, asking for an alternative explanation, … , sharing their thinking) is not an easy task.

    I don’t know if it is the grades that have done it, so much as the reactions they get from others. If a student offers a thought and we say “No, that’s wrong” and move on, what have we taught them? It is what we say as follow up to the students’ statements that will encourage them to share (or not).

  15. Pingback: Questioning Techniques « Continuities

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