Recently, my daughter was laughing at herself for her failure to to successfully carry on conversation while she was passing food around the dinner table. “I guess I don’t multitask very well,” she said. Her sister pointed out that actually everyone multitasks all the time, without even thinking about it. And she’s right; we think, we breathe, we blink, we walk, we talk – all at the same time. Our ability to process information and respond, whether mentally, emotionally, or physically, is so instantaneous most of the time that we are often not even aware of the process.

But as educators, it’s worth considering the process because it’s our goal to seek and find the correct student response based on what we are teaching. Because we know that our students’ brains are functioning on so many different levels, making it easy for them to become distracted, one key aspect of our teaching must be to pay attention not only to what we’re saying but also to how we’re saying it. We are often energized and passionate about what we are teaching, and we feel a sense of urgency to cover a certain amount of material in the short time we get to see our students. The combination of these factors often leads to a steady, non-stop (if not rushed) flow of information-giving and -receiving, and we feel satisfied if our lesson is complete by the end of the class period and students have been able to hear everything they need to know.

But what if our students need something more than information flow? If our ultimate goal is to capture the heads and the hearts of our students, then maybe our instructional process should allow for more thoughtfulness. It may be hard to think of wiggly second graders or non-stop silly sixth graders or disinterested sleepy tenth graders as thoughtful. But believe it or not, we can teach them to slow down, to process, to consider, to think. And all it takes is three seconds. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three

Researcher Robert Stahl developed the idea of “Think-Time,” which is a period of three seconds that teachers wait before continuing their instruction or before calling for a student response. In this uninterrupted silence, both teacher and students are better able to process and consider the concepts being taught. It’s disturbing to see from Stahl’s research that most teachers’ “Think-Time” is generally less than a second. Less than a second to receive what has just been said. Less than a second to come up with an answer to a question. Less than a second to frame a question about something that isn’t fully understood yet.

If you’re like me, you may be thinking that a three-second time frame could hardly make that much of a difference. But I encourage you to think about the benefits of using this three-second Think-Time, both for yourself and for your students.

Think-Time for Teachers

Did your mother ever tell you to “think before you speak”? I found myself saying it to my son last night, whose steady stream of talking was digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole. Maybe we should try practicing this maxim in our teaching. What if we pause periodically (for three seconds) throughout our teaching to consider what we’re saying and how we’re saying it? One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three… Scan the room and take in the effect our previous words had on the students sitting in front of us. Recognize the moods and needs of our students in the moment. Reconfigure our next sentence to refocus attention. This Think-Time pause could help us be more thoughtfully and purposefully targeted in our instruction.

Think-Time for Students

Our students’ need for Think-Time may seem a little more obvious to us. Of course they need time to come up with an answer to our question; of course they need time to think of what questions to ask. But we should also consider using the Think-Time pause when we are not necessarily expecting any kind of verbal response. Whether they’ve heard the taught concepts before or not, our students need time to think and take ownership of the information. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three… Stahl’s research shows that out of a consistent use of that Think-Time comes a greater readiness in our students to respond (with questions or answers), as well as stronger understanding in student assessments.

It’s startling (and perhaps unnerving) how long that three-second pause feels. Our tendency is to fill the time and space with our words because we have so much to say, so much to teach. We’re not used to uninterrupted silence. But the evidence shows that we and our students need to become accustomed to that stillness. Yes, we are fully and amazingly capable of multitasking in the midst of teaching and learning, but perhaps we should consider the greater depth to which we could teach and learn if we paused…One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three.

Works Cited

Stahl, Robert J. “Using ‘Think-Time’ and ‘Wait-Time’ Skillfully in the Classroom.The Social Science Observation Record (SSOR): Theoretical Construct and Pilot Studies. Gainesville, FL : P. K. Yonge Laboratory School, 1973.

Photo by SHVETS production

Becki Goniea: As a Curriculum Trak support specialist, I enjoy guiding and helping school administrators and teachers as they work closely with their curriculum in an effort to further their school’s vision for education. I love using my own experience as an educator in a way that can encourage so many other educators.