Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Virtue of Patience

For a long time I've believed that if I can create 2-3 very good questions during my lesson planning then those questions will carry me through the lesson.  They won't be the only questions I ask, however, because other good questions will spin from the responses they provoke.  My well crafted questions have to be real questions that invite a response, not an answer.  They have to provoke thought and hopefully involve feeling from students.  And, I have to be willing to wait.  This is the teacher's challenge: can you pose a very good question and have the self control and the confidence in your students to wait for their responses to begin to come in?

In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, author Ken Bain teaches this important principle: "I cannot stress enough this simple yet powerful notion - the best teaching is in the attitudes of teachers, in their faith in the students' abilities to achieve and their willingness to take their students seriously" (pp. 78-79).  There are a lot of things I can do to show my students that I take them seriously.  One sticks out - I can trust that they will respond to the questions posed, even if it takes them 15 seconds to do so. Or more.

As teachers we don't seem to value silence for pondering.  We value silence for discipline and obedience but we don't have much use for it as a tool for pondering but we should.  Consider this thought: if I ask a serious question of my students, they will have to go deep into their minds, and perhaps their hearts, to come up with an response.  That takes time and thought. "Ponder" is a different form of the word "ponderous" or heavy. Some questions are light and answers to them fly from the top of my head.  Other inquiries are serious, weighty and thick with meaning. They will involve my head (logic) and my heart (feelings).  Light questions dance in my head - I just need a second to answer. But weightier ones sink through my head down into my heart and join the two. Those need pondering to formulate a response.  I have to give my students the time and the trust to process and think.  I cannot rush in to fill the silence with my answer or my experience.  My attitude has to be that they will come through.  My experience is that with a clear question (sometimes restated) and enough time they do begin to answer, and the experience is wonderful.

For example, I could ask them to share with the class which battle of the Civil War was the most decisive for a particular side, and why.  They need time to think of the battles they know about, process the value of each one, come up with some back up arguments and then formulate a response.  That requires more than 2 seconds.  And did you notice in that question the opening for just about anything they want to say.  All can participate but few can do it quickly.

I could ask them a question about the Savior from John 8:4 as the adulterous woman was brought to Him.  I could say "If she was 'caught in the very act', where is the other guilty party?"  I can think of a number of possible responses to that question, but all take some time to put together and then express.

Don't be alarmed if their initial expressions are halting and not completely formed.  To me that is a good sign. They are thinking and are willing to think out loud.  I love that and encourage that and feel like I need everyone to give them space to create on the move.

Teach your students to think.  Honor their wrestling with words and ideas. Give them the necessary time to ponder and to respond.  They will be tentative at first, because you may be the first teacher who has trusted them enough to do this.  Don't give up. I always notice that in certain classes students on the way to that class talk freely with their friends.  Then, as they cross the threshold of the classroom and the teacher calls the class to order they disengage.  After class they start to talk again.  Why?  Could it be because their friends take them seriously, listen to them, and engage them in a back and forth conversation, with no time limits involved?  We should be more like their friends.


  1. Great post! This was a great reminder as a student to not rush and give the very first thought that comes to my mind just to fill the silence, but to really let it soak in so I can learn from the question being asked rather than just be a quick participant.

  2. This is great Scott. I love how you end with the idea that Teachers should be more like friends, open, listening and involved.