As educators, we often refer to ‘Wait Time’ as the time between when you ask a question and when you expect an answer.

Cast out a question to your class and if you don’t provide wait time, then when the first student begins to answer (takes a bite), all your other students are ‘off the hook’ and no longer need to think (or follow your lure). Fishing metaphors aside: Provide wait time or students don’t get thinking time.

When asking thoughtful inquiry-based questions, I’m not sure wait time is as important as another kind of time?

If a question is rich and engaging, students can share ideas that ignite opposing or compelling thoughts and ideas in other students. Enthusiasm can become infectious. Discord can inspire tangential, yet calculated thinking. Common trains of thought or hypothesis can invite further investigation. Perhaps even in these cases, wait time is valuable to allow students to formulate their own ideas before hearing others. However, I think the conversation can begin to flow between students and another kind of questioning time is needed besides wait time… And often this different questioning time is not provided.

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Do we provide students (or for that matter colleagues) enough time to think about the question itself, or do we rush to answer it? …Even if we do give wait time.

Do we allow time to contemplate and question the question?

If I were to ask students, (like in this TED Talk shared below), “Why does the ocean look blue?” There seems to be an easy answer until I ask, “And why is it blue on cloudy days?”

And likewise, “How does a plane fly?” becomes much more interesting when I also ask, “And so how does a plane fly upside down?”

I’m not trying to reduce the importance, or value, of wait time, but I am asking that when we ask students big (un-Google-able) questions, are we investing enough time exploring the question itself?


Also published on Medium.

3 comments on “Questioning Your Inquiry

  1. Great post David. I wonder what strategies you recommend in regards to actively providing time? I really enjoyed Berger’s A More Beautiful Question, but I feel like that book is more about getting the right question, rather than actually responding.

    1. Aaron,
      My apologies for the delay responding to your question. I read the question while on holidays and thought I’d get back to you a bit later, but forgot. I will have to look into Berger’s ‘A More Beautiful Question’.

      With respect to strategies, I think they can vary, the point is to ask the students to look more deeply at the question itself. What other questions arise? Where can we find more information? What background information do we need to truly answer the question? With respect to actual strategies, ‘Think-Pair-Share” and strategies that give students time to think on their own and to discuss their ideas with others are probably good.

      Your question kind of had the answer in it, I think the key is in “actively providing time” for students to spend ‘on’ the question, rather then ‘answering’ the question… which sound a bit like what you were saying about Berger?

      My next post will look at how relevance and real-world application changes the questions on a ‘need to know’ bases, rather than answering a question that no longer serves the learner.

      Thank you for commenting Aaron… I’ll be faster to respond next time. 🙂

  2. Great post and I love the fishing references. Although I think you are totally right about the wait time when we as instructors ask those “unGoogleable” questions, I would also say that it’s a great practice to allow our students to also ASK their big “unGoogleable” questions as well. One really fantastic book on inquiry, Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question tackles this very subject in detail. I highly recommend it to anyone delving into inquiry based teaching and learning, and I know some universities even teach out of this book. I work with game theory which is all about puzzles and questions in the larger sense and present many of these at mindmeetsgame.com. I love asking big question, but also receiving them!

    As a side note about giving students time to answer, I think we also have to address the psychology of the “wait time” for students and what that can mean. For example, some students feel the wait time is a pressure cooker of sorts where they are scrambling to say something with each dead second revealing more about their ignorance on a subject. Often, nobody wants to be the first to expose themselves to possibly looking silly at tacking some big answer that may collapse in front of them. Of course, we don’t see it that way most of the time, my point is that many students freak out as we go silent. Perhaps, the question becomes: How can we make this a nurturing silence?

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