Tear Down Your Behavior Chart!

Lee Ann Jung and Dominique Smith

Behavior charts and similar public shaming methods don’t teach self-regulation. They mainly harm vulnerable learners.

 

Mr. Hill stops reading aloud to his 4th grade students and turns to Anisa. “Anisa, you’re off task. Change your clip. I asked you once and you are still digging in your desk. Walk over and change it now.”

Anisa stands and walks across the classroom. Several of her peers make condescending comments under their breath. Anisa moves her clip from green to yellow and returns to her desk and puts her head down. Her nonverbal behaviors indicate that she’s angry, hurt, and frustrated.

A few minutes later, Josh raises his hand. Mr. Hill calls on him and Josh responds, “Anisa is off task again.”

Mr. Hill looks at Anisa and says, “Again? Please change your clip to red. One more problem and it will be another call home. You have to learn to pay attention.”

A Practice That Harms

Scenes like this are common in schools today. Pass through the halls of almost any elementary school and you are likely to at some point hear “pull a red ticket” or “you’re on yellow now.” Behavior charts—and their variants—are standard in elementary schools throughout the world. They represent a practice long overdue for retirement.

In thinking about this strategy for managing student behavior, we challenge you to ask yourself a question: Why are you are an educator and why do you continue to be an educator? Did you respond with, “to show students who’s boss?” or “to help the students who are already doing well to succeed?” Of course not. Your response was probably some version of, “I want to make a difference” or “I want to be the teacher students need in their lives.” We posed this question because we can’t move forward in the argument we’re about to make until we share a strong understanding of our ultimate goal as educators. Most of us are in education to make a difference in our students’ lives and help them become their best selves—aspirations that, in our view, aren’t compatible with behavior charts.

In working with students, we’ve often seen adolescents display challenging behaviors that have evolved over years. We’ve wondered to what extent their behavioral paths could have been corrected in early-childhood classrooms rather than exacerbated by stigmatizing practices like behavior charts. Braithwaite’s shaming theory (1989) highlights the connections between stigmatizing shame and later delinquency. According to Braithwaite, “shaming means all societal processes of expressing disapproval which have the intention or effect of invoking remorse in the person being shamed and/or condemnation by others who become aware of the shaming” (p. 100). Although the relationship between shame and later behavior is complex, empirical studies provide enough evidence to compel us to stop shaming young children and instead build strong relationships and seek alternative methods to promote prosocial behaviors.

We present here three reasons to abandon behavior charts. If such charts are used in your school, we encourage you to have an open mind as you consider our reasoning. And we hope you take down those charts tomorrow and consider trying the alternatives we propose to foster positive behavior.

1. Compliance Isn’t Our Long-term Goal

Behavior charts do an excellent job of teaching children that they will be punished if they don’t comply with directions or rules. Although this may work in the short-term to make some students compliant, compliance shouldn’t be our end game. We can shoot so much higher than that! We want students to be engaged and excited about learning, to persist when their work is hard, and to interact with others in ways that will lead to positive social and academic outcomes in the future.

Art Costa and Bena Kallick (2000) have done beautiful work organizing and describing the skills and behaviors educators should cultivate in all our students, what they term habits of mind. These lifelong skills—like persisting, managing impulsivity, and listening to others with empathy—improve students’ competence, confidence, and ultimate success across the curriculum and in life. Such skills are arguably more important than the content we teach; the content is merely a vehicle for teaching them. Solidifying these habits is what teachers should aim toward. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating what William Deresiewicz (2015) called “excellent sheep”—students who play the game of school but lack true engagement and critical thinking.

2. Behavior Charts Can’t Teach Self-Regulation

Teaching the whole child is our responsibility. If we are to be effective in our work, faculty at all levels must be able to teach habits of mind such as self-regulation, a key skill for shifting toward more positive behavior. Simply rewarding and punishing behaviors is not what helps students learn such habits and skills. It’s particularly ineffective with self-regulation.

Punishments work to reduce behaviors by immediately following a behavior we don’t want to see with a consequence that the child doesn’t like (Alberto & Troutman, 2002). Thus, behavior charts can reduce a student’s problematic behavior if the student dislikes negative public attention—or public shaming. This is a questionable strategy to begin with since it’s based on stressing out the student rather than cultivating new aptitudes. But for many students, negative attention is something they’ve gotten used to, or worse, something over which they feel they have no control. Their identity has become “the kid who is bad.” Have you noticed that most of the time the student who is “on red” today is the same one who was “on red” yesterday and the day before? And is likely to be “on red” all year long? What does it tell us if the intervention being put in place doesn’t lead to a change in students’ behavior? Clearly, the strategy isn’t working. Why would we continue to use any strategy that isn’t working?

Decades of research have led to a body of evidence on how educators can effectively support and teach key skills like self-regulation (Heckhausen & Dweck, 2009). Nowhere in the literature do researchers recommend that we shame children into being compliant.

3. Charts Hurt Students!

The most compelling reason to abandon behavior charts is this: They risk harming our students. Lee Ann still remembers the painful effect of the color behavior chart a teacher used when her son, Spencer, was in 1st grade. Spencer was a sensitive “people pleaser” as a young child. He preferred to do what he needed to do with little public attention, but he valued personal relationships. He was kind to everyone around him and worked hard in school. One afternoon, Spencer came home from school distraught because he’d had to “move his stick.” He’d gone to school without a paper signed by Lee Ann and, in front of the class, his teacher reprimanded him and asked him to move his stick from green to yellow. Spencer felt as though he had failed and let his teacher down. He was embarrassed and affected by the event for days.

Fortunately, Spencer’s experience was a one-time event. But consider the inner voice of the student who is “on red” nearly every day. When we reprimand a student in front of their peers, we risk changing that student’s inner voice, shifting their identity to the “bad kid,” isolating the student from peers, and disrupting their relationship with their teachers. At worst, we risk making a student feel unloved. Imagine the devastating effects for a child who gets most of her or his love at school.

Instead of using charts, we could just as effectively reduce undesirable behaviors by dumping ice water on a student or inflicting corporal punishment. Did you furrow your brow at that thought? We would never do that! We would never use physical punishment on a student in an effort to shape behavior—or even wanta student to learn to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of physical harm. So why don’t we have the same visceral reaction to emotional punishment?

Consider who this practice harms the most. Not the student who has a handle on self-regulation and performs well in school. It’s the students who need us the most who we are hurting. Behavior charts are a way to excuse ourselves from the hard work of meeting a student’s self-regulation and behavior needs. The fact of the matter is, when we use behavior charts, we are sacrificing student dignity in favor of teacher convenience.

Alternative to Sticks, Clips, and Charts

Perhaps we’ve convinced you to stand up right now, run down the halls of the school, and tear down the behavior charts. But before you jump out of your chair, you might be asking, “What do we do instead? If I don’t have consequences in place, my classroom will be chaos.” As we advocate for avoiding punitive approaches within schools, we often hear rumblings that alternative disciplinary strategies are too soft and “touchy-feely.” Dominique has even heard restorative practices—that is, those based on reconciliation and understanding—referred to as the “hug a thug” approach.

Rest assured, we don’t recommend removing structures or accountability. We advocate for putting behavioral structures in place, just not punitive ones. We want students to be held accountable in more natural ways and to have a chance to learn the impact of their actions on others. We want them to build empathy, persistence, or whatever skills they need to behave appropriately—and for those positive behaviors to become internally driven.

There are effective, humane, growth-producing ways to teach students that their behaviors impact others. True, there may be a bit of an adjustment period when changing to a new system. But our students’ self-worth and long-term success are worth any temporary disruption we may encounter. To move away from the reactive approach of behavior charts, we recommend teachers put into place three proactive strategies.

1. “Take Ten” for Each Learner

Set aside 10 minutes each day to sit with one student (focusing on each of your students in turn). Talk about something non-school-related that’s of interest to that child. When educators build strong, caring relationships with their students, each student naturally wants to protect that relationship and avoid anything that might damage it. Students’ behaviors and approaches to learning in the classroom are then driven by relationships, not fear.

Teachers need to know as much as possible about what makes each student unique and special—her personal interests, what excites him, what delights her, what he fears. We need to understand much more than their academic strengths and needs; we need to know the whole child—who they truly are—and allow them to know our true selves, too.

Students should feel that teachers are on their side. Imagine how differently the opening anecdote might have turned out if Anisa’s teacher had built a strong relationship with her.

2. Keep It Off-Stage

Stop making discipline for poor behavior visible. Students tend to react negatively when they’re called out in front of others. Instead, when a student’s inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed, have a one-on-one conversation with the student, staying calm but firm. When possible, avoid publicly calling a student aside for this talk: Publicly—and perhaps angrily—telling a child to come talk with you can have the same humiliating effect as a behavior chart. Instead, after class invite that student to have a conversation with you or quietly ask them to talk with you at a time when other students are otherwise engaged.

Be calm and supportive in discussing the behavior. To maintain your relationship with the student, always conclude by ensuring the student understands that although you are unhappy with the behavior, you still care about them and are there to support them in their growth.

3. Hear Students Out

Before acting on any student behavior, try to understand why it happened. When a student needs a corrective conversation, first ask to hear his side of the story. Generally, students prefer to have a conversation with a teacher rather than having a teacher conversation happen to them.

There’s always a reason why students are acting as they do. Stop asking “What’s wrong with that student?” and start figuring out what happened to that student. This may mean asking questions that prompt the student to reflect on the behavior and its effects on others. Students often have a hard time knowing why they acted in a certain way. It’s only once their emotion has calmed—and through a guided analysis—that they can identify the reason.

Once a learner understands the underlying reason, we can guide him or her to consider alternatives for next time and discuss any consequence that needs to follow. Even students who are caught in a pattern of disruptive or harmful behaviors—perhaps especially those students—benefit from being heard. Certainly, there are times when we must intervene and stop a behavior, such as if it is causing harm or severe disruption. We may need to remove the student from the situation immediately to restore a calm, safe environment—and later teach that student the self-regulation skills needed to prevent such behavior in the future. The key is that the subsequent conversation should be private and should be about the behavior rather than the person.

Students Deserve Better

Imagine how much better things might have turned out if, in the opening scenario, instead of scolding Anisa, Mr. Hill had tried some of the techniques described here. He might’ve noted that Anisa was having difficulty remaining engaged in the reading and lesson and, after finishing the group read-aloud, approached her while everyone else was gathering their things and moving to stations for the next lesson. Imagine if he’d said, “Anisa, I saw you were having trouble staying with me today. I’m worried that if you aren’t paying attention to the lesson, you’ll miss something important to your learning. What was going on today?” Mr. Hill might have found out that Anisa was actually looking for a pencil to write down ideas that occurred to her as he read aloud. He might then have affirmed, “That seems to be happening a lot lately—trouble finding your pencil and other materials. Let’s find some time today to see if we can come up with an organization solution, OK?” With such a response, Mr. Hill would’ve acknowledged the need for a change in Anisa’s behavior, but not stigmatized Anisa as a “bad kid;” rather, he would have helped her develop a solution.

All students deserve this kind of supportive response. We are calling out the practice of behavior charts for what it really is: public shaming of children into compliance. We have many good strategies available for teaching self-regulation; humiliation isn’t one of them. Let’s stop “managing behaviors” and instead guide and support engagement, persistence, and positive interactions. Let’s build relationships that promote growth of the whole child—and the skills each student needs for a lifetime of positive interactions and success.

Now, go tear down some charts!

Authors’ note: All teacher and student names are pseudonyms.

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Ten Non-Standard Ideas About Going Back to School

EdWeek

I had a colleague, a third-grade teacher, who spent most of August sorting books into leveled baskets, going steady with the laminating machine, and running up colorful curtains for the door to her classroom. Her husband, a secondary social studies teacher, would mark the beginning of the school year by wandering around the house, trying to find his thermos. This was immensely irritating to her, of course. But it’s hard to say who was the better teacher.

I had 30 first days of school as a teacher. Here’s my—very non-standard—advice for teachers, on gearing up for the new year.

1. Don’t work too hard at unimportant things, like fancy bulletin boards. The most important thing you can do before school starts is think about the curriculum and the kids you’re teaching. You’re not likely to achieve a high-functioning, intellectually cooking Day One, anyway. You’re aiming for Day Four or maybe Day Eleven, once you have a sense of who’s sitting in the desks (or on the floor), and how to get them to work together.

This is not a half-baked “make it up as you go along” theory of instruction, by the way. I know that curriculum has never been less open to creativity –and Important Metrics are looming. You’ve got a big job to do. But–as the salesman says, in The Music Man–you gotta know the territory.

2. Walk around the building and say hello to all of your colleagues. Even if the interaction lasts 30 seconds, and you’re not particularly fond of the teacher / aide / principal / secretary / custodian in question. There is nothing more effective than a school building where adults get along, respect each other and have the same goals. I am always amazed when teachers bitterly complain about the kids bickering in their classrooms, then proceed to ignore or castigate their fellow staff members. Build a few relationships. Welcome newbies. Thank the custodians for the shiny floors.

3. When it comes to advance planning, keep your options open. Don’t write detailed lesson plans for a semester. Plan for a week, maybe, just to ensure you have enough rabbits to pull out of your stovepipe and keep the kiddies busy. Set overarching goals, for sure. But it’s folly to think you have the flow of instruction and learning for the next six weeks under your control.  The watchword: learn as you go.


See also: Teacher Leadership vs. Teacher Professionalism


4. Corollary: For now, plan grandly, not precisely. Think about the things students need to know for the next decade, not the next standardized test or unit quiz. Not even the end-of-course or college admissions exams. Focus on things they need to master and understand before adulthood. Very soon, you will be dealing with the ordinary grind: daily lesson plans–plus assemblies, field trips, plays, the school newspaper, the spelling bee, the science fair, yada yada.But those are the trees. Think about the forest. What do you want your students to take away, forever, from your teaching? Which big ideas? What critical skills? It’s easy to forget the grand picture, once the year gets rolling. Take the time to do it now. Dream.

5. Make your classroom a pleasant place for you, too. In addition to being a place where students learn, it’s the place where you work, both with and without kids. (And, yes, I spent a year on a cart, so I know this recommendation may seem specious.) Most of us teach in a place that, stripped to its essentials, feels institutional, to some degree–if not downright unsightly.  Find a way to have comfortable seating, task lighting, pictures or tchotchkes that make you smile. It doesn’t have to be pretty and color-coordinated–many wonderful classrooms have that “kids’ playroom/teenage basement” aura. Still, forget those admonitions about too much personalizing–a classroom should feel like home.  One of my former students just posted this marvelous, home-made, vocabulary wall that her students can absorb all year long. (Thumbs up, Lin!)13876315_10155397374664815_7012842715327292597_n.jpg

6. Don’t make Day One “rules” day. Your classroom procedures are very important, a hinge for functioning productively, establishing the relationships and trust necessary for individual engagement and group discussions. Introduce these strategies and systems on days when it’s likely your students will remember them and get a chance to practice them. This is especially important for secondary teachers, whose students will likely experience a mind-numbing, forgettable parade of Teacher Rules on Day One.

7. Instead, give students a taste of disciplinary knowledge on the first day of school. Teachsomething, using your most engaging instructional techniques–perhaps a game, a round-robin, a quick-response exercise with no wrong answers. Bonus points for something involving physical movement. Beware of empty ice-breakers or team-building exercises–your goal is to have students going out the door saying “I think this class is going to be fun, and I already learned something.”

8. Keep your expectations about the first few days modest. You will probably be nervous (and have bad dreams), even if you’ve been teaching for 30 years–I always did. The students will be keyed up, too–it takes a couple days for them to settle in and behave as they usually do. Wait for your teacher buzz to kick in–that happy moment when you see engagement, maybe even laughter, and you know you’re on the right track. It takes a while, but when it happens, it’s like the first flower in the spring garden.

9. It’s the first day of school for parents and families, too. They’re at home, wanting to know that their kids are OK, that this year will be a good one for little Tyler. One idea for immediate parent engagement that I used for many years (thanks to Middleweb): asking parents to tell you about their child, in a million words or less. Very simple, and very powerful.

10. Tie your classroom to the world. There’s been a lot of on-line chatter about the presidential election, and its impact on kids. Even if you teach kindergarten–or chemistry–you can’t avoid the same kinds of chatter in your classroom. Use the daily news as backdrop for modeling civil interactions and substantive debate on the content you teach.  Read picture books on immigration. Take your AP Stats class to FiveThirtyEight.com and assign your physical education students to watch Simone Biles. What are YOU currently watching, reading or discussing? Share. Help your students analyze issues or find role models.

Because that’s your job.

Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

Kids raising hands in an elementary school class.

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

What Students Remember Most About Teachers

Edutopia

Teacher and student smiling at each other

©Shuttertstock.com/Monkey Business Images
Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall,I saw you as you rushed past me in the lunch room. Urgent. In a hurry to catch a bite before the final bell would ring calling all the students back inside. I noticed that your eyes showed tension. There were faint creases in your forehead. And I asked you how your day was going and you sighed.

“Oh, fine,” you replied.

But I knew it was anything but fine. I noticed that the stress was getting to you. I could tell that the pressure was rising. And I looked at you and made an intentional decision to stop you right then and there. To ask you how things were really going. Was it that I saw in you a glimpse of myself that made me take the moment?

You told me how busy you were, how much there was to do. How little time there was to get it all done. I listened. And then I told you this:

I told you to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not about the lesson plan. It’s not about the fancy stuff we teachers make — the crafts we do, the stories we read, the papers we laminate. No, that’s not really it. That’s not what matters most.

And as I looked at you, wearing all that worry and under all that strain, I said it’s about being there for your kids. Because at the end of the day, most students won’t remember what amazing lesson plans you’ve created. They won’t remember how organized your bulletin boards are. How straight and neat are the desk rows.

No, they’ll not remember that amazing decor you’ve designed.

But they will remember you.

Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Two children sitting together

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU. What matters to those kids that sit before you in those little chairs, legs pressed up tight under tables oft too small — what matters to them is you.You are that difference in their lives.

And when I looked at you then with tears in your eyes, emotions rising to the surface, and I told you gently to stop trying so hard — I also reminded you that your own expectations were partly where the stress stemmed. For we who truly care are often far harder on ourselves than our students are willing to be. Because we who truly care are often our own worst enemy. We mentally beat ourselves up for trivial failures. We tell ourselves we’re not enough. We compare ourselves to others. We work ourselves to the bone in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic activities. The most engaging lecture. The brightest, fanciest furnishings.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do and we believe that this status of excellence is achieved merely by doing. But we forget — and often. Excellence is more readily attained by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

And of all the students I know who have lauded teachers with the laurels of the highest acclaim, those students have said of those teachers that they cared.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. And while the flashy stuff can entertain them for a while, it’s the steady constance of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them: of learning. Of life. And most importantly, of people.

And while we continually strive for excellence in our profession as these days of fiscal restraint and heavy top-down demands keep coming at us — relentless and quick. We need to stay the course. For ourselves and for our students. Because it’s the human touch that really matters.

It’s you, their teacher, that really matters.

So go back to your class and really take a look. See past the behaviors, the issues and the concerns, pressing as they might be. Look beyond the stack of papers on your desk, the line of emails in your queue. Look further than the classrooms of seasoned teachers down the hall. Look. And you will see that it’s there- right inside you. The ability to make an impact. The chance of a lifetime to make a difference in a child’s life. And you can do this now.

Right where you are, just as you are.

Because all you are right now is all you ever need to be for them today. And who you are tomorrow will depend muchon who and what you decide to be today.

It’s in you. I know it is.

Fondly,

That Other Teacher Down the Hall

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

The Importance of Wait Time

Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

 

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

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Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

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So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers

Edutopia

We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.

 

Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”

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Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.