Aducation

The Pedagogy of Waiting

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Some time ago I came to listen to a dialogue between two teachers. At first, I wanted to get involved, but then decided to just listen and record their conversation in order to communicate it to you. Naturally, I sought their consent and they are not against you also becoming involved in the discussion of this topic. I left their first names unchanged but cannot disclose their surnames. I will stop here, but if you subsequently decide to continue discussing this topic, both I and they will be happy about that.

Nino: What will happen? How will things go? Sometimes I have no idea where to start. Guess what the most important thing is? The key is to...

Rusudani, interrupting: Sorry, Nino, but I think it is not worth seeking the key. Some say that the teacher is the key, others maintain that the student is key. For some, good working conditions and a good teaching plan is important, whilst others keep complaining about textbooks.

Nino: But what is wrong with discovering what the key really is?

Rusudani: Well, those attempts to obtain special results by resolving the most important issue never work. The field of education is a complex system and significant results can hardly ever be achieved by improving only one element of it. Moreover, seeking that single key thing may even pose a threat.

Nino: Come on! How can seeking something be dangerous?

Rusudani: Trust me. Have we not agreed that various different things are important for various groups? It often happens that a stronger group imposes something it deems important on weaker groups.

Nino: You are right. The same happens in our school. I believe that the important thing is to think broadly and act, however, another segment of teachers and the administration have different ideas.

Rusudani: What do you mean by saying that it is important to "think broadly" when discussing issues?

Nino: Well, it perhaps makes no sense to recount that to you. Several of my colleagues told me that all that has nothing to do with practice.

Rusudani: You know me well. We have known each other for 15 years now and I am always interested in such issues. Please, go ahead, tell me what they disliked.

Nino: OK. I have been thinking about the phenomenon of waiting in education.

Rusudani: Waiting? What is the link between waiting and education?

Nino: Education is often built up around the idea of waiting. Just recall what we tell students when they ask: "Teacher, why should I learn this?" The standard response is that they will find this knowledge useful in future. In other words, we tell them that later in life the time will come when everything that they have learned will make sense, they merely have to wait for that time.

Rusudani: Do you think the formula offered by Davit Guramishvili [a Georgian poet of the 18th century] that "the root of education is bitter, but becomes sweet at the crown" is the wrong concept?

Nino: I think this concept is controversial. Both the root and the crown of education must be sweet. A student must enjoy education from the very moment he/she starts obtaining it, not only after a long wait.

Rusudani: You are, perhaps, correct. This is also one of the problems in motivating students. You have now nudged me towards thinking about what we require from them. They want to know what they will be like in 10 or 12 years' time in order to realize why they need what they are studying now. Based on this vision, they would become more obedient and develop a greater thirst for education.

Nino: I favor John Dewey's concept of education. He said that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." According to this formula, a student does not need to wait until he/she becomes an adult in order to experience joy. A student is not like a caterpillar who must wait to evolve into a beautiful butterfly one day. He/she is beautiful and clever from the very start.

Rusudani: To go back to your colleagues; what does waiting have to do with practice?

Nino: Imagine that this waiting is not just the abstract state of a student, but is part of a daily routine. For example, some students wait before moving on to a new topic because they are already familiar with the current topic as a result of some other experience.

Rusudani: What do you mean by "some other experience"?

Nino: Imagine that I have students who like reading. When I give students a piece of literature to be read within a week, one student may read it within two days whereas another may have already read it a year ago.

Rusudani: Yes, on such occasions students often have to wait for you move on to a new topic. Where else does the problem of waiting lie?

Nino: Lessons are also often organized in such a way that students have to wait for a long time before they are asked to get actively involved in something.

Rusudani: Right, this is a problem too. But is waiting always bad?

Nino: No, of course not. Sometimes a lack of waiting is the problem.

Rusudani: Ah, now you are moving to the opposite position. First you say that waiting is a problem, then you say that the lack of waiting is a problem.

Nino: Ha-ha. You are right, but it is always important to see the reverse side too. There are two sides of the coin, aren't there? Now, listen to what I mean. Just try to recall a typical pattern of communication between a teacher and a student. A teacher puts a question to a student and expects to receive an answer immediately; as if posing a question is more important than enabling the student to think it over.

Rusudani: Correct. I have recently read about a study that established that if a teacher takes a proper pause after posing a question, thereby allowing students to think over the question, then performance significantly improves. While here, people do not give sufficient time to one another to think or even finish voicing their opinion.

Nino: Well, this is not only a problem of methodology, but of culture too. Thinking over something is often viewed as doubtfulness or a lack of confidence, instead of being acknowledged as a positive quality.

Rusudani: Giving proper time for answering also means that you have high expectations towards the responder. You show that you believe in his/her ability to think. Ok, we must change the pedagogy of waiting, but what can teachers do?

Nino: Waiting is not a problem for the students alone. Teachers in my school are also constantly waiting for someone else to improve the situation. They rarely try to change anything, either individually or collectively – as if they think of themselves as being powerless. However, there are many teachers who have started seeking answers for themselves and who work miracles in their lessons almost every day.

Rusudani: How can the problem of students waiting for their turn, or waiting for the topics, materials and exercises that match their interests and level, be resolved?

Nino: This would be much easier for you as a maths teacher. For example, there is a website www.khanacademy.org that enables students to go through various topics at the speed desirable for them; it allows them to watch videos and do exercises. You can, meanwhile, observe how long it takes them to perform this or that task, what mistakes they make, et cetera.

Rusudani: Awesome. But what about those who lack such technology?

Nino: Khan Academy is only one example of what technology can do, but much can be done without it too. I often allow students to make a choice when moving to a new topic, allowing them to select a new piece of work.

Rusudani: Is that possible when everyone reads different things?

Nino: Of course they must have something in common, for instance, a problem, a topic or something like that. But when we, adults, speak about literature, does it not often happen that we have read different books but the interaction among us is still interesting? Students make presentations on what they have read; they recount the material to one another in groups and jointly criticize it.

Rusudani: You are right, this is not an insurmountable problem. But, to go back to where we started; will replacing the pedagogy of waiting solve all problems?

Nino: Agreed. It cannot solve all problems, but do you see what has happened? This topic has made us encompass conceptual issues, methodology and professional ethics. We have not invented anything new. We have been talking for just half an hour, but have already identified one problem and have realized that the pedagogy of waiting will not prove useful in solving this problem.

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