Recently, we were doing small group demonstrations and discussions about particular interventions for the hip in our first-year musculoskeletal class. I was at the foam roller station and it was my role to facilitate the students’ learning in regard to how to use the foam roller, what muscle groups work well to target with it, how to educate patients to utilize it, and when best to integrate it into their plan of care. I saw this as an opportunity to create a little discussion allowing the students to provide the answers to our learning objectives for our 20 minutes together. The problem was they didn’t have the same expectation as I did when they approached my group. Their expectation was they were going to absorb content and practice a little on the foam roll. They came to eat…I only came with uncooked ingredients. We had a mismatch and a pretty big one at that. When I posed my first question, “Where does this intervention fit in a patient’s plan of care?” all I heard was silence that felt like it lasted forever.
Have you ever posed a question in the front of class only to hear crickets on the other end? There are two methods to approach this reaction, 1. Panic, provide the answer and then move on quickly, or 2. Wait out the silence. I want to be a wait out the silence person, but I’m typically more the panic and provide the answer kind of person. I want to wait out the silence because more often than not, the silence is just the reaction I should be looking for, silence is the evidence of thought occurring. I often want to interject seconds before a student is going to respond because I am uncomfortable with the silence or I’m not always confident my question was clear enough, so I often see the silence as a reflection of my failure.
Fostering discussion can be very uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable for the leader as well as those participating. A good question can spark curiosity in a student and encourage their participation in solving a problem, but it could also spark anxiety and worry if the student isn’t quite sure of the answer. We don’t have to worry about the later because you have already done the steps to create a curiosity safe environment and we don’t have to worry that being uncomfortable in a situation is always a bad thing. Remember the lobster and his signal to grow. Discussion has been shown to be highly effective at improving problem solving and critical thinking skills. These are both things we want our students to possess, so incorporating discussion in our classroom is a must. The silence after a question can mean a lot of things and it is our job to dissect that and react accordingly. Here are three things we can do to foster the type of “post question silence” we want:
1. Communicate your expectations.
My first mistake in the above scenario was not communicating my expectations prior to starting the session. On the fly I thought to myself, this would be a good time to employ discussion as a learning technique today. I formulated some leading questions and was ready to roll. The students came to the pod expecting me to present all the required information in lecture form, then they would practice for a few minutes and move on. They were ready to devour the three-course meal I had prepared. I was ready for them to cook the three-course meal I had planned. Had they known what my expectations were ahead of time, they would have been preparing their thoughts. Sometimes teaching requires spontaneity where you raise a discussion question outside of what the students expect. This has a purpose as well, but sometimes the silence could last for days with that approach. Letting your students know ahead of time to come prepared for discussion can promote the thought-provoking silence you are looking for.
2. Wait them out.
You can do all the right things and in all the right ways, but still feel like the silence you are hearing will last forever. As the silence continues and you get more and more uncomfortable, guess what? Your students are getting more and more uncomfortable too and eventually one of them will explode. I often want to interject to ask the same question in a different way thinking that what I said didn’t make sense. Often that isn’t the case and if it is when you do finally get an answer you will be able to tell if they understood you or not. The response that breaks the silence may even be a clarifying question. Would that be such a bad thing?
3. Wait longer.
I feel the need to reiterate this point mostly for myself. As I said above, I am a panic and move on kind of person. When I am teaching various content, I often feel the silence is a reflection of my poor teaching skills. I often internalize the silence in unproductive and negative ways. THAT ISN'T THE CASE…most of the time. When you feel like you waited a super long amount of time…just wait longer. Most likely your anxiety is causing the time on the clock to feel like it is going by so much faster than it is. Posing thought provoking questions for discussion takes time to formulate responses and our students need that time. Just wait longer.
Asking your students key questions is an excellent way to foster the curiosity rich environment that facilitates learning. Embracing the silence is a skill I want to improve and enrich.
How about you? What is your reaction when the response you receive is just silence?