Wait Time: A Reflection on Learning and the Role of Teachers

In a flashback to July 1996, a poignant moment from a classroom setting highlights the unintended pitfalls of teachers' over-eagerness to provide answers. Teaching is not about transferring information but instead attending to the awareness that students already possess knowledge and understanding.

Wait Time: A Reflection on Learning and the Role of Teachers
prompt - image of a bustling classroom, with one student in a calm bubble of focus
' ... the mind is a power to be developed rather than a receptacle to be filled is a sound maxim in education' (Calkin, 1910, pp. 18).
‘I don’t teach, I let them learn’ Caleb Gattegno

July 1996: A Flashback

The Fugees are number one, ruling the charts with ‘Killing me softly’. Petrol is 52 pence a litre ($1.23 a gallon), and TVs are the size (and depth) of a small table. The square cube iMac G3 is the tech, along with floppy discs and CDs.

I found myself in a lively classroom full of students. A buzz of learning occurs, curious conversations occur, and I am learning. I think it is a maths or geography classroom, but to be perfectly frank, the subject doesn't matter. For once, I am enjoying learning, caught up in the work, and genuinely intrigued. All of a sudden, I am stuck and ask the teacher for help.

And as the words leave my mouth, the answer is about to arrive in my mind. The answer to my stuckness arrives on the top of my tongue; it crystallises in my mind. The teacher is no longer needed.

But it is too late.

Before I get there, the teacher tells me the answer! If the teacher can only hang on for another few seconds, use their teaching powers to know that the intervention has been done by mere listening. I was not given enough time to think. The teacher did the thinking.

They jumped in without waiting.
Like a search engine that has no back button.
That crucial pause, the wait time, was missing.

Although this might seem trivial to some, this scene still plays out in countless classrooms.

The Unintended Pitfall of Being Over-helpful

It was a classic case of teacher desire
A question then arises: Is it wrong for a teacher to give an answer? After all, isn't that what the student asked for?

The answer is complex.
The teacher's haste, though well-intentioned, wasn’t a deliberate choice. Yet to remedy has to be done with intention.

'Learners have natural powers with which they make sense of the world in general. These are a valuable resource to be developed by the teacher...' (Mason and Johnston-Wilder, 2002, pp.124)

The teacher wanted to formulate my answer, and I (the student) was not given agency. The teacher became so excited to answer my question that they forgot that they were there to help students learn, not to teach. It was a classic case of teacher desire, or as Mary Boole puts it, 'teacher lust' (Tahta, 1972).

What is the teacher's role?

Provoking knowledge: The teacher's job is to help the student demonstrate the knowledge that they already have. A teacher has to trust a student's natural powers. Natural powers mean everyone has inside of them the skills necessary to solve a problem, and it is when we, as teachers, allow students access to that power that learning takes place (Gattengo, 1974; Tahta and Brookes, 1966).
Fostering an Atmosphere: A good teacher creates an environment where students feel empowered to discover and learn.
Balancing Information: Striking the right balance between sharing too much and too little is crucial. There is a tension between telling too much and telling too little. When we give too much information to a student, we may have a lot of teaching, but we end up with insufficient learning.

It is common to think teaching is about transferring knowledge, but it doesn't have to be. Instead, it could be transforming knowledge. The best teacher is the one who teaches reluctantly. The best teacher does not teach for themselves but rather has the student in mind.

Reimagining the Scene of 1996

'Help with what?, she says inquiringly, yet soft-spoken, waits for me to finish my question and then waits a little more to check if I processed the information. It’s as if she is counting to 10 in her head (later, when I learn how to teach, I find out that this is what she is doing!). This time, after a brief contemplative silence, it’s me who proudly exclaims, "Oh wait, I know the answer!"

Key takeaways

  1. Significance of Wait Time: Giving students adequate time to process information and find answers independently can lead to deeper understanding and more meaningful learning experiences.
  2. The Reluctant Teacher: The best educators often teach reluctantly, focusing on student learning rather than showcasing their knowledge.
  3. Natural Powers of Students: Every student possesses innate abilities and understanding. Trusting in these powers can revolutionize the learning process.
What do you think is the purpose of a teacher?

Has something like this happened to you, perhaps as a student or in your role as a teacher? Share your story with us. Comment below or email


Fact Check Resources

Calkin, J. (1910) Notes on Education: A Practical Work on Method and School Management, Mackinlay, Halifax.

Mason, J. and Johnston-Wilder, S. (2004) Fundamental Constructs in Mathematics Education, London, Routledge Falmer.

Gattegno, C. (1974) The Common Sense of Teaching Mathematics, Educational Solutions, New York.

Tahta, D. (1972) A Boolean Anthology: Selected Writings of Mary Boole on Mathematics Education, Association of Teachers of Mathematics, Derby.

Tahta, D. and Brookes, W. (1966) The genesis of mathematical activity In Brookes,W. (ed.), The Development of Mathematical Activity in Children: The Place of the Problem in this Development, ATM, Nelson, pp. 3-8.