Pauses That Lead to Deeper Thinking

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

Does silence make you nervous? Do you feel like you need to fill the silence by saying something? Are you concerned that it takes too much time to just wait? This is as true for adults as it is for students. When we pose a question or clarify a concern for others to consider, our own anxiety as we wait for someone to develop their thoughts may prevent rather than further deeper thinking.

Let’s start with classic research from Mary Budd Rowe in the early 1970s where she established the correlation between wait time and student response. Upon analyzing thousands of classroom recordings, she reported:

“…after having asked a question, the average teacher waits 1 second before either calling on a student, asking another question or answering the question him/herself.”

Doubling wait time to 3 seconds positively impacted the learning experience by:

  • length of responses increased
  • correctness of responses increased
  • more students volunteered answers
  • “I don’t know” responses decreased

[NOTE: The wait time is even more significant with English Language Learners who typically need at least 20-30 seconds to process and think about a response to the question. This varies according to proficiency level.]

Rowe underscores the need for silence to improve the quality of discourse amongst individuals. Wait time alone will not soothe the frenetic pace many of us feel as we rush to fix the problem, answer the question, or move to the next task on our to do list. Here are more strategies that can slow the pace and the thinking down.

Using pause, paraphrase, probe.

Art Costa and Bena Kallick crafted a strategy that helps pause the chatter motor in our minds to allow for slow thinking and overtly models listening with understanding and empathy. This helps the listener manage impulsivity to allow time for thinking.

  • Pause After the first thoughts are expressed, wait a few beats before you start to respond. This does not mean that you cannot interact. It just means that there is a meaningful pause before you interact.
  • Paraphrase Make sure that you really understand what was expressed by saying it back in your own words. You are checking for understanding. Paraphrasing often leads to greater clarity both for the person who is speaking and for the person with whom they are interacting.
  • Probe Ask clarifying questions that help the person who is speaking deepen their thinking through your questions. When you are asking clarifying questions you are asking the person to think with more precision.

Catching your breath.

Another place where we can set the pause button is when we all come barreling into a meeting, cell phones in hand, checking for calls or messages, leaving busy halls and classrooms. Using mindful moments brings the group together. The tone of the room changes from buzzing to centering. Taking the time for everyone to settle in allows us to be present in a more thoughtful way.

  • Check out Edutopia’s fabulous compilation of Mindfulness resources to help start class or a meeting as well as navigate through learning experiences.
  • School and family exercises from the Chopra Institute to make children more mindful (great for younger students)

Waiting for the other person go first.

In a conference, it is often a good strategy to let the other person go first. Start by saying, “tell me what is on your mind” or “talk with me about what you consider your most important point.” Any prompt that invites the other person to share their thinking rather than starting with what you are thinking is a good invitation for coaching for deeper thinking. The supposition is that you probably can agree on some part of what the person is saying. If not, it is an excellent time to clarify differences by saying something like, “I respectfully disagree with you…” or “I am not sure that we are describing the same situation. Let me share my perspective…”

You will need to work on the differences until you come to an understanding about how find your commonalities and, if necessary, agree to disagree on some part of the problem. If, on the other hand, you both agree, starting with a positive tone is a good way to enter a problem solving situation, a time for feedback about work, or a recognition of strengths in the work. Once again, it may take a bit more time to attune with one another but the time is very well spent in terms of the outcomes.

Slow looking.

The purpose of this thinking routine is to grow patient, immersive attention to content that will produce active cognitive opportunities for meaning-making and critical thinking in our learners. Based on the work of Shari Tishman, learners think interdependently with pairs or groups to examine what is in front of them. They learn together how to distinguish factual observations from inferences, seeing the benefit of what initially comes to mind (more obvious) versus what occurs to them as they continue to examine the piece.


  • Choose a time when you will have at least 15 minutes to spend looking and discussing.
  • Select an image to present to the students.
  • Do NOT tell any information about the piece.
  • Prompt students with questions using the elements of portrayal as a starting point: pose/posture, facial expression, clothes, hairstyle, setting, objects, scale, medium, color, and artistic style.
  • Make their thinking visible by recording what they see. The goal is to have them practice looking more intentionally.

What other strategies do you use to slow time down? Would love to hear your responses.

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