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February 4, 2014

Educating Students to Wait in Line?

by Chris Lindholm

Our Future Experts of Waiting in LineSitting at a twelve team wrestling tournament today prompted me to dig out a post from several years ago about the assembly line system of education that has dominated our classrooms for the past 100+ years.  Even with nine mats being used continuously and a remarkable effort to run an efficient and well-organized tournament, each student was engaged in competition for a total of 2 – 6 minutes in a 4 hour time frame.  Spread around the gym was several hundred boys — 9 were engaged and the other 99% were bored silly.   They were participating in a beautifully designed lesson for learning how to wait in line and deal with boredom.   

We are training our future leaders to be experts at waiting in line.

As principal of a junior high several years ago I challenged some of our teachers to have some students carry a stop watch and to chart the time they were engaged in meaningful critical thinking every day for a week.  It required a bit of effort to teach them about Blooms Taxonomy and about what really counted for meaningful cerebral work – but in the end we had a few good takers.  Any guesses on the results?  The percentage of school time engaged in real thinking and processing was flat-out ugly…   Students were spending the great majority of their day doing everything but analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, or creating.  They were well-practiced regurgitators of information and brilliant Charades players.  Better yet, they could stall and kill time like serious experts.  They had mastered exactly what we had arranged for them to practice each and every day…  Oh my is it humbling to look at real, authentic, telling results!!  Soul searching about how we did our business was ahead in our journey, and I’m proud to this day for the deep courage of that team of teachers.  I said then and am happy repeating today –  “I can sleep at night knowing we are asking hard questions and acknowledging our weaknesses while working hard to address them, but I cannot sleep at night pretending those weaknesses don’t exist or refusing to ask the hard questions.  That would be heresy and educational malpractice.  That’s just  how I roll.”


It continues to amaze me that we don’t apply the concepts of good coaching – or conducting/directing in the performing arts – to classroom teaching openly and/or intentionally enough.  It was a no brainer to me, first as a young coach, that increasing each players’ touches on the ball in practice would result in quicker skill improvement overall for my team.  I have spent many hours developing practice drills that created game situations in small groups to ensure that every player was engaged 99% of the time on multiple levels – individual skill level, team work level, establishing collaborative team rhythm…  Yet in the classroom, I was practicing individual worksheet lesson plans and large group direct instruction with most students waiting in line while another student answered my questions.  It hit me, like a brick over the head one day while coaching soccer, that I instinctively blew the whistle for players to freeze and reflect on what just happened and the other options available, yet I never did the same in classroom teaching social studies.  I never blew the whistle in the classroom and we never took time to reflect on our work or look for other options.  I had created a classroom train of assignments and assessments that never paused to force reflection and never offered opportunities for redos, chances for other options, or challenged students to create artistically on their own canvas.  It was a significant moment of conviction that drove me into better teaching and educational leadership.

Copier Line

So how about the stopwatch challenge?  Are you willing to ask the hard questions and set up some risk taking methods for collecting data on what our students are really doing with their time and energy?  If not – how do you defend working with our most precious, valued possession – children – and not asking the hard questions?  I signed up to do this work that I’m passionate about, and I expect to be held accountable on all levels.  The first level is… collecting results in simple ways to see if we are truly engaging our students in learning work.   So what is your exit ticket question tomorrow?


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