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Updated: Nov 6


I have a crush. Okay, it’s a professional learning crush. I’m in love with the work of James Nottingham, the creator of the Learning Pit. I wrote a post about the Learning Pit in 2019 but I strongly encourage you to watch the video below to really get a sense of it.

I use the concept of the Learning Pit with my grad students as well as the teacher leaders and administrators I work with. I’ve also embedded it into many presentations I’ve done across the state.

This fall, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a live session with Nottingham and leaders from my region. I was expecting to learn more about the Learning Pit. In fact, James shared information related to his upcoming book, Teach Brilliantly. To my surprise, his new book is about engagement–which you know is my bread and butter. However, whenever the topic of engagement comes up, I’m both uber-curious about what will be said and, if I’m being honest, a little skeptical. Will this tap into the fact that engagement is hard to spot? Will this dive deeper than compliance? What will be said about how to increase or decrease engagement? You get the idea. This time, it was even more challenging since I have a favorable bias towards Nottingham’s work but I also have a bias to be skeptical about what people talk about when they talk about engagement.


Nottingham began with the question, “What is’ engagement’ and how do we boost it?” He then showed a photo of students in a classroom and asked us to identify the students who were engaged.

I do that too in my presentations! I thought. Ah, this is a trap. You cannot tell by looking whether or not someone is truly engaged.

Nottingham said as much too. Then he encouraged the audience to replace the word “engagement” with “thinking.” In other words, Nottingham said that engagement is when you’re thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about.

For example, when you’re driving, if you’re the driver, you are thinking about how you get from Point A to Point B. When you’re a passenger in the car, you don’t have to (and probably don’t); you’re engaged in something other than navigating the drive. This shows we don’t have to be intellectually engaged to be physically present or to appear to participate. Thus, the goal of learning should be finding ways to maximize opportunities for students to think about the content, processes, and products they are learning or creating. When thinking about engagement, then, we need to change the question from “Who is engaged” to “Who is thinking about what we are learning/studying?”

Explore Student Responses Instead of Evaluating Them

John Hattie’s research found that one of the best approaches to increasing thinking is through questioning. Nottingham shared how traditional questioning follows a pattern of I.R.E., of Initiate, Respond, and Evaluate. That would sound something like the teacher asking, “What is the capital of New York?” and the student would say, “Albany,” and the teacher says, “Yes. Albany is the capital of New York.” If the student said some other city, the teacher would say, “No. That’s not the capital of New York.”

Of these three steps, Nottingham is okay with the first two, but shared that when we change the “E” from evaluate to explore, there is a fifty percent improvement in thinking (engagement). While there is a time and place for evaluation, like on student written work or in one-on-one feedback, questioning should be a time when teachers encourage deeper thinking. That would sound like, “What is the capital of New York?” and the student would say, “Albany,” and the teacher would say, “Why would it be Albany if that is not the most populous city in the state?” This does not tell the student their answer is right or wrong (evaluation), but it does cause the student to do more thinking. Then the teacher might ask the class to turn and talk with each other about the process of determining capital cities, etc.

You Have to Wait for Wait Time

If you’re a teacher, you know about “wait time,” or the time the teacher waits after asking a question. Teachers have been taught that wait time is important because it allows all students to have think time. The Harvard Graduate School of Education writes, “Silence in the classroom can feel uncomfortable for students and instructors alike, but processing information takes time. Waiting for several seconds after asking a question so that students, particularly introverted ones, are able to gather their thoughts before responding is proven to expand participation and improve the quality of student responses” (click here to watch a demo of wait time in action).

Nottingham said teachers need to consider that there are two wait times.

  1. One after you ask the question.

  2. Then another one after the student answers.

I’d never heard that before. Rather than rushing to respond (to evaluate or, hopefully, to explore), the teacher should give time for the students to reflect on what the student who answered said. How long is long enough? At least 2.7 seconds. I dare you to count to three right now. Really. I’ll wait.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

How did that feel? Did it feel like it was an eternity or did it feel like a relatively short period of time? Curious about what the average wait time is if 2.7 or more is what’s recommended. The average wait time in classrooms is 0.9 seconds. So, count to 1.

One Mississippi.

If that feels quick, remember the average wait time isn’t even that long. This concept of a second wait time was really thought-provoking–especially since I’ve been in education for over two decades and never heard anyone suggest there was a second wait time. I think this could be transformational.

In The Pit

As I said, though I was excited to hear what Nottingham had to say, when I realized the topic was about engagement, I was apprehensive about what he might say. What I’m walking away with is that he really got me thinking (engaged me) and so, I’m happy to report my professional learning crush is crushing it!


P.S. I can’t use a title like, “Fangirl” without directing your attention to Rainbow Rowell’s book by the same name. In the book Fangirl, Rowell creates a Harry-Potter-like series where the main character’s name is Simon Snow. The book centers on twin sisters who are Simon Snow Fangirls writing Fan Fiction. As if that isn’t clever enough, Rowell actually wrote a Simon Snow trilogy that you can read with or without ever reading Fangirl. Those books are Carry On, Wayward Son, and Any Way the Wind Blows. It’s just so impressive!

That said, my favorite Rowell book is Eleanor and Park. I have read it more than once and cried at the end every time. Even though they’re young adult fiction, I encourage you to check out any of Rowell’s books!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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