Thinking time

Maximising depth & duration of attention

Hey 👋

Waas up? This week, we’re building on our theme of attention with a dip into thinking time...

Big idea 🍉

What our students attend to (and when) is ultimately what they end up learning about. One way we can orchestrate this is by maximising the proportion of pupils who participate.

But we can go further, by adapting these strategies (and others) to maximise the depth and duration that each student pays to each idea (what Doug Lemov calls 'think ratio').

One way we can achieve this is by stacking high participation techniques. Like getting everyone to write down their thoughts, before discussing with a partner, before sharing via cold call (aka 'think, pair, share').

Another strategy is to build 'thinking time' and 'soft accountability' into such activities. For example, during questioning, we might introduce a (silent) period of time between posing the question and seeking an answer, during which we actively scan the room as if we are looking into their minds 😵‍💫

When we get thinking time right, we catalyse a self-perpetuating social norm effect. Humans are hardwired to share attention (aka attention contagion) and so when our classmates are all seemingly paying lots of attention, we will do so too, and in turn they will do so more, and so on...

In general, the more thinking time we provide, the more developed students responses will be. "Quelle surprise Peps!" I hear you say... HOWEVER, expert-induced blindness (which makes it hard for us to empathise with those who don't know what we know) coupled with the potentially discomforting feeling of silence, means that some teachers can end up giving students less thinking time than they need.

We can overcome this bias by telling students how many seconds they will get and then holding ourselves to account by silently tapping out each second on our leg (1 banana, 2 banana...).

Now, how much thinking time is optimal? Well, it depends on (A) the activity (B) the complexity of the question, and (C) the prior knowledge of the group.

For a cold call on something that everyone is confident about, a few seconds can suffice. For more complex questions we might offer 20 seconds or more. Just be careful not to go to far. Overtly long stretches can become threatening... which can end up being a big emotional distraction.

🎓 For more, check out this paper on effective questioning in class.


  • Orchestrating attention is partly about maximising the depth and duration of student thinking.

  • Expert-induced blindness and aversion to silence means we sometimes give students too little thinking time.

  • The optimal amount depends on context and so requires professional judgement in the moment.

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Peps 👊