Time to think

It’s the start of 2021 and I bring with me this lesson about being an educator: The job is, with care, to create moments for people to think.

I’ve contemplated this lesson for several years teaching graduate students. The professionals who come to our masters degree program bring significant work experience, and most are working full-time jobs while studying. The degree offers a special kind of space for those fortunate enough to afford it. It is a space, distinct in comparison to the workplace, where learning nudges out performance as the overriding expectation. Where becoming generally powers the day.

People make an enormous investment to engage in that special space. To think. Explore. Become.

But these past few months I was struck by – in a very literal, moment-in-time sense – how creating time to think became a much more vital design element of the course experience.

That means, during a virtual class session, saying: Take 10 minutes by yourself to just think about what we’ve been reading or discussing.

It means establishing a norm for online discussions based on thinking-out-loud with peer students (and instructors), rather than answering a question.

It means facilitating group projects by intentionally weaving time together, time alone, and prompts to encourage reflective practice.

Is this just a blinding glimpse of the obvious?

Maybe. This lack of time-to-think is certainly obvious to students. But it only becomes obvious to me by engaging in the practice of asking for, and listening to, the stories students tell about their lives as graduate students. It’s a practice I’ve written about before (see, for example, Learning moments are precious).

Tell me about when you had an aha moment, last week.

Tell me about engaging in last week’s online discussion. What did you do?

What we hear now are not the stories of some imaginary, universal student, who carefully maps out assignments due each week, finds a quiet space to read the readings we assign, and writes her thoughts while sipping a cup of tea.

What we hear is the pandemic-created chaos of imploded time and space. Work, sleep, meals, partners, children, pets, friends – all now collapsed together into a single room, one door, one window, in a daily repeat of time which honors no boundaries between all that pulls at us.

This is different than what we’ve heard in stories told in the past. In the before times, people were busy. Very busy. Finding time to think was a challenge. But there were snippets of time and space available in the more expansive version of our lives. Time alone at a coffee shop, on a plane or in a hotel room on a business trip. A space at home that was not also doing duty as an office, or a K-12 classroom, or both. A campus classroom where you talk together at high-bandwidth, live, with your peers.

But now, I have heard from more than one student about how much they appreciate that we carve out a little time for them to step away from their current norm. “This is the one time I actually had time by myself, to just think.”

At the beginning of this post, I wrote the lesson I continue to learn as: The job is, with care, to create moments for people to think. That was intentional. This is more than just a way to be productive in our effort to teach; this is about leading with care. Time to think is precious.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash