Parachute training for teachers

Parachute jumper descending on cloudy day
Photo taken from by hora varian, used under a CC Attribution licence,

Have you ever learnt to sky-dive?

If you have, you may recall receiving this instruction…

“Immediately after you pull the rip cord, shout out at the top of your lungs ONE THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND – CHECK!!!!

When you shout CHECK!, tilt your head back and look above your head.

If you see your parachute canopy opening, relax and enjoy the ride.

If you don’t, reach for your reserve rip cord and pull it.


If you see your parachute canopy opening, relax and enjoy the ride.

If you don’t, relax anyway, because it will all be over before you know it.”

Macabre as the punchline is, there is actually a great deal of sense in this short lesson – both for novice sky-divers and for teachers of all levels of experience.

Observe the impact of your actions

When you pull your ripcord in free-fall, you are making a choice to influence your environment. You are attempting to arrest movement, and to focus concentration under your canopy. If all goes well, your intervention (the pulling of the ripcord) leads to the desired outcome (the opening canopy and the slowing of groundward progress).

If it doesn’t go well, you need to take contingency action.

But if you take this action too soon, you get yourself into trouble.

We will get to that in a minute.

One thousand, two thousand, three thousand – check!

But what happens if you follow your instructor’s advice?

A few things, actually. First of all, you have something to focus on – counting. Forcing yourself to count gives you something to focus on and this helps calm your nerves. Secondly, waiting this time and then taking a good, long look up allows your eyes to check if your canopy is opening. which is self-evidently good.

But why wait three seconds?

The third thing is by counting you are deliberately and consciously postponing the action which could, if taken too hastily, lead to the unpleasant scenario I will describe in a moment.

By forcing a time-lag into the proceedings, you are allowing your parachute mechanism to unfold in its own time.

I’ll repeat that, as it is important: in its own time.

You cannot rush a parachute in its response time. And it always feels like it takes more time than is necessary or than you are comfortable with, but in the end: it takes the time it takes.

And this time is generally about three seconds.

Imagine what happens when you pull the rip cord, look up instantly and see nothing, no reaction. In a nanosecond you are flooded with adrenalin and panic, and your hand is pulling for the reserve ripcord before you know what you are doing.

You pull your reserve. In the same moment, a second or two after pulling the first ripcord, you see your main chute opening. Then, you see your reserve opening behind it. The two silk canopies, the guylines, begin entwining in your jetstream…

It takes you, even under adrenalin rush, about three seconds to count out ONE THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND – CHECK!!!

If your parachute isn’t opening by then, it is unlikely to open at all, and then it is worth pulling the reserve cord because at that point you can be sure that nothing is going to change no matter how long you wait from then on.

If you follow the same procedure with the reserve cord as you did with the main rip cord, you have a further three seconds to allow nature to take its course.

If, after three seconds, you look up, draw a mighty breath, and see your reserve chute opening overhead, you can relax and enjoy the ride.


Photo taken from by robertpaulyoung, used under a CC Attribution licence,

OK, but where is the connection to the classroom?

A common feature of classrooms is questions. Teachers ask students questions a lot.

Sometimes, these questions are genuine (“really, Marcos, you’ve worked as a bodyguard?! I didn’t know that – who did you protect?”); at other times these questions are there to elicit a response which we are already anticipating (sometimes called display questions.)

Typically, these are either Elicitation Questions, (EQs), Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) or Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs).

We might use elicitation questions to get students to produce a particular lexical or grammatical target item that we expect them to know – if you recall the opening lyrics to the 70s cop show Shaft, you will see an unexpected but effective example of what I mean…

Isaac Hayes: Who’s the private dick who’s a sex machine for all the chicks?

Backing singers: Shaft?

Isaac Hayes: Damn right.

– Lyric taken from “Theme From Shaft”, by Isaac Hayes, Stax recordings, 1971 –

Incidentally, this is also a classic example of Initiation – Response – Feedback (IRF) discourse in classrooms, but let’s save that for another post…

We might use concept-checking questions to see if students have grasped the rule of form or use for a particular example of presented language. Examples for the structure used to as in Bill used to smoke could be:

Does Bill smoke now Expected answer: no
Did Bill smoke in the past? Expected answer: yes
Did Bill smoke one time or more than one time in the past? Expected answer: more than one time

We might use instruction checking questions to assure ourselves that our students have understood what exactly we have just asked them to do. Examples might be:

How much time do you have? To check students have understood a time limit
Who do you work with? To check students have understood who their working partner is
If the sentence is not correct, what do you do with it? To check students understood the workflow for a task
Do you need all the words to finish the answer? To check students have understood the details of a task


When we ask questions in the classroom, we are making a choice to influence our environment. We are attempting to arrest activity, and to focus concentration on the point of our question. If all goes well, our intervention (the question) leads to the desired outcome (a desired response from the students).

If it doesn’t go well, we need to take contingency action.

But if we take this action too soon, we get ourselves into trouble.

We have all been there.

Take your time to answer…

When we teachers ask these questions, there is a process that must unfold within the student. Simply put, our students need to:

  1. hear the question
  2. process the question grammatically and lexically
  3. interpret the question
  4. conceive a response
  5. frame that response in the target language
  6. (optional) monitor that response for grammatical and lexical accuracy
  7. engage their organs of speech (lungs, larynx, tongue, lips etc) to produce a soundwave which phonologically accurately encodes their response
  8. send the response message
  9. (optional) monitor their message production in real-time for accuracy and adjust as deemed necessary – doing this entails diverting some cognitive effort to monitoring the response of the listener, for which there may ironically be an opportunity to pay in terms of fluency and/or accuracy

Like a parachute, this unfolding of the response process, even to a simple question, takes time.

How much time?

In my experience, curiously enough, it seems to take about three seconds.

As easy as 1-2-3…

If we teachers wait about three seconds after asking a question, we allow our students to work through this process, which greatly increases our chances of getting an answer from them. By counting slowly to three (silently – not screaming it at the top of our lungs!), we give ourselves something to focus on instead of the sense of panic that some of us feel whenever silence enters a classroom.

In this silence, the learners can process the question and form their response, while the teacher can survey the faces of the students and look for signs that a response might be coming.

Where there is a student whose body language suggests that they are coming to an answer but need some encouragement, we can offer this with a smile, or a gesture to draw them out.

In cases where there is nothing but blank faces when internally screaming CHECK!!! after three seconds, it’s time to reach for the reserve rip cord.

In a classroom, this could be one of several things: a re-phrasing of the question (in the case of a concept-checking question); providing the information required and checking again (in the case of an Elicitation Question); a demonstration or perhaps a wholedsale re-instruction (in the case of an Instruction-Checking Question).

After any of these metaphorical ripcords have been pulled, it’s time to start counting to three again.

If you start to hear answers by the time you count three, then you can relax and enjoy the ride.

If you don’t – well…

Look on the bright side: it may be a bumpy classroom landing for you, but a good lesson is one that you can still walk away from!


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