The Tangent

Ellen Guiney convened a group a few years back. It was called Boston Schoolchildrens Consortium. She got the heads of Boston Public Schools, the Catholic Schools, independent schools, pilot schools, a couple charter reps, etc. We talked and got to know each other. We visited a few schools together. One was very successful Jesuit high school. Most kids were from well-off families, though there were many scholarship kids, too. I remember an English lesson. A couple of my colleagues loved it. The kids were so engaged. Kept peppering Teacher with questions. Excitement.

But I thought Teacher was pinned. All the questions were tangents. The first couple were authentic. But tangents begat tangents. By middle of class, the kids were running a four-corner offense, stalling via questions designed to keep the teacher from moving through the topic at hand.

Caleb Dolan explores this topic on his blog.

In many of my lessons plunging down the rabbit hole sounded something like this:

Me: Now that you have seen these examples what’s the difference between erosion and weathering?

Student A: Weathering is when rocks and objects are broken down and erosion is when they get carried away.

Me: That’s close but we need a few more pieces in that explanation.

Student B waves both hands in the air full of excitement drawing the teacher in like the Death Star.

Student B: I was watching the Weather Channel and they said there’s more extreme weather now. What’s that?

Me: Naturally excited by the genuine curiosity about content dives in. Two-three minutes later after an impassioned, entirely verbal explanation of the difference between hurricanes, typhoons, and tsunamis as well as global warming and the politicization of the climate debate I realize that this may be off topic and that momentum is spilling out of the lesson like flour from a ripped bag.

I close with the most cursory and useless checks for understanding.

Caleb advises that often the right choice is to Just Say No. But how? He gives some ideas. One is:

Develop systems that allow you or the kids to follow up on their curious and tangential questions. Lots of science teachers have questions jars for the slew of gloriously questions kids ask in almost any science class. The jar is the easy part; the hard part is knowing what to do with the jar. Our high school bio teacher instead has kids put these questions on post its on a classroom window where he can respond. This celebrates curiosity and allows lessons to stay on track. I would love to hear about other successful systems for this.

Any other ideas?

Read the whole thing here.