Chasing Student-Initiated Tangents

Have you ever been asked a question that, as you tried to answer it, reorganized the inside of your brain?  It’s sort of the same feeling as trying a new sport and being sore in muscles you didn’t know you had.  Mildly uncomfortable, but filled with new possibilities and followed by rapid growth.  Grace, author of the blog Educating Grace, is a pro at asking these questions, and this is a slow-cooked response to one of them.

A while back, I wrote about students approaching me because they were frustrated when their classmates “wasted time” by contributing comments or asking questions in class.  They said that the interruptions made it hard to follow the lesson.  This happened 4 times over the past year.  How could it be wrong to spend class time on relevant topics that students proposed?

My reaction was a mixture of disappointment and alarm.  I was disappointed that the students didn’t see the value of each others’ experiences, that they saw me as the only person authorized to introduce new ideas.  I was alarmed that they didn’t realize that the comments were very much on topic.  After all, I reassured myself, I wouldn’t pursue them if they weren’t on topic.  I still think that these spontaneous contributions from the class are valuable — even necessary for effective learning.  So I’m not asking myself if I should encourage them.  But I am asking myself how I should encourage them, because of a comment Grace made on that post.  She discussed a number of points about student frustration, and ended with this question:

Are there certain guidelines you follow when you make a decision about whether to move on or keep a discussion going?

I realized that I wasn’t always aware that I was making that decision, let alone on what basis.  I spent the next couple of weeks paying attending to when, how, and why I pursued topics that the students brought up, and writing them down each day.  I didn’t record how I pursued it or for how long, so this includes everything from acknowledging the comment, to giving a yes/no answer, to replying in a couple of sentences, to opening to floor for the class to discuss, to pausing the lesson for story-telling.  But after two weeks some patterns emerged.  I often pursued if…

  • they compared the day’s topic to another topic
  • they compared the day’s topic to electronic work they had done outside of school
  • they related to the day’s topic in a funny and/or imaginative way (you have to know the concepts pretty darn well to make puns about them that are actually funny)
  • they asked “what if”
  • they predicted the relationship of old material to new material
  • it allowed me to share my work experience with my students
  • it allowed me to pass on “folklore” of the trade
  • it was a useful opportunity to let them see me beyond my “teacher” role
  • it was a topic that captivated my imagination
  • it was a topic that I thought would captivate my students’ imaginations (how relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. relate to the day’s lesson)
  • it was a topic that I wished was in the curriculum
  • the question made me realize that the intro to the chapter was incomprehensible to my students, and they had no idea why we were studying what we were.  That caused me to beat a hasty retreat to give them some “why”… which must have seemed like I ran off the trail of the textbook’s narrative and started hacking through the underbrush.

The problem with these reasons for responding isn’t that they’re wrong.  It’s that they were sometimes wrong for meeting our goals.

It was frustrating to realize that even thrilling triumphs of student engagement (students deducing the possibility of memristance and demanding to know more about its relationship to RLC circuits) can hide errors of teacher judgment about curriculum organization and classroom management (letting them talk about it too long, letting its connection to the day’s topic become ambiguous, etc.).

This inquiry spun off like dandelion fluff into everything I did.  First, I had the sinking realization that I taught as though I was mentoring work-term students or training apprentices. Techniques that work well for the one-on-one relationship of on-the-job training may be good, indifferent, or terrible in a classroom.  Second, I got really single-minded about what the goals were.  There’s no way I could have made sensible decisions about pursuing these tangents last year, even if I had realized I was making them, because I wasn’t clear enough about what the goals were.  I still saw the curriculum as some kind of imperialist imposition that it was my job to help the students wiggle out from under.  Problem: I have huge latitude to define the curriculum.  The only emperor for miles was me.  If I really thought that the students should learn  Class D amps, why was I tucking them into the middle of a lesson on regulators, the way I used to hide sci-fi novels behind my junior-high textbooks? Luckily, I had already dug myself into redefining my assessment plan, which forced me to confront my fuzzy ideas about exactly what the students were supposed to learn.

Dan Meyer has a helpful piece about “goofy conceptual digressions,” suggesting a ratio of skill practise to digression of about 10:1.  He also proposes that if the goal is “[building] critical thought processes that will also be useful for skill acquisition,” then it helps if digressions are short and specific.

Beyond that, making this list made me uncomfortably aware how self-indulgent some of the items were.  The students who complained were right, in a way.  I was disrupting the flow of ideas.  That made it harder for struggling students to follow the chain of cause and effect.  It also made them anxious about having enough time in the lesson to digest the material, or enough time in the semester to thoroughly learn the material.  I knew there was enough time; I wasn’t worried.  They didn’t know though.

Grace had originally asked me to make suggestions I could pass on to other teachers.  This was a great goal for helping me organize my thinking, even though I am nowhere near meeting it.  What I can propose are some questions:

  1. The first goal is not changing; the first goal is noticing.  When do I pursue tangents? Why? Write them down.
  2. When I stopped finding new reasons and started repeated ones that were already on the list, it was time to check: are these the things I want to emphasize?
  3. I started out asking “how does this support my learning goals.”  Later I realized that I also needed to ask “which learning goals does this support?”
  4. Then I asked, what’s the best way to support those learning goals?  If the best way was what I was already doing, then great.  Otherwise…
  5. Make a plan for getting from #3 to #4. Try to stay in the habit of noticing.  Keep updating the list, maybe in a draft blog post.  A few months later, tie a ribbon around it and send it out into the world.

I haven’t had one of those “tangent” complaints this past semester.  I suspect it’s because

  • The new assessment plan makes the goals equally clear to me and my students.  At the beginning of class, I write them on the board, and check them off as we go.  The students have their own copy of the list.  Whatever we’re doing, it’s clear which one of those skills it relates to.  It’s also easier for the students to see that, yes, we will have time to finish.
  • The new assessment plan also opens up some new ways of acknowledging tangents.  My favourite one is, “great question.  How could you find out?  That sounds like an excellent Level 5 question.”
  • I notice tangents when they happen, now.  So if I’m going to pursue one, I begin by explaining which of our target skills it will help with.  This seems to reassure the more anxious students.
  • I notice which kind of response I use.  If a student with a strong physics background infers a relationship that will be baffling to everyone else, I can just nod and smile.  Or I can say “you’ll find lots more about that in Chapter 12 — why don’t you read ahead and propose a Level 5 question?”  Or, if I think it will benefit the class, I can call on that student’s expertise and have them lead into a class discussion of some new links.  But I’m starting to make those choices on purpose, not accidentally.
  • I’ve reorganized my use of the textbook.  Another reason I chased tangents in the past was that the textbook’s lack of cohesive narrative made me nuts.  The book obscured the relative importance of topics as well as the relationships between them. Post-mortems on my students’ confusion helped me learn that the introduction to each chapter made perfect sense — but only after you understood the chapter’s material.  I got to thinking about how the topics scaffold each other (see also Grace’s post about figuring out which questions to ask about this).  That helped me pull the textbook apart and put it back together in a different order. Those digressions are still happening; it’s just that now they’re not digressions anymore, they’re introductory conversations that lead directly into tomorrow’s lesson.  Or, they’re clues to me about which unit I should teach next.

And, more importantly:

The students are busy working for more of their class time.  If they have questions, they ask each other.  Then they can decide whether those questions are what they most need to deal with in our hour together — and I can drop by their table to contribute.  Or not.  I talk less in class, so there’s less of me to interrupt.

Next steps:

Brian of Teach. Brian. Teach wrote another post that reorganized the inside of my head, about choosing how we respond to students.  In the comments, Jerrid Kruse mentions SATIC coding — a systematic way of keeping track of how we start and respond to student discussions.  I’m thinking of trying it — here’s an explanation and an example.


  1. You’ll make it – because you are analyzing how you are presenting information – not “what is wrong with these students – they aren’t performing up to level” – it’s the difference between an “educator” and a “teacher”. Having clear objectives or goals for each lesson right in front of everyone helps.
    Your students who wanted fewer interrupting questions may be thinking of other classes where kids just ask questions to get teacher off track…to avoid work…and the serious students worry they won’t get the info they need ( I think you saw this in your kids)

    Your new strategy on dealing with questions looks good – you can always have them write on a board or large sheet of paper …then take them up at a later – more appropriate time ( the kid still sees it is a valid question and you validate his bringing it up…kids need to be encouraged to think and question)
    Good job!

    • Thanks, I almost forgot about the “parking lot” approach (where questions get “parked” until we have time to review). I usually have a short note on something I want to improve stapled to the inside of my lesson plan folder — this month it will be a list of possible responses to questions…

  2. yeah the “Parking lot” term is very popular – we used it a lot when training elm teachers…funny how many time researchers have to keep coming up with “new” terms…because some teachers forget strategies or won’t try strategies that have worked very well in the past unless the teachers think it is something brand “new” in just “discovered”. Oh, well, as long as the kids get what they need. There are lots of ways / methods to analyze teacher behavior in the classroom and their use of strategies / class management ( data people love them because it reduces everything to numbers – which is very interesting) You doing great – the notes on the lesson plan folders are important – you may find old lesson plans that you have documented results (good and bad), and put notations for questions / possible supplemental materials, and time needed to cover lesson very valuable in future – lesson journals are important…you may never use the exact lesson again as kids’ needs change each year…but these old ones are great resources, and a springboard. Hang in there!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s