Raise your hand if you’ve ever had something like this happen to you, as a learner.
It’s my freshman year in college. I don’t remember if it was 1st or 2nd semester, but I DO remember that it was 7:30 in the morning, Monday, Wednesday, Friday! [Seriously, who was in charge of that decision: A mandatory, first-year class that early! Clearly, the college was trying to weed out the non-morning-people… with a vengeance.] It was intro to something or other, and I had to take the class as a prerequisite for future necessary courses. So, I’m stuck in this pedagogical prison with what seems to be a brilliant professor who is trying as much as he can to wake us all up with exciting anecdotes.
The thing is, there is this one rose among us weedy, thorny freshman who has grown beyond the bramble to sing in the early morning sunlight. This student probably already had a higher education, or at the very least was well-read on the topic. I don’t know. I never conversed directly with the guy. He would raise his hand, and the rest of us would lay down our pencils and pens. The lecture was over, as far as the rest of us were concerned. This star student would ask the professor a question. I never even understood the inquiry, let alone the lengthy response the professor clearly loved providing, complete with gigantic vocabulary that drifted like cirrus above our cerebral sleepiness.
I don’t know how I passed that class. What was I supposed to do in the moment the lecture unexpectedly derailed to plow through the wilderness? Should this naive novice to higher education raise his hand and suggest the conversation steer back toward the original topic, where the rest of us are still stuck in mental mud? …And, while you’re at it, can you use verbiage the rest of us pion-pupils can understand? Should I have left the lecture hall, to go back to the cocoon that was calling me: my bed? It WAS 7:30AM!!! Or, perhaps I should ignore the nonsense (that’s what it was to me), and read the enormous, expensive textbook that I drug around with me, but hadn’t cracked?
That really happened to me. Another thing that happened was my very own participation in derailment, back in highschool. I remember glorying in getting teachers off topic to discuss some random recent event. The class was happy to rest note-taking hands and enjoy some cognitive freetime.
And, lastly, as a teacher, I have found it fun to discuss something off the cuff that a kid brought up, assuming that he or she was invested in this divergent topic. I’ve thought that the spontaneity of switching gears to something that mattered, personally, to my students would be engaging. It very well could be, for that one student. But, what about the rest!?
I’m preparing a collaborative blog post with Mountain Buddha, author of “The Write Inspiration” on the topic of controversy. I was reading an article about using political controversy (oh my!) in a Social Studies classroom, when I came across an idea that stopped me dead in my tracks.
It may seem classy and fun to allow a spontaneously surfacing idea to infiltrate a lesson, but this can isolate, marginalize, disengage, and feed in to a powergame.
One of my favorite books is “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene (2000). Law number 30 (page 245) states “Make Your Accomplishments Seem Effortless”. When a professor or teacher spontaneously expounds on an idea that wasn’t previously advertised, he or she is showing off his or her power. Unbeknownst to the pupils, the teacher has done loads of research, reading, and thinking on the topic. He is older than they and has had some life-experiences that have added to his breadth of knowledge, as well. It may seem like he is speaking off the cuff, but there is a muscular arm of mental muscle under that sleeve. By not explaining how much he prepared for this seemingly surprise question, students are left in awe of his god-like knowledge.
The goal of a classy teacher should be to empower or “put power into” students.
What would be classier to do, when a student brings up a topic that lies outside the given lesson, is encourage the thoughtfulness by affirming the question; “What a great question. I love how much you are clearly thinking about this topic.”
You could further support her participation in discussion with, “It’s great for you to ask a question that could really further our thinking.”
And, rather than hording the power, share the keys to it by telling the class, “I have read and thought a lot about that, and would be ecstatic to share the information with you. Let’s do that early next week. Why don’t you talk to your parents and peers, and think up some questions that you might have. If you want to really participate, you might want to see if you can find something to read about the topic. Sound like a plan?”
In this way, the classy teacher will pull all of his pupils into the pedagogy, rather than marginalizing most and exclusively speaking to only one or two who share interest and/or experience/knowledge on the spontaneous subject. If there are students who choose to ignore the challenge of preparing for the future discussion, they are electing to disengage from learning. They are rejecting the power of meaningful discussion. For those who are interested, they can fill their coffers with copious particulars for engaging classroom participation.
This could very well be a controversial subject. I always enjoyed spontaneity in my teaching. I will likely need to work at this classy practice of empowerment. Do you already do this? Do you disagree with my thoughts? Can you suggest an alternative way of handling the questioning student, tempting off-topic discussion? Please share your thoughts.
Greene, R., & Elffers, J. (2000). The 48 laws of power.
Richardson, J. (2017). Using controversy as a teaching tool: An interview with Diana Hess. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(4), 15-20. Retrieved November, 2017, from https://www.kappanonline.org/richardson-using-controversy-as-a-teaching-tool-an-interview-with-diana-hess/.
5 thoughts on “A Powerplay of Spontaneity; Is It Classy?”
One way that I like to handle this in my room is to sit in a student desk with the expectation that I am another student, there to enjoy and soak up the discussion. I do a lot of role replacement in my room. I enjoy taking the role of student. If there is no or little conversation regarding the suggested derailment, I usually will end the discussion and take it up individually with the interested students. Buy I like what you suggest here in terms of tabling the idea to allow for research and a follow-up discussion at a later date. Thanks, Matt! D.
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I love role reversal and empathy practice! When I read about you sitting alongside your students in an adjacent desk I thought of social gatherings. When we go to parties, all kinds of topics come up. We are not always prepared with tons of information, and I probably don’t need to write that only a weirdo would excuse himself to go google something on the subject, so that he could intelligently add to the conversation. You just do your best to add what you can, listen, ask good questions, and wait until it is your turn to bring up a topic that you know more about. Sitting down with your students to join them in conversing about a spontaneous topic is like being at a party.
While this could be a very valuable lesson in and of itself, and depending on the topic and how many kids know something about it, there could be some quality discussion, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to write the topic on the board, along with a proposed date for discussion. Probably a mix would be good. I always felt like if I didn’t address the student’s questions at the moment that they asked them, learning would be lost! Now, I know that there are alternatives.
It won’t let me like your reply…but I like it! D.
Matt I too had an 8:00 am class (Calculus) my first year in college. Getting to class was a struggle, especially late in the semester after I had discovered how much fun you could have in college. The professor was amazing and I learned a tremendous amount from him. While no one derailed him, he actually derailed himself with tangents related to the math. His class was difficult and he curved every test so only three people could earn an A. Because of this he would offer extra credit for students to investigate or write a paper on the tangents he brought up. His tangents provided an interesting respite from the density of Calculus and offered students an opportunity to investigate and further learning. It also led me to see how mathematics is woven into literature and pop culture in ways most people miss. He introduced me Hermann Hesse and Ivan Turgenev and, when I submitted an extra credit paper, critiqued and complimented as if he were an English professor. He left a profound influence on me as I became a teacher. Tangents can be more than a diversion or squirrel to chase after. Tangents can be a doorway to exploration and connection, especially when the tangent excites a student. I didn’t chase after all the tangents he engaged in. Some were of no interest to me. The ones that were though added to my education, my journey, and my appreciation for the academic content I was exploring. Keep writing and sharing. I enjoy your imagery and verve.
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I am truly glad that you mentioned this calculus professor, because the way that I wrote my blog made it seem like everyone who went off topic at all was some power-hungry psycho who was manipulating students into thinking that he knew every answer and was innately a million times smarter than they. Obviously, that is not the case! Your fond memories of this lovely scholar are proof that there is more to teaching than perfectly planned lessons. I imagine (especially in a subject like calculus) lessons with serious cerebral toil would require brain breaks. It seems like your example professor mastered keeping everyone attentive, even while taking a load off, with his stories. I had a professor whose entire lecture time was filled with nothing more than stories about how he used the topic in the field. The actual learning was up to us, by reading the textbook on our own. We loved his practical advice.
As I thought about the subject of spontaneous discussions throughout the week I did serious introspection. Were my off-topic talks “low quality”? I don’t believe that they were harmful to my students. My reflections, though, came to the idea that a high-quality teacher would plan for or at the very least be prepared to handle disruptions, so that the class would receive the best experience possible. I’m always thinking about “empowerment”; putting power into the hands of the students; and this was no exception. When a teacher postpones a discussion about capital punishment for a future lecture so that students could think about and research the topic a little, pupils are given the power to participate. If they didn’t have that opportunity, the most power they would be equipped with is asking good questions.
Before this self reflection I thought that spontaneous discussions were gems waiting to be uncovered. I welcomed students bringing up ideas that were related to the topic of the lesson. Now, I am equipped with the knowledge that there could be a better way of handling this conundrum.