When the Road Forks, Allow the Students to Choose the Path

In high school, my friends and I made a game of asking just the right questions to cause our teachers to veer off track and digress into a rant on his or her favorite topic.  For my ninth grade history teacher, this was all too easy.  She was a young teacher right out of college, ready to take on the world.  She had tons of enthusiasm and energy.  She was passionate about US History and wasn’t afraid to show it.  She was a bit of a leftist when it came to politics and women’s rights.  So, to steer her into no man’s land, all we had to do was bring up the president or some current event about woman.  It was great.  She would get on her soapbox and away we went on a grand journey of discussion and philosophy.  Meanwhile, the curriculum or content she had intended to cover on that particular day fell to the wayside, which meant tomorrow’s big test was inevitably postponed.  Mission accomplished!  However, those off-topic discussions were generally some of my favorite class moments because we were talking about the history that mattered to us back then, the present.

Much like my ninth grade history teacher, there are certain topics or questions that will take me on amazing journeys in the classroom, and my students know this.  They love getting me fired up about current events or very cool science topics.  Now, as a teacher, I have two options when this happens:

  1. Redirect the discussion back on topic.
  2. Let the students’ questions drive the conversation where it will.

Now, option one is only possible if I am able to be aware of what is happening.  Sometimes, my students use stratagems or subterfuge to get me off track, and in those moments, I am not able to realize what is happening until I’m already lost in the conversation.  If option one is possible, I’m able to keep the class focused and on topic, which means that we’re able to cover the curriculum I had intended to cover.  As I informally and formatively assess the students on the skills and content covered throughout each unit, there is no danger in getting behind as I am not teaching to a test or a deadline.  Sure, I have a timeline for each unit, but it is very fluid and can easily be altered.  Flexibility exists.  Therefore, option one only makes things easier as I have tested the waters and know exactly how to navigate from point A to point B.

Option two means that I am headed into unchartered waters and who knows what lurks beneath the surface.  I’m never quite sure what questions the students will ask or where the conversation will go.  Things can get sticky.  I’ve had off-track conversations go awry quickly over the years.  The not knowing is what makes it challenging for me.  On the flip side, option two allows for student engagement and interest.  We’re able to discuss new ideas or dig into the content more deeply when we veer off course.  These new conversations and discussions usually generate some great teachable moments or unique experiences for the students.  That, I like.  It’s just the uncertainty that scares me a bit.  As a teacher, I prefer option one, but will not shy away when option two presents itself.  I usually assess the time, energy level of the students, and timeframe of the unit.  Can we spend this time talking about off-topic ideas or questions or do we need to stay the course?  I am generally very flexible.

Today in STEM class, we discussed geology and the layers of Earth.  I introduced the major layers of Earth and we talked about the composition of each layer.  The boys seemed engaged.  Then, as I was about to switch gears and model how to highlight and take margin notes on a geology packet, the students started asking questions about the possibility of digging into the mantle and core.  How far into Earth have scientists been able to dig?  What would happen if we reached the mantle?  This prompted me to introduce the concept of geothermal heating and so I explained how this process works with a model I drew on the board.  The students then asked even more questions.  What would happen if we drill lots of holes into Earth’s crust? Would that change Earth’s temperature or affect climate change in anyway?  Wow, I thought, they sure are asking great questions.  As I noticed that we were slowly drifting into unmapped territory, I needed to make a decision:  Stop and redirect the class back on track or continue discussing the questions the students are asking?  It felt right to go off track, but I also wanted to make sure the students felt comfortable in completing the homework.  I wanted to be sure they knew how to effectively highlight an academic text and then record margin notes on the big ideas learned.  Rather than make the decision myself, I empowered the students.

I asked them, “We could continue this amazing discussion about Earth and its various layers or we could move on and get into highlighting and margin notes.  I do worry that if we don’t move on, we might not have enough time to appropriately discuss how to highlight a text and record margin notes.”  So, I put it to a vote.  I asked them what they preferred.  It was of course no surprise when they voted to continue the discussion.  This choice lead us down some strange roads.  What would happen if we isolated the inner core and removed the pressure from the other layers?  Would it still be a solid or would it melt and float around like a space rock?  If we were able to dig into the mantle or core, how would that affect Earth?  Now, I didn’t pretend to know all of the answers and usually addressed their question with another question, but the boys seemed very intrigued.  They all seemed focused and engaged.  After the questions started to dwindle, I did redirect the class and we were able to get back on track.  While the students didn’t have a ton of time to begin the homework in class, I did feel as though they all understood how to highlight the main ideas and record margin notes.

Today’s off-topic conversation seemed beneficial and didn’t lead us astray too much.  It did, in fact, help get the students super excited about our new geology unit.  That was a real plus.  So, instead of choosing to go off topic or not today, I passed the baton over to the students and allowed them to make the choice.  Did it matter?  Probably not, but at least I allowed them to voice their opinions and take ownership of their learning.  Things seemed to go much smoother with this off-topic discussion, and perhaps that was due in part to the fact that the students felt as though they were in control.  So, as difficult as it is sometimes to allow the students to run the show in the classroom, it may be one of the pieces of my teaching that has allowed me to become a more engaging and effective teacher.  Providing students with choices gives them ownership and responsibility for their learning and growth.


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