Should we allow students to stop to explore digressions? Or must we march ahead?

Of my favorite ways to spend my free time is walking my dog.  It’s fantastic exercise, wonderful bonding time with my sweet dog, and a great way to enjoy some of our consistently beautiful weather in California.  I have my preferred route, and like to get through my walk in the amount of time in my day that I’ve set aside for our adventure.  I think my dog also enjoys our quality time, but his mission is clearly different than mine.  As soon as we get outside, he goes into sniff-patrol mode and wants to stop every five feet to explore a new enticing scent, which inevitably leads to the nearest tree (my husband says that our dog is checking his “doggy social media” during walks).  As I know that our walks and visits to nearby friend’s yards are the only outdoor time for our apartment-dwelling pooch, I want to let him have the freedom to sniff to his heart’s content, but I also know that I if I did, our walks would be interminable, and I’d never get him home, our required destination.

One day recently, when my dog was being particularly persistent about lingering to sniff a patch of grass, I realized that my situation with my dog is an apt analogy for the give and take between and teacher and her students on the journey of learning.  The teacher has her objective along the path: she wants her students to get to the endpoint of the learning target, to get them “home” so to speak.  The students, however, similar to my dog, are enjoying the journey, and along the way, their curiosity is piqued by the sights and wonders they encounter.  They are rapt, caught in the moment, wanting to linger in whatever captures their fancy at that particular moment.  This is like a when a student, inspired by the lesson, asks a question that is tangential to the topic, but not entirely relevant to the learning objective.  The teacher doesn’t want to quash the student’s curiosity, but, at the same time, realizes that entertaining a digression might drive the lesson off course.  What is a teacher to do?

The answer to this conundrum is not a simple one.  Enjoying the journey is crucial to student learning, but getting students to achieve a learning objective is equally vital.  Striking this balance is a skill honed over time with practice.  I will share my best practice from my own work: I create a curiosity board.  When a student comes up with a fascinating tangential inquiry while we are working through a class lesson, I have them write it on an index card and put it up on the curiosity board.  Then I continue the lesson and getting the student to the desired learning outcome.  If there is time remaining, I go back to the curiosity board to explore their inquiry.  That student, or others equally interested in their query, can also do independent research on that question if we do not get a chance to discuss it collectively if they finish other work early.  This practice enables me to achieve my mission of getting my students to the point of learning that I have mapped out in my curriculum and balances it with my students’ need for discovery.

So encourage your students to wonder and to enjoy learning with you, but also remember to march forward and get your class “home.”
What are your best practices for when students want to deviate from the topic at hand?  Share in the comments.


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