I totally screwed up last week. We were studying the basic differences between judicial activism and judicial restraint. We had just finished up making the point that a judicial restraint oriented court is typically more conservative in that it is less likely to overturn precedent and more likely to see the law as static. A student disrupts the chain of thinking with this question…
“In Citizens United the Court overturned precedent, but wasn’t that a more conservative ruling?”
I thought to myself—Oh no. If we address this question, we’ll soon be into a thicket trying to figure out the precise meaning of restraint/activism which, as the student points out, is very nebulous and full of exceptions. Pursue this question now and I would pretty much have to dump my lesson.
So I froze, stuttered a bit and responded, “You know, that’s a really good question. Let’s sit with that for a while and revisit it later… “
We moved on and never addressed it.
My experience is playing out everyday, in every classroom, numerous times a day.
I wonder– why didn’t I stop class and pursue that really outstanding question? Think about what was missed; a chance to explore a new angle on an issue and make fresh, relevant connections. I could have seized the opportunity to validate a student’s question and thereby model the idea that the trajectory of learning is set by the students. This feeling of student empowerment would build upon itself into the next lesson and beyond. Long term, the texture and quality of discussions would vastly improve.
That’s easy! Lack of focus; not being able to cover content; not being able to meet the expectations of the curriculum.
I was projecting fear that I would fall off track.
My personal fear was more powerful than acknowledging a student’s genuine interest in what I was teaching.
There is something so familiar here, and something so inherently wrong.
Every lesson carries with it expectations that we set for ourselves along with the negative consequences of deviating from the path. A ubiquitous set of questions haunt us: When should we follow the plan and when should we divert and for how long? These are complicated questions which require complicated answers, each of which forces us to make hard decisions on how to use our time. And it doesn’t get much easier with more experience.
Difficulties aside, what’s painfully clear is that teaching with questions demands more flexibility than other types of teaching, and that’s because the question-infused classroom wrests authority from the teacher and places it in the heart of a curious student.
What if we thought about these spontaneous, inquisitive interruptions differently and instead looked at them as opportunities to diverge from the beaten path? We could expect, nurture, and advocate for more interruptions, not less. By doing that, we would develop the capacity to tailor these unexpected lesson turns into what we had originally planned somehow. The emotion of fear would be overtaken by the mental confidence that things will work out in the end. In other words, change our expectations.
For the student we could model risk-taking and give an avenue for motivated students to take charge. (See Can Big Questions motivate Students? Ask the Marines ) Doing this consistently transforms a classroom.
Maybe I should think about it this way: if a student is brave enough to ask a question, I should at least be courageous enough to welcome it.
How do you manage unexpected questions which disrupt your plan?