Honoring curiosity & risk while keeping class on track

It’s great when students are curious.

It’s exciting when students aim high.

It’s rewarding when students make connections.

It’s thrilling when students take risks.

But what about those times when one of these can get the class too far off track, or when satisfying one student’s curiosity would lose the rest, or when a student has bitten off far more than they can chew? And what if one or more students simulates one of the above dispositions in an attempt to control the direction of the class?

I could just say, “We’re not going to talk about that now,” “That’s off-topic,” “That’s complicated,” or the like. But these comments could quash curiosity and actually lead to a student’s paying less attention because they know we will not be talking about the thing that they were interested in enough to ask about.

I have two straightforward tactics that solve the problem without putting students off. I’ve found that one or the other works 100% of the time.

The first is simply a trick. It works mainly with questions. The second is equally simple, but takes the situation more seriously. It works with some questions and anytime a student is trying to do or say more than they are ready for.

Tactic 1. “That May Come up Later”

When someone asks a question that would take too long to answer in the moment, would get us too deep into the weeds, or would take us too far off track, I sometimes say, “Hold that question, because it may actually come up later in class.” This takes the question seriously, or at least appears to, but allows us to move on.

It’s also honest, because hey, it really might come up later. What do I know? If it does come up in a more natural way, we can deal with it then. If not, the asker won’t know until the very end of the period, and there is a good chance they will have forgotten by then, especially if they weren’t that interested in the first place. If they are truly interested and haven’t forgotten, they can point out to me that it didn’t come up and I can give a quick answer or point them somewhere for it.

Tactic 2. “Limit”

This tactic consists simply of making the American Sign Language sign for limit.* Here is what makes it effective: The first time it comes up, I teach students that my making the sign means all of the following:

I love that you are thinking about that.

I want to answer that or explore that with you.

We can’t do it justice right now and don’t wan’t to get off track.

I am happy to help you with that after class.

This honors the question or attempt without interrupting the flow of class communication. Students sometimes even start to make the sign themselves as they ask or try something, acknowledging that it may take them or the class a bit too far afield for the moment.

Let me know how these work for you, or if you have tried-and-true tactics for these situations!

*Note: I learned this technique from the teaching-and-learning system Where Are Your Keys, where it is used to communicate that a new linguistic concept would complicate or distract from the current focus.

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