You know that moment in class when the lesson veers (rarely by design) into some esoteric, off-topic, or inconsequential idea that lasts for more than a half hour. My students used to love these days because they would think that nothing important ever happened and it was usually good for a lot of laughs, some weird story, or both. Imagine bring in a geography class and then all of a sudden, the teacher and the rest of the class are hotly debating the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python. Seemingly off-topic… When teachers notice that their class is heading into the abyss of a tangential conversation, should they pull in the reins and bring it back on course, or, should they embrace the unknown and just dive once more into the breech? It is a question that educators have debated often in the teachers lunch room (BTW- it is NOT an ‘lounge’. There is nothing remotely relaxing about the room where teachers eat).
Some educators believe that the tangential conversation is nothing more than a distraction to real learning and should be avoided at all costs. These teachers would argue that tangents do not have a measurable outcome, that they serve no connection to the content that is being discussed, and that tangents serve no purpose in furthering the education of the students in class. They waste time. Period.
Is it a waste of class time? Does it serve any purpose other than getting the teacher off track and give the students a breather from their regularly scheduled programming? I’m going out on a limb here and am going to argue that the tangent is actually one of the most useful and powerful instruction methodologies (yes it is another tool that teachers should use) afforded to educators. It takes a bit of a paradigm shift to see it because some of the criticisms (such as no measurable outcomes) are spot on. I say that teachers and students both occasionally NEED the tangent. It is a way of connecting with students, engaging them in the process of debate and conversation, and fosters an atmosphere of mutual respect based on common connections to the outside world for both teachers and students. Teachers can showcase their humanity, and their sense humor to students. It is also a way for students to practice having a peer-to-peer(ish) conversation with an adult who is not their parent.
It is true that when you digress towards a tangent, your class may not accomplish the agenda items for the day. But look at it from a slightly different perspective. If your number one purpose as a teacher is to check off agenda items, then fine, tangents serve no purpose. Personally I think that is a terrible way to teach. But, if your number one purpose in class is to create a space where your students leave at the end of the day wanting desperately to come back tomorrow, then the tangent serves a much higher purpose. It is often unmeasurable. It is often intangible, but the effects are staggering. Students become more engaged in the conversation… all of them. They learn how to ask questions, they become inspired to learn about something else that interests them. To me, the point of education is to create intrinsic motivation for learning. Period.
The tangential conversation is a means to that end. Should you try to go off on a tangent every single day? Of course not, but can intentionally weave what appears to be tangents into the flow of your class on a regular basis as a way to engage with students in an inspirational way? YES. It will help feed their inquisitive hunger for more information and that is never a bad thing. It will help your students have more stories to go home with and talk to their parents about in class. The more you can get kids talking about what happens in school, the more you are getting them to think about their education. This is also a good thing.
It doesn’t have to be about the content that you teach all the time. As a teacher, you need to be able to read the room and gauge when a tangent might be useful, perhaps even necessary to get your class thinking differently.