Tangent2Todd’s message referring us to Harvard’s Teaching & Learning last week was interesting – and Joe Blatt’s “Three Puzzles of Pedagogy got me to thinking. He states his second mystery is “the paradox of preparation.  I can’t go into a class session without a detailed map of the points I want to convey, plans for discussions and other activities I hope students will find engaging, and an explicit list of the ideas I want students to leave thinking about.” He states further that this preparation gives him the “chance to be more spontaneous.”

I agree, especially when you have class two times a week for 1-1/2 hours. It goes fast!

Going off on tangents – sometimes – is a good thing. I make detailed notes on each class; then I go back and rank my notes – yes, rank them according to the time I have. What’s the most important topic / things I want students to know when they leave class? Oh, I want to give them interesting content, sure, but also some great resources or links to find out more.

But most of all, I want to give them inspiration to go beyond what’s written in the textbook – what’s on the PowerPoint or Video or Prezi – what’s beyond the discussion in the class or online.   I want to give them a reason to look further – to go beyond that day or class’s learning – to be inspired by a story.

So. Think about “tan·gent”; from the Latin tangent, or “touching; from the verb, tangere. Some definitions:

  1. A straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point, but if extended does not cross it at that point.
  2. A completely different line of thought or action. “He quickly went off on a tangent about wrestling”
  3. Mathematics: the trigonometric function that is equal to the ratio of the sides (other than the hypotenuse) opposite and adjacent to an angle in a right triangle.


 A straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point, but if extended does not cross it at that point.

 Think about this in terms of teaching. How many times do we focus on our “point”, and approach it in many ways; bending and curving our way to ‘touch’ students – without crossing – so that they come into their own understanding to the subject. Sometimes when I ‘go off on a tangent’ – I may seem like I’m wandering in the beginning. It may be a personal observation or story. It may be an event that I can then tie back into my subject. I always have the plan to come back to the subject.

 A completely different line of thought or action. “He quickly went off on a tangent about wrestling”

Sometimes, a totally different or new thought expands the subject and the class lesson – Students thing about a topic in a whole new way. For example, if I’m teaching horticulture and the zones of plant species, my tangent may go to farm-to-table, or hunger, and the effects on plant diversity. The subject is still horticulture, but the tangent enhances my subject. In teaching business, my tangents are usually about entrepreneurs and how they change the local economy (for good and bad). I might go off on a tangent – or tell a story of owning my own business – on how certain business changed the economic landscape. Again, the topic is the same; my plan is in place, but the tangent makes is interesting and more in depth.

Mathematics: the trigonometric function that is equal to the ratio of the sides (other than the hypotenuse) opposite and adjacent to an angle in a right triangle.

OK – I’ll have to ponder this one! In Business Communications, we have a ‘trial’ on a current event. SO, I guess I’ll take off on a tangent equal to the “right side” opposite [to the affirmative side] and adjacent to an angle [uncommitted side] in a right triangle [OK, I’m really lost!] Perhaps this one won’t work!

tangentSo, try going off on a tangent in your class. Make sure that class plan is in your pocket, but allow yourself the freedom to be spontaneous. Who knows, your students may just have some fun learning.


More on (my) “Ignorance”

As a continuation of my previous post on “Ignorance” (You Gotta Be Ignorant to Learn), my new ignorance comes from Iain Davidson in the TeLS office.  Not that he announced my ignorance, but rather gave me a new awareness.

Each week on various days / time, we have an Adjunct Faculty “Alternative” Small Group Meeting in the GIFT Center on the Prescott Campus (will expand to other campuses next semester).  We have anywhere from 2-6 people who attend and have great discussions with campus staff, administrators, and faculty about various subjects that pertain to teaching and student learning.

Blackboard logo

Last week, Iain Davidson, Instructional Support Specialist, came to talk about Blackboard – some tips and maybe how to better utilize it in all types of our teaching – online, F2F, and Hybrid.  We talked a lot about how online classes are set up; how many buttons are too many; or if should the class be by week or by module.  We also talked about really using the gradebook to keep students involved in their classes, creating tests and surveys, and why a Blog or Wiki may be good for a study guide.

But…the BEST information that Iain shared was for all of us to be in a “state of ignorance” when setting up our courses.  That is, be a first-time online student.  A neophyte in an online class who knows nothing about navigation, discussions, or online assignments.  Iain challenged us to really think consider the following:

  • The overall look of the initial page – what should it be?  A bunch of instructions, or something to welcome students?
    – Oh, and the announcements from last semester really should come off.
  • Navigation Buttons – How many do you really need?
    – If you can’t keep up, you can bet your students can’t either.
  • Can they find your assignments?
    – How many clicks in each button must the student make to get to the assignments?  Really?
    – Does it seem like it’s a secret to find it?  If it’s too frustrating, guess who won’t do it.
    – Does your grade book have duplicate (and triplicate) assignments that you’ve copied?
  • Have you ever considered asking students what works and doesn’t?
    – Iain had some great advice for us – keep a running conversation (Discussion Board, Wiki, Blog) of questions students have had and have been answered.  You might see a pattern there.

So, maybe after a couple of semesters teaching the same class, it pays to be more “ignorant “and look at your class with the fresh eyes of the student.  Thanks, Iain!

Confucius quote

You Gotta be Ignorant to Learn

So, I was having a conversation with my granddaughter Sunday night after some frustrating homework and instructions from teachers.  She made the comment, “Why don’t some of my teachers know that before you learn you have to be ignorant?  Not stupid-ignorant, but not informed, not aware, or that you just don’t know and want to know”?  I asked her what she meant.  Here’s the gist of her response:

“To learn something, you have to not know anything.  Not knowing about something gives you questions that make you want to find out?  What if early people looked at up at the stars or the moon and already knew how they worked and why?  What if no one wondered how the human body worked, and why just making people bleed did not make them well?    Being ignorant creates the need to want more information about something.  Getting part [of the information] make you have even more questions, which makes you want to find out more, and so on.  Sort of like genealogy.  You want to find out about your ancestors, so you start looking. The more you look, the more you want to know.  School should be like that.  I have one teacher [History] that reads from the textbook, shows a video, and then we have a quiz.  Most everybody does not read the chapters, fall asleep in class, and don’t do well on the quizzes.  We’re bored!  We don’t know why this class matters.  We don’t care.  My art teacher lets me decide what my focus is this year, and how many items I make is up to me.  We watch videos, but we also go to see art; feel art; want more art.  It matters; what do we want to know more about this work.  We don’t have quizzes either.  I wish more of my teachers were like this”.

Well, this got me thinking!  I wondered if there anyone out there is teaching ‘ignorance’.  Guess what?  Turns out there is!  Dr. Stuart Firestein.

Dr. S. Firestein

Dr. Firestein is a professor and a lab director of Biological Sciences at Columbia University in New York.  Dr. Firestein mostly teaches Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, but has delved into the subject of knowing more and ignorance.  His course is called SCNC 3490, Ignorance.

Ignorance classAccording to Dr. Firestein, The class will, in contrast with a more typical science class, focus particularly on what we don’t know.  This is, after all, the essence of science as practiced daily in labs and in our heads. In his Nobel Award remarks David Gross, this year’s winner of the Physics Prize, noted that “the most important product of science is ignorance”.  Can we communicate this vital perspective to students, who I fear currently believe that science is only a game of facts?

In contrast to courses and media that address the “Big Questions” of science this course is to be a detailed investigation of ignorance as a creative force in science.  It will approach ignorance through a series of ‘case studies’: interactions with working scientists discussing the immediate questions that they are working on in their laboratories.  Why do we need to know these things; what can we do if we know them; what can’t we do if we don’t; what are the obstacles; what are the solutions?  We will be interested in hearing what is important to the individual scientist and how these questions came to be central to their laboratories– whether by accident or by design, whether because of their solvability or their intractability, whether by budgetary considerations or by imagination, whether because the field demands answers or because the field is otherwise ignoring these issues.  Or some combination of these and other factors.

I also found a TEDTalks  by Dr. Firestein’s called, The Pursuit of Ignorance.  His comments, toward the end of the talk on Ignorance about where he thinks this will play out  (in education), really struck a chord.   He says, “We just can’t sell facts for a living anymore.  They’re available with a click of the mouse, or if you want to, you could probably just as the wall of one of these days, wherever they’re going to hid the things that tell us all this stuff.  So what do we have to do? We have to give our students a taste for the boundaries, for what’s outside that circumference, for what’s outside the facts, what’s just beyond the facts”.

It made me think about my granddaughter’s comments on her History teacher.  Remember, memorizing those dates in  school?  We didn’t know why those dates mattered to anyone, but it mattered that we knew them.  We just took a test; 20 minutes later, we forgot everything – why?  We didn’t get asked the next question.  The teacher didn’t create a new  ignorance.

The answer on the History test should not be 1492.  It should not be 1941.  It should be – What your evaluation of the event?  Why does it matter?  Do you want to know more?  Where should we go from here?  What is the next question?

So, let’s have a conversation on ignorance and about what those next questions continue to be.