Teachers are expected to plan out their lessons. In teacher preparation programs, you spend vast quantities of time learning how to design lesson plans that are aligned to state standards with clear student-centric objectives. Lesson plans should be built around enduring understandings and essential questions. We agonize over what we want to say and what the students might and points that might need clarification. And yet no matter how well we plan, students always manage to ask the unanticipated question, make the unusual connection, or throw us for a curve.
Some teachers get frustrated when this happens and tell the students that such questions or remarks aren’t appropriate. I remember a time my baby sister was in a class and the teacher made some comment about how you could achieve anything if you just set your mind to it. She asked, at the age of fourteen, what would happen if you were born without arms but dreamed of being an concert pianist. Rather than take advantage of the outlier question and discuss ways that people have overcome adversity, the teacher said to her, “Stop wasting my time with such stupid questions or you can just not come back.” When I heard about this, I was furious! The quickest way to stifle a young person’s innate curiosity is to devalue their questions and cut them down. Fortunately, my sister knew this and was able to continue to learn and grow. She just learned to never ask questions of that particular teachers. Seven years later and it still makes me angry to just think about it.
Other teachers know that the curveballs are just another way that learning happens. The cliché advice to expect the unexpected is what makes teaching such a worthwhile and valuable pursuit. Being prepared to go on a side trip to explore students’ questions and challenge our assumptions is how we learn and grow together. And when a teacher doesn’t have an answer, teacher and student begin to learn together. It is always a wonderful experience. And even though I half-jokingly tell my students that I know everything, I always follow that statement with the observation that the reason I know everything isn’t because I have every fact filed away in my mind but because I know how to find answers and that is what I want my students to learn how to do that, too.
Today I experienced one of these unplanned teachable moments. We were doing a Number Talk that involved adding two multidigit numbers. One of the strategies a student shared was something like this:
7,761 + 4,123 =
(7,000 + 4,000) + (700 + 100) + (60 + 20) + (1 + 3) =
11,000 + 800 + 80 + 4 =
I noted that this student’s strategy took advantage of expanded notation to group numbers by their place value. Several students raised their hands and one of them asked what expanded notation was. I realised that I had an assumption in my observation that was demonstrably false: not all of my students knew what expanded notation was. This turned into a minilesson for the whole class on place value. After I finished teaching about place value and expanded notation, I had the students work independently on Front Row on the Numbers and Base Ten domain so that they could get differentiated practice on this skill.
And yet my lesson plan said that we would review strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems, including open number lines and the standard vertical algorithms, and that students would use mental math strategies to evaluate the reasonableness of their answer. Did I expect to teach place value and expanded notation? No. Did I ignore the students who didn’t understand the concept or needed clarification? Of course not! Did the students who already got it feel like I was wasting their time? Nope. Why? Because I included them as peer teachers and had them help others as we worked through the concept.
All moments in the classroom should be teachable moments. Most of them will probably be planned. But when the unplanned ones happen, I hope that all teachers will take advantage of the opportunity and be willing to acknowledge that a student who asks a question is asking a question worth exploring and answering.