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Concourse 2

Strand 2: Going off on tangents


You have arrived here because you agreed or fully agreed with

I go off on tangents too often in my lessons

Among much else, a thesaurus will supply synonyms for going off on a tangent including wander, meander, ramble, drift and roam.  It is not, therefore, the same thing as responding to emerging needs and interests.
Nor is it a good thing.


What's the problem?

If you have agreed with the statement above, you presumably also believe that going off on tangents in lessons is not a good thing.  Why is that?
Click here when you have an answer.


Responding to learner needs or chasing a red herring?

the red herring is ... something that misleads or distracts from the relevant or important issue

You decide.  Click on the table when you have.


No, it's not easy to decide without knowing the context.
Events 1, 2 and 3 could be examples of chasing red herrings, if, e.g., the story about your last holiday contained none of the target language, the learner's tale was long and very laborious or the fashion house question was a concern of only one learner.  However, if the story about your last holiday was mostly about transport and carefully worded, it might be a good contextualiser.  If the learner's disaster story concerned transport (if only in part) it might do the same and also be interesting and motivating.  If fashion and fashion houses are of interest to most of the students, that, too, might be motivating.
On the other hand, the do in Love Me Do is an emphasiser, not a substituting verb so it's irrelevant and a red herring.  Equally, asking the expert for help with your problems is unlikely to improve any but her language and is an abuse of other people's time so that's a red herring, too.
If the phrase 'abuse of other people's time' seems strong to you, that's intended.  Wasting learners' time is not excusable.


Responding to emerging needs

If the tangent you are about to follow is something that has just occurred to you it is likely to be a red herring and should not be followed.  It's that simple.
If, on the other hand, the tangent is stimulated by a question from a learner or something that is happening in class with a task or activity, then not to respond and go off plan would be unwise.  You need to pause and ask some questions before you follow a diversion:

  1. Is this a concern of only one learner or will it be of interest and benefit to most?  If it's the latter, follow it.
  2. Is this going to take a lot of time or is it quick to answer even if it's not central to the lesson aims?  If it's quick and won't delay you, respond.  That values the learner's contribution and motivates.
  3. Is the class struggling with a task and needing more help.  Yes?  Depart from the plan.  This results from a fault in planning probably and some kind of misjudgement.
  4. Is this something which has just occurred to me that might mislead or be plain wrong?  If that's the case, you need to clear it up now.

If the tangent you are following is nothing to do with the aims of the lesson and will not contribute to the topic, leave it alone.
If the tangent is suggested by the learners or their behaviour, take it much more seriously and use your judgement.


Improving in this area


When you next plan a lesson, re-read the plan and look at each stage in turn.
About each stage, ask yourself:

What could be the learners' response to this stage?

  1. What tangent will I be tempted to follow?
  2. Where will it lead me?
  3. Will it contribute to my aims?

Monitoring, reviewing and being observed

Monitoring your own behaviour in class is a start.  Try to notice when you are being tempted to go off plan and resist the temptation unless there's a really good reason.  If you have time try:

  1. Record a lesson on video or audio.
  2. Play it back in privacy and look particularly for events when you departed from the plan.
    Ask four questions:
    1. did I need to do that?
    2. did I get back on track quickly?
    3. how did the learners benefit?
    4. did the diversion mean that crucial parts of the lesson didn't happen?

You can do the same thing if you are lucky enough to be able to get an observer to follow your instructions.  Set them the same questions and then discuss your responses and the events and talk about how to make them better.


Gauging progress

There's a separate guide in this section of the site to gauging and measuring progress in your development.  Go there for more ideas.
In terms of making sensible adjustments to the plan as you go along, rather than chasing red herrings, you may not be the best judge so, if you can, get someone to observe how you react to questions and ideas and discuss whether your reaction was the right one.
If it wasn't, try to think together about what would have been the right response.