Just Say No (Planning and Executing for Pace)

It’s one a.m. and you step out of the late night venue of your choice

* for many of the small band of folks who read this-a late night venue is a perch beside the school copier not a hopping club.

It’s one  a.m. and your step out of some late night venue arms already raised to hail a cab home.  Your friends pours out from the establishment full of cheer urging you to visit one more place.

If you say just no, you are on track for a good night’s sleep and lovely tomorrow.

Say yes and you are headed down a rabbit hole where little good is likely to follow.

In many of my lessons plunging down the rabbit hole sounded something like this:

Me: Now that you have seen these examples what’s the difference between erosion and weathering?

Student A: Weathering is when rocks and objects are broken down and erosion is when they get carried away.

Me:  That’s close but we need a few more pieces in that explanation.

Student B waves both hands in the air full of excitement drawing the teacher in like the Death Star.

Student B: I was watching the Weather Channel and they said there’s more extreme weather now.  What’s that?

Me: Naturally excited by the genuine curiosity about content dives in.  Two-three minutes later after an impassioned, entirely verbal explanation of the difference between hurricanes, typhoons, and tsunamis as well as global warming and the politicization of the climate debate I realize that this may be off topic and that momentum is spilling out of the lesson like flour from a ripped bag.  I close with the most cursory and useless checks for understanding. Make sense? Kids nod because that’s what they are supposed to do.  We move back to weathering having introduced as much confusion in 2-3 minutes as I might typically produce in a whole lesson, only this confusion won’t get cleared up because it’s not part of the independent practice or assessment.

Here’s the rub-curiosity is one of the character strengths we most want to cultivate in our kids.  Curiosity is also the mother of digression, tangents, and other related monsters that eat up independent practice, summarizing, and quality closure of a lesson.  However when most of us try to explain entirely on the fly one of the following happens:

  • The impromptu constructivist lesson where kids develop a piece of knowledge that is entirely wrong.
  • The entirely verbal explanation  of a difficult vocabulary word or concept
  • The oversimplified recap of a large chunk of history or context
  • Clues that you “didn’t say no” checks for understanding like “get it?” “make sense?”

Why do we teachers do it?  We all overestimate our ability to craft clear explanations and examples on the fly.  A sneaky even more dangerous truth is that many of us overestimate our knowledge of content

Just say no may have done little to change the drug habits of Americans but it could be the philosophy that measurable improves the pace of teacher’s lessons.  If a teacher can artfully say no and avoid the rabbit hole while encouraging curiosity and divergent thinking, then kids will learn more.


What can teachers do to “just say no”?  If you are using the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching think about behaviors 2.2 A (utilizes engagement for mastery and meaning), 3.2 A (moves students briskly and purposefully through the agenda), 4.2 D (matches content to an excellent strategy for presentation).

  • Anticipate misconceptions and anticipate naturally curious but tangential questions.
  • Script questions. The poorly worded question is the mother of time-sucks.
  • Stick fingers in your ears and say “I didn’t hear you.”
  • Develop systems that allow you or the kids to follow up on their curious and tangential questions.  Lots of science teachers have questions jars for the slew of gloriously questions kids ask in almost any science class.  The jar is the easy part; the hard part is knowing what to do with the jar.  Our high school bio teacher instead has kids put these questions on post its on a classroom window where he can respond.  This celebrates curiosity and allows lessons to stay on track.  I would love to hear about other successful systems for this.
  • During execution of the lesson frame the lesson and make sure kids understand what the aim and criteria for success are. Clarity here will help them ask more on target questions.
  • During the lesson check for understanding frequently so the kids and you know when there is confusion vs. curiosity.
  • Don’t assume intent when a student asks a tangential question.

I would love hear more about how break the paradox and celebrate curiosity while teaching aim-driven, well paced lessons.


One Response to “Just Say No (Planning and Executing for Pace)”

  1. Charles Says:

    Great post;

    The culmination of teacher training should involve swimming across an ocean, climbing a mountain, and then meeting a wise man underneath a tree at dusk.

    Before he disappears, one of the things he would whisper in your ear is “the poorly worded question is the mother of time-sucks.”

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